The traffic lights were blinking amber. Continuously. I sat there watching them and chewing on my fingernail. This was the only set of traffic lights in the entire country and they spoke a language I didn’t understand. There were no other cars around, so I nervously drove through them and I was instantly waved down by two policemen in baggy khaki overcoats weighed down by their Ak47’s. Perfect. Sensing my naivety, they opened the passenger door and back door, both got into my tiny red car and ordered me to take the next left down a narrow alley. Strangely, I felt calm and just a little bemused. They didn’t seem terribly threatening, despite the guns. Indeed, they were grinning at me and each other. I wondered what was expected of me in this situation. I really had no idea what the penalty for driving through a misbehaving traffic light was and was intrigued to find out. In fact, I felt somewhat protected by my obvious foreignness and maybe even above the law – whatever that may be. How wrong could I be.
Two weeks earlier I had been packing up my old English life and renting out our beloved thatched cottage with its climbing roses and picket fence. My comfortable, cozy world had been so easily boxed up and put into storage. The line was drawn in the sand. That was me being normal and ordinary. This was me being different and extraordinary and having adventures with a capital A.
It had been sad saying goodbye to all my colleagues at the surgery. The girls from the reception desk had clubbed together and given me a tiny framed painting of our cottage as a leaving present. John, the senior partner, had even given a touching speech at the pub on that last night. It had been my first job as a GP and I had loved being a part of the village community and getting to know all the locals. Our cottage was opposite the village stores and in the summer I used to leave our front door open, inviting any passers-by to pop in. It was a ploy that worked well and we would get impromptu visitors in all shapes and sizes. Like the time the vicar came to introduce himself and talk about church and parish affairs. His knock had taken me by surprise as I had been deep in the midst of complicated manoevres in the seating plan for my sister’s wedding. We sat in the kitchen and he chatted to Rick and me over a cup of tea. It was only after he had left that I realised in my eagerness to impress I had completely forgotten to boil the kettle. He had politely drunk his way through a stone cold cup of tea.
They were happy days: English village life, and I was the village GP – the job I had been working towards ever since I left medical school three years earlier. I loved walking to the surgery in the morning with my brand new black doctor’s bag, popping back at lunchtime to collect the car and do my house calls. I loved being accosted in the village store by a patient to be told loudly at the checkout queue “Them pills sorted me bum abscess. Thanks for that, doc”.
I DIDN’T love the emergency callout for an old lady with chest pain in the early hours of a very wintery night. She lived in a tumbledown cottage in the middle of an eerie forest a few miles out of the village, and was notoriously cantankerous. I flew out of bed, threw layers of clothes on in no particular order over my pyjamas, and ran outside only to find the car completely frozen over. Having called 999, it was a race between the ambulance crew and me to reach her, and this delay seriously scuppered my chances of victory. It was a low point, standing on the unlit village street at 3am, defrosting my windscreen with some urgency and looking like a Michelin man on a bad day. Things were only made worse when I finally reached Mrs Crotchety to find she was simply having a bad bout of indigestion. To top it all, the ambulance men on seeing me collapsed in a heap, howling at my improbable getup. However I won the race, so possibly got the last laugh…
And then the day came when Rick sat me down at the kitchen table with five pieces of paper, all in a line. Five job offers in different locations. Five different directions for life to take. Which one to choose? We were young and carefree and ignorant of the weight of obligations and decisions. Rick likes to cover all the angles, so we systematically went through the choices, discussing the pros and cons of each offer: one in Birmingham, two in Surrey, one in Leeds and one in…Kampala. We came to the last one, grinned sideways at each other and for no logical reason whatsoever we screwed up four pieces of paper, binned them and booked plane tickets to Uganda.
Rick flew ahead of me to start his job as Operations Manager of a development bank. His company was part-owned by the British Government with the remit to invest abroad in promising local companies in developing countries – the government’s economic altruistic wing. Though making a profit from later selling their invested shares was the goal, in reality that turned out to be so much more challenging in ways we could never have guessed. Rick was met at Entebbe Airport by Vincent, a tall skinny Ugandan with piercing eyes and a calm manner who turned out to be CDC’s head driver. He was taken to a hotel and given an hour to turn around before being taken to the office. He had a tour and met the staff. His boss gave the rest of the day over to filling Rick in on his duties, and then broke the news that he was off on leave for a month and Rick was in charge starting the next day.
