I woke with a bump, as the aeroplane touched down at Entebbe Airport. I was disorientated momentarily, then as I surfaced so did the butterflies. In a flash, I was transported back to my Sixth Form Common Room: sixteen years old, all butterflies and pitter-patter heart, waiting for Rick to walk through the door. As I stepped out into the African sunshine ten years later, I felt that same familiar excitement. Lovely, warm feeling…coming home to Rick. Only this time, home was a very foreign place. Uganda was the world’s 4th poorest country, with a quarter of the population HIV positive. Its 25 million war-ridden people were from nineteen different tribes all with their own language. I often marvel at how many dialects you hear driving from the North to the South of England, but in Uganda you can drive for ten minutes and hear three different actual languages.
There was one more tiny tribe in Uganda of 5000 people, with their own strange customs and celebrations. Today they inhabit most corners of the world, and their numbers have grown enormously. This tribe is called “The Expats” and oh my are they a funny old bunch. I was joining this weird and wonderful tribe, adamant it would be for two years tops. How wrong that proved to be!
Rick and I had been apart two months, which had been hard. We had also missed our first wedding anniversary, which hadn’t been too hard as neither of us had remembered it anyway. (Boding well.)
It hadn’t been terribly easy communicating, as phoning from Kampala was nigh on impossible, so generally we had written letters. In one of these blue airmail letters, Rick had graphically described the domestic nightmares he was having to cope with in my abscence. On his arrival there had been no running water at all. He had managed to get the cold water going, but alas, no hot water. After three days of incessant kettle-boiling, he’d run off in desperation to the Sheraton for a decent hot shower. ‘Never mind’ he thought, entering into the spirit of things, ‘I shall get me an electric shower installed’. The electrician had never heard of such a thing. So back to boiling the kettle.
He sent me a list of ‘Things I have fixed so far‘ which included the telephone, the fridge, the freezer, the TV, a drainpipe (thanks to William the petty thief) and the plumbing generally. Sadly, the fixing hadn’t stood the test of time, or any test at all come to that. Another list was entitled ‘Securing the Property’, inspired no doubt by our recent break-in. Unfortunately, the barbed wire coils subsequently installed around the perimeter had a man-sized gap between the wire and the wall (so we were protected from fat burglars at least), and the locksmiths had DECREASED the security of the house by accidentally smashing a window. What fun he was having!
He had also been educating the House Staff (a grander term than the reality). Fabian, the ‘Houseboy’ had been labouring over a coal-filled iron until Rick could bear it no longer and rushed off to get a steam iron. Fabian stared at it, mouth agape as Rick proceeded to demonstrate as best he could ‘How to Use an Electric Iron’. This tickled me. Times were desperate – he needed me. He recounted how, hunched over the mechanics of the steam button, they had gone on to have a delightful discussion about aeroplanes. Fabian didn’t believe they could actually stay up in the air. How could you not spill your coffee? How could you possibly watch movies up in the sky?
As well as all the little blue bundles he wrote bringing everything to life, Rick had actually managed to send a fax. It was on Liz-my-sister’s wedding day, and in it he announced that he had bought a 25% stake in a goat to mark the day. He had of course, called it Liz. Apparently every August, the Kampala social event of the year took place: The Goat Races. A mosquito-spread virus in the 1940s had wiped out the country’s entire equine population, so horse racing was out of the question. Not to be deterred, the ex-pat community decided Royal Ascot with goats would be the next best thing. (See what I mean about strange customs). As it happened, Liz-the-goat was racing in the opening race just as Liz-the-sister was walking down the aisle. Lizzie goat turned out to be a hopeless waste of 100,000 Ugandan Shillings and merely stood a metre from the start line munching grass. In fact, most of the goats did much the same thing and had to be whacked unceremoniously on the backside by ‘goatboys’ hell-bent on edging them to the finish line. I fear Goat Racing may not catch on.
Every Ugandan customs official at the airport, it seemed, was set on preventing me running into Rick’s arms in slow motion like they do at the movies. Mostly, their plan was to find any reason to intimidate fresh-faced young ex-pats into handing over large amounts of dosh, otherwise known as a BRIBE. My computer was the obvious excuse, though disappointingly for them I produced all the correct paperwork and they had to let me through. It wasn’t until I was unpacking later, I realised they’d missed one helluva trick…
Then there he was. And there we were, all hugs and smiles. Lost for words. And then chattering all at once over each other with excitement. Home to Rick. He of brand new Landcruiser and he of intrepid African adventures. We piled all the luggage in the boot, computer and all (very large – we are talking early 1990s), climbed into his pride and joy and babbled breathlessly all the way back to Kampala.
