We had been burning the candle at both ends. This was starting to take its toll on both of us and there seemed no sign of a letup in the foreseeable future. Exhausted after two months of this and wanting to be fresh as we had our first UK visitors arriving the following day, we booked a rare quiet night in. Or so we thought: it was one of those days that went wrong from the outset.
Jack the puppy had a habit of lying in the shade of the Landcruiser and Rick was always very aware of this, and would check from all sides before driving off to work every morning. On this particular morning, he did the usual checking but when he got outside the metal gate, realised he had forgotten the jerry can to top up on diesel for the generator. He stopped the car and ran inside leaving the motor running and Fabian holding the heavy gates open. Unseen by him, Jack must have crept out of the compound to lie by the car and as Rick drove off he realised all too late what had happened. He was devastated, and utterly distressed when he came back to break the news to me. Jack had been such a joy to us both and was always so full of good-natured playfulness. Rick was very cut up as he handed Fabian some money to dig a grave and bury Jack in the scrubland next to our house. Fabian was fatalistic “But it is finished now”.
After a hard day’s work, we both arrived home around 7pm. It was so sad not to be bowled over by our dear puppy’s customary welcome home and the tragedy of the morning’s accident hung on us. Neither of us was in the mood for socialising and we desperately needed our long awaited night of recovery on the sofa. Mauda greeted us, all proud in her new green gingham uniform, with the vexing news, however, that she had punctured the fridge whilst defrosting it with a knife and that the cooker had also broken. My heart sank as I added these to my mental list of ‘things to be fixed’, which always seemed to go one step forward, two steps back. Practically everything with moving parts in the house was broken and it was a Herculean effort to get anything fixed.
As we stifled yawns after a meal of cold leftovers, Fabian returned from what looked like a heavy night’s drinking, pink grazes all down his face. Rick and I were dropping and simply had no more energy for drama. Totally unprompted, therefore, Fabian offered solemnly
“I have escaped near death”
In his distinctive narrative, with added slurring for effect, he recounted the sorry incident. We struggled to retain our composure – indeed we were close to hysteria – as the picture emerged of our half-cocked Fabian falling head over heels out of a moving matatu. Apparently, after an evening’s drinking in a ramshackle bar by the open market, he had caught a matatu home. The minibus was as crowded as ever and to get more revenue, they had allowed extra passengers to squeeze in, some even hanging out of the open side door. Music blaring, it had lurched off into the dark, but close to home a pothole threw Fabian and several hangers-on into the road. This was actually incredibly dangerous, yet happened with startling regularity on the roads of Kampala.
We dragged ourselves upstairs to bed around midnight and as he turned out the light, Rick asked what time our friends’ flight arrived the next day. On came the light and up we sat. We had no idea which flight they were on! As well as the fridge and the cooker, our landline had been permanently broken (emails and mobile phones were things of the future). We decided to reach Entebbe airport in time for the first arrival of the day, and stay there until the right flight landed. The alarm was duly set for 5.30am. Light off, heads on pillows, snoring ensued. For a few hours, at least.
Claire and Mike were very good friends from my University days. They arrived on the second plane in, so we didn’t have long to wait at Entebbe, and in that time the cobwebs of the previous day were blown clean away by the breeze coming off Lake Victoria. Added to which, we were so excited at having our first visitors that we felt refreshed and ready for adventure.
They weren’t to know, neither were we, quite how iconic this visit would be. They were the first guests of very many that we subsequently hosted in our twenty years abroad. I hadn’t foreseen that entertaining would be such a large part of my life as an expatriate, yet in the following year alone 2 out of every 5 weeks were occupied by friends and family staying, and the same amount the year after that. It was a real treat to exchange the infrequent rendezvous in England for quality time spent together sharing our lifestyle and exploring the region. I often had cause over my expatriate years to ponder on this difference in spending time together. My mother, in particular, missed us enormously and in our discussions it emerged that the essence of that loss was in the day to day communications. When you live close to your loved ones, you share insignificant daily happenings with them and are interested in the minutiae of each other’s lives. When so far apart, with infrequent and haphazard communication – we relied mostly on letters through Rick’s work – our conversations would focus on the bigger events of our lives like the ill health of relatives, dates for our travels and the headlines of our life abroad. In the rare event of a phone call, the connection was bad or we were cut off halfway through. News from home was a delight that brightened the whole week. Occasionally, however, this news would be sad – a close relative very unwell, for example – and dealing with such things was incredibly difficult. Strong was the temptation to hop on the next plane home to be with them, but this was rarely practical. The guilt of not helping, not being able to support and not sharing their struggles was hard to bear; the miles of ocean and land between us diluted the sadness we felt, adding to the sense of disconnect in distressing family times. These frustrations meant that holidays spent together were intense, happy affairs, filled with hours of relaxed companionship.
