Life in Uganda

… and on the third day

After my “interview” with the bishop, I knew that my introduction to the world of the “bush” would not be long coming. After breakfast on this third day, the big man Roland told me that we would go in town this morning and do the needed shopping for the move to my new life in the bush. There was some trepidation in my mind about this because I did not have much in the line of possessions, and at that time didn’t even have money to buy anything at all. How on earth was I going to do my shopping and settle my bills? But the big man was reassuring and told me not to worry; the treasury will cover your bill, he told me, and even open an account for me at the diocesan treasury and put some little money on it. So before going to town for shopping, I was first summoned to the office at the end of the corridor, and within a few minutes my name was recorded for posterity in a big ledger; then I was handed the sum of one hundred Uganda shillings in ten shilling notes. This was my first debit note in Uganda! Now this massive financial input represented the equivalent of about fifteen United States Dollars. I looked at the notes and thought to myself: am I rich or am I en route to looting the shops in town!

Once these financial formalities were completed, I got into the diocesan treasury vehicle – an old Volkswagen beetle – and we set off to the town of “Mbarara”. I had no idea how far we would drive or how big the city was. But I soon realised it was not far, about one kilometre, and the town was in fact a single main street surrounded by buildings on both sides, called “Ddukas”. I noticed on the way that there was a police station, a post office with its post boxes, and two banks, yes two: Grindlays and Uganda Commercial Bank, as well as a Caltex petrol station. A really big town! The population was about 20.000. I was told that it was a big town which was the headquarters of the region called Ankole where I had landed. Later, I would get acquainted with Ankole having moved around quite a bit over the years. But today all was new and together we wandered into one shop; it seems it was the biggest and nicest one in town, called “Aziz Virani.” Entering I could smell these smells that seemed to be coming from lands far away. On the counter was an burner where smoke welled up and graced us with a scent I had never before smelled. I fact it was not bad at all. At the counter a nice Ugandan gentleman greeted us and asked what we wished to buy. I should remind you that at the time, by law, a Ugandan had to be in the shop and deal with customers! The owner, Mr Virani (an Indian), was sitting in a back office and came out to greet Roland as they knew one another rather well. I suppose that when you are the finance man of a diocese you keep good relationships with the business world around you! I also learned later that the Indian shop owners spent most of their time in the back of their shops counting the cash which came in! During the time of Amin this would be even more true!
Not having the slightest idea what I needed, I left the talking to the big man who asked for: a Runyankole dictionary, a Runyankole grammar, a plastic basin, two plates, two knives, two forks and two spoons, a plastic mug, an electric torch, two pairs of bedsheets, two towels, some soap and toothpaste and a plastic bucket. On top of that he asked for a small gas stove and a small cooking pot. It seemed that I really was going to the bush / camping, and my whole household equipment was bought within fifteen minutes. He paid for it all and when I asked how I would refund him he simply said do not worry I will debit your account with us! So much for quick finances! Then came the shock: we entered another shop, very small in comparison of what I had seen but packed to the roof with all kinds of hardware stuff. Here he ordered a mattress, 2 inches thick, six feet long and three feet wide. I asked what this was for and he simply told me “you have to sleep somewhere”. Now I was convinced I was going to be setting up camp in a place where the language would be pumped into my small brain. After about half an hour in town, I was informed that I should go pack my suitcase and that we would set off for my new place, Bubangizi, immediately once this was done. And so around ten o’cock on that 13 December 1967 we drove off to “the bush”.

I must say I enjoyed the drive even if it was bumpy and rough: there was no tarmac after about 40 km out of town, but the landscapes we crossed were simply beautiful. I had never expected to see what I did. Great expanses of savannah, then green banana plantations and green hills. All very lush and pleasant to the eye. We drove for about one hour and after some bad patches of road, we arrived at the top of a hill, where three shops stood proud and in the distance a church and a building in red bricks which looked new to me. “We have arrived” said the man and brought the Beetle to a halt in front of the house. Once the dust had settled we stood there, me with my little suitcase in one hand and my golf clubs in the other, Roland with a big smile waiting for someone to turn up. It did not take long before a little man in his early seventies came out and greeted Roland profusely. He looked at me in a way which did not bode well for the future. I introduced myself and so did he.

The conversation between the little man and Roland ran something like this.
Little man: “Welcome Roland. I hope you stay for lunch.”
Roland: “Yes I will be happy to stay.”
Little man: “And who is this golf player you brought with you?”
Roland: “Michel is coming to Bubangizi, where you are asked to teach him the language”.
Little man: “But I did not ask for him to come here”
Roland: “Well he will stay here until you are satisfied with his progress in the knowledge of Runyankole”
Little man: “But I have no room for him to stay and have no time to teach the language as we are preparing for Christmas”
Roland: “Well after lunch I have to drive back to Mbarara”.