While Rick had his hands full getting to grips with working and living in Uganda, I stayed behind as I had bridesmaid duties. My sister, Elizabeth, was getting married and as my family likes to go to town with big celebrations, there was W-O-R-K to be done. Having mastered the seating plan despite pastorly distractions, there was much covert planning with my Mum and other sister, Josephine. Surprises were the order of the day, including the appearance of a pair of Dalmatians for no other reason than that Elizabeth loves them. My husband, never one to miss out on a good knees up, was pretty devastated to be missing the wedding. However, we managed to create a life-sized cardboard cut-out of him – well it was a borrowed one of Nigel Mansell from the village second-hand car dealership with Rick’s face stuck on, so he was sporting a lovely set of Formula One overalls for Liz’s big day. It was a magical day filled with laughter, tiddly aunties and perhaps a few too many surprises. We waved the happy couple off on their honeymoon and I set off with my suitcase in the other direction: Destination…New Life in Kampala. Gulp.
As the plane took off and I settled down under my BA blanket with my BA salted peanuts, I challenged myself to think about what life would be like from now on. I had spoken a few times to Rick on the phone, so I had an idea that life in Uganda was going to be full of surprises of a different nature to the odd Dalmatian or two. After a few nights in the hotel, he had moved into the rented house the company provided for us. He had already experienced a leaky roof and other minor problems; and then one night he had a problem of a whole new magnitude.
Ten days after moving in, he had woken one Saturday morning to find there had been an amateur break-in and a few videos had been stolen from our lounge. It also transpired that Fabian, the house boy, was missing the bottom half of a dapper pin-striped suit he had appropriated from the Friday market just that day. It had to be said Fabian was rather proud of this new – if somewhat oversized – suit of his, so was miffed to say the least. Having little to do, as he really had no social life as yet, Rick decided to take the matter along to the local police station in the wonderfully named nearby suburb of Kabalagala. The Police Station turned out to be a small shed with two sleepy officers in oversized uniforms (why did everyone wear oversized clothing?) writing on random pieces of lined paper in a vague attempt to look productive. Possibly their ploy was to hope the neighbourhood criminals would surrender themselves and check-in? To give them their due, they got very excitable when Rick reported the crime, and the one who seemed a bit more in charge asked that he write it all down on a slightly larger piece of scrap paper.
“We know this one”, said they.
To which Rick replied “I beg your pardon?”.
“This thief, we know him”.
Rick was impressed with Ugandan policing. All he had done was give his statement and it seemed they were well on their way to solving the crime. They went on to explain that this was the signature crime of a local glue-sniffing street kid called William, who used a long stick with a hook on the end to poke through victims’ windows and obtain his desired items. Rick replied that this was most interesting as he had noticed that a long piece of thin piping had gone missing from the outside of the house (hence the leaky roof? they really were worth their salt, these guys), which presumably had become William’s latest modus operandi.
“Let’s go and catch ourselves a thief!” said Rick, getting carried away with the thrill of it all.
“That is a problem” came their reply.
“How so?” asked Rick, eager to close the case.
“We have no vehicle for catching criminals”. That explained the Hoping-They-Check-Themselves-In strategy.
“No problem” said Rick, “Let’s use mine”. And off they set around Kabalagala’s seedier haunts to flush William out, sadly to no avail. Not to be defeated, Rick put the whole experience down to bonding with the local community and returned home to break the disappointing news to Fabian.
A week later, he had been out for a couple of drinks with a newly acquired friend, to his delight – a social life at last. As he pulled up at our house, which happened to be at the end of an unlit dirt road, his headlights caught a movement in the bushes as he waited for the gate to open. Quick as lightening, in his mind anyway, he hopped out of the car, shouted for Fabian and accosted a cowering boy of about eighteen years old, clad incongruously in a pair of pin-striped trousers. What happened next will stay imprinted on Rick’s mind for evermore. A war cry heralded the arrival of an inebriated Fabian tearing up the driveway wearing – you guessed it – a baggy pin-striped jacket. He proceeded to lay into William, who was evidently high on glue, and the ensuing ruckus was worthy of a West End comedy stage fight. The fiasco climaxed as Rick prised the assailants apart, grabbed William by the collar and proclaimed victoriously “You’re nicked!”. With which, he piled the petty thief in his Landcruiser-cum-Panda and headed off to his only other friends in the country at Kabalagala Penitentiary.
To be continued in Blog no 2….coming soon!
Coming soon: I meet the House Staff, capsize a catamaran on Lake Victoria and the maid gives birth on the roadside…