And so it was with Claire and Mike’s visit. As we drove home on the potholed Entebbe road, their eyes widened as they took in the local Ugandan flavour: the lively shacks lining the tarmac, spewing colourful crowds onto the road; women with piles of sticks balanced precariously on their heads, tucking their kitenges tight round their waists; men wheeling rickety bicycles piled high with coalsacks or matoke bananas; and everywhere bare-foot children with snotty noses weaving in and out pushing hand-made wheel-along toys or kicking footballs made from plastic bags.
On the very first night we settled down to the delights of unwrapping gifts from home, simple pleasures which meant so much to us: Alpen cereal, Sunpat crunchy peanut butter and cans of draught Guinness bitter for Rick. We were in heaven! They were happy to join in with our social whirl for the first week and we were off on safari the following one. Taking up our evenings at the time were rehearsals for the Kampala pantomime, which we had both auditioned for: I was headlining as Little Red Riding Hood, and Rick was Back-end-of-cow at the bottom of the bill. Much teasing ensued. Our friends spent a hilarious evening watching us rehearse, Rick trying to get to grips with his part but obviously finding it all rather challenging co-ordinating with Front-end.
After several mini adventures and mishaps, typical of our Uganda existence, the week culminated in a fantastic evening at the rugby club. It was the first ever Fireworks evening in Kampala and great fun especially for all the Polio kids who attended and to whom the funds went. Unfortunately, we hadn’t foreseen that it would cause a diplomatic incident. The Bang! Crackle! Boom! triggered panic in the nearby population as they feared that hostilities on the streets of Uganda had returned. As a result, all future fireworks parties had to obtain permission from the Government before going ahead, and warnings were sent out in the newspapers the week before. Claire and Mike really were witnessing history in the making, and felt truly part of the expat crowd. They were just beginning to feel at home in Kampala… that is, until the events of their last night.
But in the meantime, we were off to introduce them to Queen Elizabeth National Park, which was a bumpy seven hour drive west towards the Zaire border. Being on safari in the African bush is to feel the exhilaration of pure, unadulterated freedom. Peace prevails. Harmony is restored and a miracle happens: you relax unimaginably. The soothing tonic of nature works her magic. You reach back through time and reconnect with your former hunter gatherer self. Your day is fixed by the rising and setting of the sun. The pace is steady, slow. The sky is vivid. The air is clean, fresh, earthy. Birdsong is all around. The bush is alive with the hum of crickets, the chatter of baboons, and the distant grunts of blubbery, wallowing hippos.
All this we experienced against the rolling backdrop of the regal Ruwenzori Mountains, romantically dubbed the ‘Mountains of the Moon’ by Ptolemy back in his day. The Kazinga channel, a narrow 20 mile waterway teeming with wildlife, wound its way into our view. Lounging by the pool playing scrabble was the order of the day, whilst sipping a cold beer and delighting in each other’s company. Time was generous to us and slipped quietly by, so we were caught unawares when it ended and all too soon we were loading up the Landcruiser and heading back to reality.
Their last night in Kampala couldn’t have been more different to the serenity of our safari experience. When Claire and Mike first arrived we had explained how we often heard a gunshot or two at night. We assured them it was usually only the night-guards taking potshots. We had showed them how secure we were: there was a cage at the top of the stairs we padlocked every night so that if there was a break-in we would be secure upstairs. We pointed out the grills on all the windows, and introduced them to James the wonder archer, vigilant through the dark hours. They were not to worry! That last night, however, we had just got into bed when we were startled by a gunshot just yards away. It was followed by two more. This was not normal. Rick and I fell instantly to the floor. The gunfire erupted into a volley of shots. We crawled speedily onto the landing on hands and knees. The barrage escalated into a full-on firefight as we called through the bedroom door to our friends,
“Are you both OK?”