A long, somewhat awkward silence followed. And then, out of the blue and from the back of the house, another younger man appeared, and to my greatest surprise it was an old classmate of mine. We had studied in Canada together and then he moved to Ireland where he studied geography. How he had landed here in the bush with a degree in geography was a mystery to me, but I suppose he too was learning the language! But at least I had someone to talk to and reminisce on our past years together. In the coming years we would have loads of experiences together but these will be told another time.

In the meantime we were invited to lunch and after a brief “siesta”, Roland went back to Mbarara, leaving me behind with my little suitcase, my golf clubs and my newly purchased possessions. These did not seem strange to my “hosts”. I timidly asked where I could put these down and was shown to a small store, 3m by 3m, where there was a steel bed and a small table and one chair and a small window with a wooden shutter giving a view of the front of the place, namely the three shops. Now I understood the purpose of the purchases we had done in the morning. So this was the place where I would live for the foreseeable future, until such time the little man was satisfied with my progress in the language! I had no choice but to settle down in this “heremetical” place and find a way to make myself as comfortable as possible. I was told that in the evening, round 6pm, we would have a beer together on the veranda of the house and then have supper. We would discuss, the little man and myself, how we would organize my future here in the “bush”. What brother Black had told me during my first breakfast came back rushing at me: “life in Uganda was not all that pleasant and that I would soon find out for myself about all the hardships I would encounter and be subjected to.” Well there I was in my cell, unpacking what little possessions I had, making up a bed and displaying my toiletries round the basin. I looked around for a water tap but there was none in sight ,and by the way I could not find any electrical appliance, nor switch nor socket. I learned very quickly that there was no electricity supply, and that candles or any type of parafin lamp would supply the needed light to the place. I realised this was an item which had not been bought in the morning but could be found in one of the nearby shops. So I wandered out and found a few water tanks and in my precious bucket I drew some water. The little man saw me and informed me that water was scarce, so I should not use too much. He was gracious enough to show me a room at the end of the building where a shower was installed and I could use it but there was only cold water. I was grateful for it and vowed I would indulge in a cold shower certainly as soon as my moving in was complete.

Six pm came quickly and the three of us sat at the veranda and enjoyed a cold beer called “Bell”. By God but was this good after such a hectic day! But the joy of the cold beer did not last long as I was informed by the little man that tonight the beer was free but that I was supposed, so as to enjoy further beers, to contribute to the expense of the precious liquid by buying, at regular intervals, a full crate of beer which would be shared by the three of us and eventual visitors. I looked puzzled and with my 100 shillings in my pocket I had no idea how long this fortune would last me if I was to buy a crate of beer at unspecified “regular intervals”. The conversation was rather a monologue as the little man was talking about all he had done in his missionary life, how he had almost become a bishop but that some male jealousy had prevented it, and how he was now in this small place which he had built with his own savings! What could I say except that I admired him! He seemed pleased with my reaction and this made the atmosphere more relaxed for the rest of the evening. Most likely the beer helped in this too! There is no need to tell you that after a light supper and some small talk with my friend, who I shall call Peter here, I went to bed and tried to sleep. My thought was “Oh my God where am I and what is going to happen?” I eventually fell asleep and woke up the next morning at the crack of dawn. What happened after that is another story for later!

Life in Uganda

The next day

December 1967

I was finally in Mbarara! And although it was a night of waiting and wondering, when finally around 6am day broke, I could actually see where I was. A big room, some 4 m by 4 m, with a small 80cm wide steel bed, one chair, and a small writing table. There were a few nails in the wall to hang my clothes, and in a corner a very small half round hand washbasin. I was craving for a shower of some kind but where to go? So I wandered down the long corridor of the second floor where I had landed the night before, and found a place which looked like a shower room. I heard water dripping and thought “I found it!” So I walked in – without a towel as there was nothing in the room – and found a cubicle where I heard noise. Suddenly the door opened and out stormed a small man. “I am Black” he said and disappeared. I peeped into the room and found a wet towel and ventured in for a quick shower – after all, a wet towel is better than no towel! Back to my room, which first I missed and entered a store, but finally I found my room, and changed into something more decent to wear than a wet towel.

