September 30 03

We're leaving Kampala

I promised that I would tell you about the people living in our hotel.

But before I do that, let me pass on a few bits of interesting information we have learned, from talking to people or by visiting the Uganda Museum.

We learned that the secretary bird, a long legged creature with plumes on the back of its head like old quill pens, is the world's only walking eagle.

We learned that in one tribal culture if a child's top teeth came through before the bottom ones, dances and other rituals had to be performed by the women or the crops would be in danger.

We learned that if you want to go to the airport, you don't take a taxi, because the driver could alert his friends to ambush you, knowing that you have money and valuables in your luggage. Go with a friend.

We learned that until 12,000 years ago, rivers in Uganda drained mainly to the West, until shifts in the tectonic plates created the Rift Valley, changed climates because of newly created rain shadows, and sent the rivers flowing East.

Today, we were in a restaurant and saw one of the young waitresses drop to her knees before a middle aged woman. Remember I told you about this sign of respect to one's elders in some tribal cultures?

Our first weekend here, we travelled to Jinja about an hour east of Kampala, to see the source of the Nile. It starts at the edge of Lake Victoria and flows wide and swift towards two lakes and then on to the Sudan and Egypt. We were surprised to see so many large rapids. You can take a rafting tour
of about six hours down these rapids and camp on the banks if you wish. One Ugandan told us that the government is trying to send a bill to Egypt for the use of the Nile river! I suppose they figure there's no point in even asking poverty stricken Sudan to pay also.

I shall miss the people in our hotel when we leave at the end of September.

As I mentioned, it belongs to a Greek Cypriot, Nicholas, married to a Kikuyu from near Nairobi called Ruth. Unfortunately Nicholas suffered a stroke which has affected his arm and his speech. He walks with a cane. It has in no way affected his ideas for renovating the hotel. The other evening we went to take our usual place for dinner and were shooed away by Ruth. "Too much shouting," she said. Nicholas was in the cooking area, fixing some burners and giving loud instructions about the food.

Since then he has 'supervised' changes to the dining area and the breaking up of concrete surfaces to lay ceramic wall and floor tiles. He installs himself in the morning at a table facing the workman. On the table he has cigarettes, tea and his newspaper. There he sits until evening, issuing commands in the few words of English or Swahili he can bring to mind easily. We never know what project is next on his list.

When we first arrived, Ruth was running things with a Ugandan woman, Lois, who seems to be in charge of accounts and supplies. She lives in the hotel, but does not always get up very early. All the foodstuffs are kept under lock and key, so it's a roll of the dice whether we'll get butter and jam
at breakfast, or even coffee. For a few days we had a tin of instant. Usually there is some butter, although at times we have to make do with Blue Band, a margarine that requires no refrigeration. I don't want to speculate about what's in it.

Soon after we settled in, we met Linda, a Scottish lady who lives in the hotel. When we asked how long she'd been in Kampala, she said "Two husbands ago." She has to be into her eighties, very tiny and thin, with long hair in a bun. She came out as a young bride from Scotland, and her husband, who was in the Colonial Service, died and she returned home. When she came back to Uganda for a visit, she met her second husband and they ran a coffee plantation for a number of years near Nairobi. After he died, she stayed on in Kampala. I heard her say the other day that she had never learned to cook. I suppose because she always had cooks and servants in Africa. She hasn't lost her Scottish accent and has never learned any local language. She sits in the half light of the lounge for tea during the day, looks after an old grey parrot and swaps paperbacks with anyone who is interested. Several evenings at dinner she has told us she's expecting a 'friend' who never seems to appear.

Nicholas arrived at the beginning of our stay, followed a day or so later by a friend, a farmer from the Congo. The man speaks French, Swahili and a couple of local languages, but no English. He has lived in the Congo for sixty years and cannot think of going to Europe, where his children are, because he has lost everything and has little money. He tells us the news is still bad, with fighting and massacres daily. His workers were dispersed and many killed. Hospitals have been looted and destroyed. He arrives early in the garden for his morning coffee and listens to the African news in French on a portable radio. He calls himself a 'refugee' and has no idea where he'll finish his days.

During our first week, we chatted with three Belgian military officers, who had just left Burundi and were being sent home. They were in no hurry to leave. Although Uganda is the third world, it has to seem like paradise after what they had experienced in Burundi.

Various other people come and go. Nicholas has a sister, who is 'difficult' we are told. A large, blond, middle aged lady, she rarely appears and when she does, voices are raised. But in Greek, so we have no idea what the problem might be.

Another sister, Maria, has a nice restaurant and hotel at the source of the Nile. On our trip we stopped in for a drink in the lovely, cool reception area, open to the river on one side and with a high, thatched roof way above our heads. Under Amin, the whole family had to leave and some went to Cyprus, but this lady spent many years in the UK near London. She told us all about the recent visit to her hotel by Prince William, who came on a secret vacation, strongly denied by the British High Commission. He was with a male friend and they spoke Kiswahili between themselves. They went rafting and spent the night chatting around the camp fire and slept in the 'bandas.' These are huts with basic facilities and thatched roofs.

Unfortunately there is a plan to dam the Nile for electric power and, if it goes through, the rapids will disappear and the rafting guides and Maria will be out of business.

To this crew, add a couple of miscellaneous people who speak Greek and African languages, as well as English, one who lives in Tanzania and wants to import a magic herbal remedy for HIV/AIDS, diabetes and arthritis. He proudly gave me the brochure. At any one time, three or four languages are going on. Nicholas is holding forth in English or Greek, Ruth is reprimanding the help in Kisawhili, Linda is chuntering away about fishing in Scotland, and various people are exchanging news in French.

There are two cats and numerous dogs of varying terrier or chihuaha mixes, all of whom are sternly sent their 'basket' when they appear, but take absolutely no notice and wander around the food preparation and serving areas.

The waiters and waitresses sail through the turmoil of high emotions and polyglot people with small smiles. Rachel has straightened hair with a reddish tinge and is probably quite worldly wise. Sheryl, on the other hand, has cute braids and everything makes her giggle. She's a real sweetheart. Moses is our evening cook and uncovers the dishes with a proud flourish. Our morning cook, whose name I haven't caught, has with reluctance accepted that we don't wish to eat the same thing every single morning. Edward and Opaka are the two dignified elderly waiters at breakfast.

Put these people in a setting of faded cushion covers, sagging roofs and bare electric light bulbs, all in a courtyard with lush vegetation. The monkeys quarrel in the trees next door and raucous birds cackle away.

As a counterpoint to this rather eccentric group, which always makes us smile, we are going tomorrow to visit a school. They take girls from an area of the country which still routinely practices female genital mutilation (FGM) or circumcision. They have been swamped by the demand from girls
running away from this. In addition, they take returned child soldiers from the north and girls orphaned by the on-going war. They plan to reserve spaces also for bright but physically handicapped girls and for others from extremely poor families who have no hope of going to school. I can't begin to imagine what some of these young women have gone through. I have a full report about the school if anyone would like any more information. Just email me to ask.

Forgive me if this has been rather long.