Whilst we chatted away, I took in the scenery around us. We were cruising along a tar road running north along the Entebbe Peninsular, veering every so often to avoid the potholes. It was a clear blue day and to our right was Lake Victoria glinting in the sun, vast like an ocean. The road was frayed at the edges, giving way on either side to the brick-red of murram soil. We were flanked by many Africans walking to school and work, some with bikes laden with all sorts, from live pigs to sacks of charcoal as big as a man. The windows were open and the smells of Africa crept into the car: the distinctive mingle of sweat and dust and woodfires so familiar I was bathed in memories of my Zambian childhood. As we neared Kampala, also named The City of Seven Hills (I could see why), we crossed a railway track. There was no level crossing and we were upon it before I realised. I was astonished to see that there was a market ON the railway tracks, already crowded with colours as people traded and bartered their wares. Apparently there was one train a day, late in the afternoon, when the stall holders moved off the tracks with impeccable timing then back before you knew it. At night it was all aglow with candles and quite a sight to behold, said Rick.
One night, a year later, Rick and I had a terrifying encounter on that same railway track. The train for some reason was late. We had been out for the evening and the Candlelight market had packed up for the night. The city had one of its regular powercuts so everything was in total blackout. I was driving us home, we were jovial and full of the fun of the evening; when out of nowhere filling the windscreen: Huge Metallic Bulk. WHOOOSH. RATTTLE. DA DUM DA DUM DA DUM. SCREEEECH and JOLT. I braked in reflex. Eyes wide. We sat there in total silence, the air in the car still and thick, as the darkness folded around the disappearing train. Distant rumble. Gone. Silence again. In that instant, we stared ahead in total disbelief, not daring to move. Five seconds later and we would have been on those very train tracks, joining the ghosts of a candlelit market all snuffed out.
Before I knew it, we were turning onto a bumpy dirt track, lined with locals selling little pyramids of tomatoes and pineapples and mangoes. We climbed up and up one of the Seven Hills – this one called Tank Hill, aptly named after the water tank at the top of the hill which supplies the city. The houses thinned until there was a smattering only of tumbledown houses. We passed a shed, a cow and the last tumbledown house and came to a dead end, where Rick hooted the horn.
A large pair of corrugated metal gates to my right swung open to reveal an oddly old-fashioned scene; one that I was to recall often, of my first encounter with The House Staff. There was a steep drive down to a tarmacked yard, which was evidently at the back of the house. Lined up all colonial looking, but shabbier, were our staff waiting to greet me. I felt like a Victorian lady explorer. I tried to hold onto this image as inside I was feeling a little befuddled. I had never dreamed I would one day be greeting my ‘house staff’. Only yesterday I was in Milton Keynes stacking my own dishwasher. I felt an overwhelming urge to giggle. Stop it Kate. Victorian Lady. Ahem.
As soon as we were out of the car, Rick was introducing me to the three of them: Mauda was the Housegirl, early thirties, as short as she was wide and heavily pregnant, though it was impossible to tell as she just looked very rotund. She was wearing a colourful flowing dress with a square neckline and puffed up sleeves, which I found out later was her traditional dress called a Busuti. She was beaming at me, a smileful of white teeth and openness. Next was Fabian, her husband and the Houseboy. Fabian was skinny and angular and jittery. He had a slight stutter, which was upstaged by his quirky personality. I could see he was going to be fun and trouble, both at the same time. And last was James, the nightguard, a good-looking lean twenty year old, standing comically to attention, armed with his homemade bow and arrow. I walked down the line, shaking their hands, in my mind wearing a stiff, high-collared Victorian dress; they were all friendly with good English and very welcoming. There was a hive of activity bringing all the luggage into the house, halted quite suddenly by a clattering sound. I spun around to see Fabian dropping my black doctor’s bag on the lounge floor. Somewhere in my brain, far too late, a penny dropped: I gasped, hands to mouth, then exhaled with relief as I realised how close I had come…
As well as fathoming out how to work, iron and shower in Uganda, Rick had been doing some groundwork for me. He had found me a car, but more importantly, he had found me a job. There was one General Practice in Kampala, which operated out of the British High Commission and Rick had got me a job there. I was thrilled. Maybe I didn’t have to give up Medicine after all and be a trailing spouse. Maybe I could even continue my Sports Medicine training here. Maybe, maybe. Prospects!
And so, in all eagerness I had packed my black doctor’s bag and all its contents. In fact, straight after seeing my last patient with chest pain, I had popped it in ‘the packing pile’.
I picked it up, placed it on my first ever dining room table and opened it. There inside the bag, smuggled unwittingly into Uganda, were two vials of diamorphine, commonly known as Heroine.
Welcome to Uganda , M’Lady .
P.S. Rick’s diary entry for this day reads “This is the most fantastic moment of my life. (K. just told me to record this).”
Coming in the next Blog! Malaria parasites, sexism in the work place and Rick puts his foot in it…