The next big exercise was to find a place where I could get something to eat. In all logic, I thought an eating place would be on the ground floor. So I descended the staircase and moving on I heard more and more noises and kitchen smells wafting up the stairwell. Finally, I found myself at one end of a wide corridor at the end of which was a large double door. I ventured to it and could hear kitchen-type noises and smells. I knocked and entered, to find myself facing some twelve faces turning around at me, wondering who on earth I was. “We did not expect such a white face walking in”, they seemed to say! At the end of a long table sat a big man; I found out later his name actually was “Grandmaison”. For those not familiar with French the word means “big house”, and really the man was big! He turned out to be the administrator of the place and in charge of finances. Instinctively I moved towards him and shyly greeted him. He looked up from his plate and said ”are you the one who came in last night? It was a bit noisy?” What could I say, as the real noise had come from my “chauffeur” who had had the good idea, at 1.30am to offload his car of all the newspapers he had brought from Kampala. A bit noisy indeed!

In any case, I was invited to sit down and at the end of the table I found a space next to a little man, who I thought I had seen before. With a big smile he greeted me and said “ I am Brother Black”. That was it, the man of the shower! Now this sounded funny to me: he was a White Father Brother called Black! Was he joking or not? I found out later it really was his name and that he was the jack of all trades of the place, especially when it came to plumbing and electricity. Very useful indeed! Opposite him sat another man, a stark face devoid of any smile, who introduced himself as “Louis”. “I am the man of logistics here”, he said and continued with his breakfast ignoring my presence for the remainder of the exercise!

I sat there quietly drinking some light brown stuff they called coffee, with some bread which I found too sweet to my taste, and God knows if I have a sweet tooth. With that there were some hard boiled eggs and margarine, which I would see for the rest of my life in Uganda labelled “Blue Band”. Horrible stuff but what to do if you have no butter? I managed to down a few bits and pieces and even managed to have some sort of conversation with my neighbour Black. He immediately informed me that life in Uganda was not all that pleasant and that I would soon find out for myself about all the hardships I would encounter and be subjected to. But then what could I do but smile and simply say “I will see”. Just a few months later, the man “Black” left Uganda for good – perhaps the hardships proved too much for him!

Suddenly the big man at the table head stood next to me, towering over me, and with a big smile said “come to my office when you have finished your breakfast.” I jumped up immediately and followed him, afraid not to find where this mystery place, “his office”, would be. I will never forget the sight of it. At the end of another corridor, a dark place with a side office and two desks covered with all sorts of papers and files. He let me in and said I am the diocesan bursar and if you need something I will gladly help you. He turned out to be a very nice man and when I learned that he was French Canadian, we found some common ground as I had studied in Canada for four years. Conversation became so much easier and in a fatherly way he told me that he would help me to get acquainted to the place, but first I had to meet the boss of the place: the bishop. He was going to make an appointment for me and advised me to go out for a walk and visit the place and see for myself what kind of environment I would be living in for the foreseeable future. So out a-walking I went and what a pleasant surprise: green lawns, beautiful flowers and trees, and plenty of birds. Where had I really landed: was this the “promised land”? I would discover many more beauties as the years passed, but now I had to find my bearings and not stray too far away lest I not find my way back. Passing in front of a window, which was wide open, I heard a shout form inside “Michel can you come in”. It was the man “Grandmaison”, called Roland, who informed me that the bishop would meet me immediately. For making an appointment this was done in a record time I wondered what magic he had used. I managed to get back to his office without getting lost and together we walked to the boss’s office. Now you may have ideas of what appearance a bishop has, but in my case I was expecting someone with an stiff upper lip and oblivious to smile and charm. I was totally put off guard when we met as he greeted me in French and said “Je suis Jean Marie Ogez” He told me that he happened to be the bishop of this place but came originally from Zambia. “Welcome to Africa and especially Mbarara diocese. I heard about your first day in Uganda, and I am sorry but the guy who picked you up is “somewhat” special. As he was going to Kampala, I thought it was easier to ask him to pick you up than to send a special car to do so. I hope the trip was good?” Politely I nodded yes and thanked him for sending someone to pick me up! Today I might not be quite so kind, and might very well have ticked off my “chauffeur” for being late . But then when you are young and arrive at a place you have been looking for, even not knowing what it looked like, you accept quite a lot.

I wanted to be civil with the bishop, and had noticed a violin in the corner of his office. I asked him if he played the violin himself, I should have known of course, and he said flatly “yes”. Being French I was surprised at his cool approach to things. Maybe his years in Zambia had attached to him some British way of being! He went straight to the point as he had a lot of work and could not settle into a long conversation. But this would come later once we got to know one another better. I quote here verbatim what I can recall of his monologue. “You have come to Uganda. You are welcome. I have no authority over you as you first have to learn the language and it has been decided, by the powers that be, that you will go to a small bush parish, new in construction, called Bubangizi. The parish priest there, called Father Mischler, will teach you “Runyankole” and once he is satisfied about your knowledge of the language, he will let me know and you will fall under my jurisdiction and we will then see what we do with you. Roland, here present, will help you to buy the needed things for you to settle down in the place you are going to and he will take you there. I hope you will have an enjoyable time in Bubangizi.” Amen! The whole encounter with the bishop lasted exactly six minutes. I knew I was going to go to the “Bush” as they say here; I knew I would be there not speaking a word of the local language for some time, and I knew the learning experience would not be easy. This experience I will never forget, and I will summarize it in the next blogpost. But one thing was for sure: life was certainly going to be interesting!