“Yes! All good!”
“REALLY? Are you sure?”
“We’re sitting up reading. You said not to worry.”
“WORRY!!” we chorused. “This is for real! Hit the deck NOW!!”
They joined us, commando-style, on the landing and all four of us crouched there, trying to decipher what was happening. There were several more rounds of gunfire literally at the bottom of our garden, then all went quiet. After a long silence, we looked at each other and burst out laughing. What a way to end our first holiday in Uganda!
The following day was a Sunday. Full of bonhomie after a great holiday, we waved Claire and Mike off at Entebbe airport and continued onto the Sailing Club. News spreads like wildfire in the expat community and everyone was talking about the battle of the night before. Then word arrived of what had happened: it was a horrific story. A young expat couple with a baby lived in the house 300 yards below ours on Tank Hill. They were known by our social crowd mostly because Isabelle was a stunning French woman that all our menfolk secretly admired. Thugs had broken into their house. They tied and gagged Scott, the husband, in one room and Isabelle in another; they then locked the two year old child in a separate room. For two and a half hours, they taunted Isabelle, telling her they had AIDS and were going to gang-rape her. They separately told Scott the same story. Finally they left, having stolen literally everything, even the floor tiles. As the bandits escaped, they were challenged by the neighbouring askaris and a gun battle broke out. By the time we heard this news, Isabelle, Scott and the baby were on a plane fleeing the country, never to return. They had been in Uganda 8 years. They were old hands. They loved Uganda and they loved Ugandans. But for all the sunshine, all the excitement, all the adventure, Uganda in 1993 was a very dangerous place to bring up a young family. Enough was enough.
The next week we were full into Panto rehearsals. This was the most wonderfully amateur of amateur dramatics! We still needed quite a bit of knocking into shape but got there just in time for the first curtain up on Wednesday night. It was a charity night, where everyone bought tickets for their house staff families, and it was packed out. It’s hard to articulate how different this was. Uganda, a country of 20 million people, did not have a single theatre. Amateur though it was, our show was the only show in town. I strongly suspect not a single member of our audience had ever attended a live theatrical performance, let alone a pantomime (an entirely alien concept). They loved it! They especially loved the visual humour, though all the British double entendres were lost on them. There was lots of laughter, anyhow, with the odd bawling child scared out of their wits by the Big Bad Wolf; the result was a very noisy audience!
Thursday night went very badly indeed for Back-end-of-cow. His comedy routine was a co-ordinated dance with Front-end, with much swinging of udders and cocking of legs. For some weird reason true to the plot, Rick was supposed to drop a tin of condensed milk from his udders, followed by a tin of corned beef. The condensed milk got stuck and when Rick applied force, it flew off the stage narrowly missing a young child in the audience; the corned beef lost it’s impact when it landed behind some scenery, so Rick reached his hand out of the udder to retrieve it, by which time the audience was crying with laughter. The best was yet to come, however: Rick was asked to move his car during the intermission so, kitted in Back-end costume, he was busy reversing in the car park when he glanced back through the hall window to see a panic-stricken Gnome on the stage and Front-end-of-cow’s head peeping through the centre curtains. He raced backstage, drowned out by the audience singing “Daisy, Daisy, where has your back end gone?” and attached himself apologetically for the beginning of Act Two. He was fed up with his lack of performance but Little Red Riding Hood thought it was all very funny and kept reminding him so well into the night.
After a fantastic final performance with no cow cock-ups, we finished with a boozy cast party and headed home in the early hours. The next morning, after a couple of hours sleep, we packed our bags for a trip back to England, surprising both our families for Christmas. When our parents opened the door to find us standing on their doorstep, they really had no idea
The memory of their faces gives me pleasure to this day.
When they asked how it had been, our first 4 months in Uganda, I took a deep breath in and closed my eyes to picture it all: the streets of Kampala alive with the colours and smells of Africa; our Ugandan home with Mauda, Fabian and James; Jack the puppy; my work and colleagues at the British High Commission; all the nights out in Kabalagala with the rainbow of characters that now dominated our lives; the Sailing Club and all the adventures we had already experienced; and I thought
“Where do I start?”