Anna had an unorthodox start in life. Rick and I had no idea about being parents. That isn’t unusual for first-time parents, but we lived a different sort of life. None of us expats had our extended families around us, so we replaced that void with a busy social life and a large network of friends. We were close-knit and saw each other regularly for parties and sport and to celebrate each others’ highs and give comfort through the lows. It didn’t occur to us that this should stop just because we had a baby. Why not bring her along? She slept. She was happy. There didn’t seem any harm in it. Had our parents been nearby, they may have gently prompted us into giving her some routine; suggested that maybe our lives should rotate around hers rather than the other way round. But they weren’t there and we didn’t think to:
Letter to friends, Jan 13th 1995:
“Sorry for not sending a Christmas card. Anna’s arrival is my excuse and I’m sticking to it. Happy New Year from Kampala instead!
We arrived back mid-December with 50kg of excess baggage: a year’s supply of nappies, peanut butter, Branston Pickle and Alpen; rugby boots for Rick, a cookery book for Mauda, an AIDS textbook for me and a mosquito net for Kalanzi; plus several cuddly toys, a car seat, a bouncy chair and a baby’s rucksack. It was like the Generation Game watching all our luggage go round on the reclaim belt.
It is lovely to be back in the sun and show Anna off to everyone. Mauda grabbed her the moment we arrived, she’s ecstatic at having a Msungu baby to look after. Angela, her 10 year old daughter, loves walking round the compound with Anna tied to her back, Ugandan-style.
Rick had to sack James, our night guard, after detection work revealed he was moonlighting on two other jobs, then sleeping-not-guarding all night. Rick understood he was urgently needed back in the village as his house had fallen down, whereas in fact he was urgently needed at one of his other jobs just round the corner. He left the bow and arrow for his successor.
We celebrated our first ever Christmas as a family and our first ever Christmas in the sun. It seems to have been one continuous party: Anna comes to every one, is plonked under the nearest speaker where she sleeps until her reckless parents cart her home for an alcohol-laced feed, which knocks her out for another six hours.
She is perfect of course and incredibly beautiful, which is a miracle given her parentage. Rick is concerned at a tendency for her ears to stick out (she’s 8 weeks old) and that she’s not yet toilet trained, but is a very proud father otherwise.
I go back to work at The Surgery next month. Rick’s contract has been extended until this December, so we have less than a year left. Our New Year’s Resolution, therefore, is
TO SOAK UP EVERY LAST DROP OF AFRICA WHILE WE CAN…”
Our daughter was adored from the moment she arrived on this planet. (The trouble with this is that things can’t get any better; life is always going to need to be this good. Ask Anna, age 22 now, and she will agree emphatically.) Both our families were besotted from afar. Flowers filled our Kampala house: from friends, from Doctor Gibbons at The Surgery and red roses from Rick’s rose-farming deal, Victoria Flowers. Mauda went instantly bananas over Anna while Ronnie, her toddler, was destined to be First Best Friend. Our new baby girl knew stardom from Day One and music and laughter and gaiety. Did this make up for her not knowing routine in her life? I hope so. I know so.
Our euphoria on arriving home carried us through the disappointments of African domesticity. Everything that should ‘go’ in the house didn’t anymore: the video-tape player, the house alarm, the deep freezer, the oven, etc. Added to which, James the night-guard, who we didn’t want to ‘go’, had to. He went on good terms and we quickly interviewed a replacement, Simon, who seemed too bright to last in such an undemanding job. Even before the job started he was asking for a loan, which didn’t exactly bode well.
Christmas Day was unusual in the realm of Christmas days so far: we had gone from being a couple to a family overnight. I was in charge of a family celebrating Christmas. That was a lot to take in. Plus the weather was all odd: the Ugandan sunshine outshone the fairy lights on our Christmas tree in the corner of the lounge; the lounge had no chimney for Father Christmas, no fireplace for our stockings and no mantlepiece for all the holly that wasn’t around either. The turkey was alive in the back garden and half plucked. (Actually it was a stringy-looking chicken.) Was it the Ugandan way to pluck before killing? Still so much to learn…
Also we had a scheduling problem: we were expected at two different Christmas lunches at the same time and I didn’t know how to get out of either one. Our friends, who lived down our dirt road past the cowshed and beyond the banana plantation, were having the expat crowd round for Christmas lunch; we were all bringing offerings, mine wisely Brussel Sprouts which are less easy to burn. Mauda had separately insisted we join her family for an early Christmas lunch the Ugandan way, in their house the other side of town. As usual I settled for trying to do it all. Neither party knew we were having two Christmas lunches. It seemed rude to say.
As the sun set on Christmas Eve, I fretted. Not about how Santa would get past the burglar bars (he’s Santa after all), but about how Mauda would have everything ready, given that the plucking and killing of our ‘turkey’ was still on her Christmas Lunch To Do list.
On Christmas morning, we sped over to Mauda’s house in the Land-cruiser, exchanged greetings of the season with a few of the children and waited for Mauda to get back from Church (yikes). Finally, she arrived with baby Ronnie, all dressed up in a three-piece suit. We implored her to save the chicken for her own family, we would be happy with matoke, but she wouldn’t hear of it. However, she did wonder if we could wait a while because the chicken wasn’t cooked yet, or plucked, or actually killed.
It was very special to join her family in their simple house and enjoy their company. We passed the time drinking bottled Fanta and chuckling about funny domestic incidents we had shared, whilst the kids played with a gurgling Anna. After a couple of hours, though, I had to sit on my hands to stop from fidgeting. Rick kept looking at his watch. The other lunch would have started devoid of sprouts if we didn’t leave soon. At last, the poor chicken arrived on a pink plastic plate, surrounded by mounds of matoke (think mashed potato but denser). We wolfed it down, eating ineptly with our hands. It was such a kind gesture and so unusual for house staff to cook for their employers that we couldn’t have left any food on our plates. Grateful and full, we took our leave, strapped Anna into her carseat and headed back across Kampala. We arrived at our neighbours moving like sloths, delivered the Brussel Sprouts and collapsed into chairs. As the first sip of bubbly went down, up came a nagging feeling that I had forgotten something. What was it that was bothering me? I ran through a mental checklist:
“I’ve forgotten the baby!”
Good presents weren’t easy to come by in Uganda – there were only so many handcrafted banana-leaf giraffes or carved wooden boxes you could give – so creative thinking was required. This didn’t always pay off: one of our friends had given his wife a surprise donkey, yes a real one, for Christmas and it hadn’t gone down well. Another had written his version of the Queen’s speech – thoughtful of him as we had no TV – which he read to us after lunch with Brussel Sprouts stuffed in his cheeks (I’m taking that as a complement). We ended of course with charades. The best part of it all for me was that our beloved – and I mean that in a communal way – Kalanzi joined us, though Andrew took him back to the orphanage when things started getting raucous.
There we are: two memorable Christmas lunches in one. I think we pulled it off. It was a relief to get home, just the three of us – I had remembered her this time, it was the sprouts that threw me. Jolly and Christmassy in a tropical way, we sat under the drooping tree and opened gifts. My favourite was Rick’s card to us made out of recycled elephant dung. Inside, he had drawn a picture of a big sun with a melting snowman and written “Dear Kate and Anna, Happy African Christmas to the inseparable Phillips sisters. Love Rick”.