More to follow soon.

Life in Uganda

In the beginning

December 1967

These lockdown days give the mind plenty of time to roam, and mine has been roaming a lot, especially in the past. The other day I was reminded of my first trip to Uganda in December 1967; it went as follows.

I came to Uganda, having completed my PhD at Louvain University, all fired up to do some good missionary work in a foreign land (that has now become home). Friends had given me, as a parting gift, a set of golf clubs so that I could take sufficient time off and relax in the open air of nature. I never used the said clubs, and they were a burden to carry through the airport and on further movements! The customs officer at Entebbe airport asked me if I was coming for a holiday, and when I told him I was here as a missionary, he looked at me and simply smiled!

Why I came to Uganda was not a coincidence as I had to do military service in Belgium and opted for civil service in a “developing country”. A Ugandan friend at the university asked me: “why don’t you go to Uganda?” I asked and got permission to go.

So there I was in mid-December 1967 at the old airport of Entebbe with my golf clubs, my small brown suitcase, and mountains of energy to burn. I was supposed to be met at the airport, but nobody was there and so a good samaritan took me to Entebbe Catholic parish where the parish priest, who happened to be a Belgian, offered to help me with a place to stay until I sorted out my future movements in the country. I slept more or less fitfully that first night filled with the noises of Africa.

The next morning I got my first shock when standing at the washbasin. A big lizard, some 10cm long – but I thought this was enormous – crawled up the wall in front of me. I jumped back but the beast was faster than me and ran for its life. That was my first small encounter with African wildlife; there was more, much, much more to come.

My “chauffeur” turned up the next day to pick me up, and told me simply that he had forgotten the airport collection due to a heavy workload! He informed me that we would set off for Mbarara (located in the south west of the country) immediately. It was about 10am and he expected the trip would take us about 5 hours. Having no clue about the distances in Uganda, I thought this was rather long as this would mean I could have crossed the whole of Belgium in the same time. But so be it and off we were to the promised land “Mbarara”.

But then just as there are always obstacles on a golf course, the same was true here on most road trips. At the first roundabout in Kampala, known as the “Clock Tower”, my companion / driver managed to run into a bus of the Uganda Transport Corporation. This meant some time at the Central Police Station to make a statement about the incident. This took a few hours and five hours after departure from Entebbe we were still at the CPS. So much for the urgency to be in Mbarara in the same length of time. Well, we finally set off again round 4pm, and I had plenty of time to admire this beautiful land where I would spend most of my adult life. But then the roads are not always in the best condition and after an hour, the vehicle slowed down and my man informed me that he had a puncture. This could be repaired easily, but first we would have to unload the car to reach the spare wheel and tools. As the car was full of newspapers (it turned out my man was editor of a local newspaper which he was taking back to Mbarara), it took us some time. Some 60 minutes later we were back on the road. I had no idea that round 6.30 pm it would get dark and so my driver decided to stop in Masaka, a town half-way to Mbarara, for supper. He went to some friends and they graciously offered us the left overs of their own meal. But not having eaten anything for the whole day, nor the previous night, anything coming my way was good and received gratefully. After some beers, some chatting and a light sustenance, we set off again. By then it was 9pm and I was wondering how long it would take us to reach this promised place called “Mbarara”. I was duly informed that within one hour and half we would be there. So through the night we drove. As street lights were non existent, I had no other option but to attempt a few moments of sleep. But the road, having a far from smooth surface, prevented me from enjoying these few moments of internal piece and quiet.

However, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, and around midnight my driver informed me that the lights we could see in the far distance were Mbarara! So with renewed hope, I sat upright and waited patiently for the moment I would enter the promised land. This happened another hour later, but we got there I was taken to the headquarters of Mbarara Catholic Diocese, There I was shown a room in the administration building where I could bed down for the night. Let me tell you, I did not sleep a minute: I had no bedsheets, no towels, and plenty of mosquitoes! Luckily that rather frustrating start did not deter me. To be honest there would be many more frustrations and problems along the way, but I still had a lot of energy in me for my first day of African missionary experience!

More to follow!