Doc Gibbons and Dick were keen to welcome more sports medicine into their practice. One service they already offered was medical cover at sports events. Some years earlier a group of homesick expat men had introduced a strange new sport to Uganda: rugby. Ugandan rugby was a trifle more violent than at, say, Twickenham, and the rules weren’t strictly adhered to, so it was even more exciting. Its popularity was gathering pace and several teams had been formed. Dick was happy to hand over the Rugby Doctor reins to me. Hallelujah – JUST what I wanted! It was nerve wracking, as I didn’t know all the rules of the game and let’s face it, I was a Laura Ashley-clad girl, but I was willing to get stuck in.
The first match I covered was between our Kampala Rugby team, The Heathens, and some unusual opponents, the African National Congress team. Yes: the political party, South Africa’s ANC. In the late eighties and early nineties, Uganda’s National Resistance Army had a secret camp upcountry that trained guerrillas in the military wing of ANC – “The Spear of the Nation”. As apartheid died, they emerged from the bush and had quite a presence in Kampala. You get the picture: they were a terrifying opponent. Basically, trained killers. Today, of all days, the ANC had cause to celebrate – their leader Nelson Mandela had been voted in as President of South Africa. They were having a great week and were on a high.
The game started with the ANC doing their version of The Haka. If you think the All Blacks are scary, try watching a primeval African war-dance, knowing your mates are on the other side. Their Haka involved the entire squad vigorously stomping and war-crying around the rugby pitch, eyes wide, bodies taut with aggression. It crescendoed into a blood-curdling ululation, which left every hair on the pitch standing on end. Our lads, meanwhile, were doing a stirling job of standing their ground, heads down in a ‘Let’s just get on with this’ stance for all to read.
I was on the side of the pitch with my cooler box full of ice, tins of Vaseline, and a suture operating pack with a few dressings. I did have a black bag in case of anything more serious though Dick, as an afterthought, had thrown at me “Just get them off to hospital quickly if its anything more than cuts and bruises”. Unlikely, I had thought to myself, reassuringly.
The game started and it was evident that the ANC played by a different rulebook: my first casualty arrived after eight minutes. It was our captain, who came off with a deep bite into his pectoral region. He was seething with anger as I cleaned and dressed it and asked through gritted teeth
“How soon can I have an AIDS test, Doc? There’s no way my wife will sleep with me till I’m cleared”.
Next up was the ANC’s scrum half. He had severe abdominal pain and was lying on the side of the pitch, worryingly stock-still (writhing around is usually more reassuring with abdominal pain). After examination, it was clear he was seriously injured. I diagnosed a ruptured spleen and through a translator it became apparent that he had indeed had a knee into his abdomen during the scrum: good job I had brought the black bag. I set up a drip and sent him off to the hospital on the back seat of a kind bystander’s Landrover.
During the second half, the play deteriorated further: three people were sent off though undoubtedly it should have been more. The ANC captain was my next patient with a couple of fractured ribs – he went off to hospital to join his team-mate. I then saw three more players from both sides with facial lacerations – they ran to the pitchside, where I cleaned them up, steristripped the wound and applied vaseline to curb the bleeding before they rejoined the mayhem. At one point, Rick was told “If we lose any more players, you’re on”. I shuddered at the thought. He just happened to be videoing the game to check the quality of a video camera that he intended to buy. This became relevant later.
Our Heathens team was made up mostly of Expats and a few Ugandans, who invariably got picked on by other all-African opposition teams and today was no exception. Rick was filming one particular ruck (a loose description of what was really happening) and managed to capture Charles Kabumba, our Ugandan Fly half, having his head kicked in by an ANC player. Charles, bleeding badly from his head, appealed to the ref, who had missed the incident and resumed play. Charles then thumped the ref and was sent off. This was the catalyst for full-on warfare and the game ended in an open fist fight. It was a comical ending to a ridiculous game of rugby. The ANC team completed the farce by triumphantly parading in a victory war-dance, even though they had clearly not won.
Now the game was over, I had work on my hands: I had three facial lacerations to suture. We set up a mini Operating Theatre in one of the squash courts adjacent to the clubhouse. Some onlookers were commandeered to drag in the clubhouse sofa which I used as an operating table. I asked if anyone had First Aid experience and our scrum half, a stocky thick-necked player covered in sweat and dirt, volunteered and became my scrub nurse. I had one suture kit, so I boiled the instruments in the kitchens between patients. I was having a great time.
The week after this match we heard that Charles Kabumba had been banned from playing and was due to face a Rugby Club tribunal for his unfortunate punching-the-ref incident. I was able to submit Exhibit A, Rick’s video footage of Charles’s head being stamped on, as evidence that he could well have been non compus mentos following a head injury. This made sense, as Charles was a genuinely great guy who would never normally resort to violence and would know that thumping the ref is not a good move. His ban was lifted, quite rightly I felt, especially after all he put up with from his opponents.
This was an interesting take on the issues facing a country with several distinct races living alongside each other. It hadn’t occurred to me that Africans may face discrimination by their own race for supposedly siding with Caucasians. Generally, the different races lived harmoniously alongside each other, though there were examples of prejudice on both sides. Rick and I had a very unpleasant experience one night in Kabalagala when we were seated with a few friends and a couple of strangers joined our table. One of these was a large oaf of a man with a moustache, and an air of the great white hunter about him. His manner was brutish and within minutes he was pronouncing his racist views for anyone in the vicinity to hear. It ruined the evening and we left early, very upset that there were people like him in the world. For the most part, however, there was mutual respect for each other. I can’t pretend that I always understood how the Ugandans thought, though. There was a large part of their culture beyond the realm of our acquaintance that was a mystery to me. The same was true in reverse. Mauda and Fabian were completely flummoxed, for example, when we went camping, as we often did, for a weekend of fishing and volleyball at the Sailing Club. Why on earth would we give up our warm, dry bed in our comfortable house to sleep outside under canvas? Mauda also thought I had gone mad when I hunted high and low for milk that had the fat content taken OUT of it, when their entire existence depended on consuming as many calories as possible. “You have grown fat” is a real complement to a Ugandan. I rest my case.