Monthly Archives: March 2010

It’s my birthday!


A year ago I was all in a flutter about the big birthday. Now a year later this birthday is barely a blip on the radar. I am known amongst my good friends as the Fairy God Mother of Birthdays, since I tend to make a big fuss of birthdays. I firmly believe that a birthday is a day to celebrate oneself and that a suitable quantity of revelry should ensue. In my opinion no one should work on their birthday but that doesn’t always quite work out. Since my birthday is so close to Easter, I never once attended school on my birthday while growing up and now that I am a teacher I am always working on my birthday. Some irony in that situation!

But there are advantages to teaching on a birthday .Look at this cake! I feel most loved.

I have 20 12 year old boys and girls throwing me a party, complete with cake, music and popcorn. How many people go to work and get that?

I have so much chocolate on my desk I could open a candy store and tomorrow is the last day of term.

Let’s just not count the candles, shall we?

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Filed under How old am I?

The food situation

Tuesday evening here in the little box and half the family is singing about Maria. I am leafing through cook books having finally got back to cooking after a very long hiatus. Why the exodus from the kitchen, the self imposed exile? A combination of not having my beloved kitchen utensils, pots and pans, machines and toys with me; ( they are sitting cosily wrapped up in a Montreal warehouse) and hating the grocery stores here.

Shopping here is such a sad experience that it leaves me wanting. On the one hand there are things that were hard to find in Trinidad, such as a few good French cheeses ( although very pricey, think how far they have come), but on the other hand there are fewer gourmet shops with imported goodies than in Trinidad. Compared to Montreal, well, let’s just not go there. So with the optimistic intent of staying positive let us take a look at the grocery store situation here in Kampala. First, I must confess, I thought it would be far worse, and in the first few weeks here I kept finding things that amazed me, simply by their very presence on the shelves.

These are the things I find on a regular basis:

Chickpeas

tins of tomatoes

pasta

wonderful passion fruit, mango, pineapple

South African wine

Macadamia nuts

dried fruit

Quaker oatmeal

pita bread

green beans

eggplant

red peppers

plenty of herbs and spices, many fresh

potatoes

red onions

garlic ( from China!)

local yogurt

butternut squash

lentils

Tilapia and Nile Perch ( these are the only two fish available and they quickly become boring.)

These are things that I hop up and down with glee when I find:

Nutella

Sun-dried Tomatoes

Pesto in a jar

pumpernickel bread

lemonade

imported yogurt

Heinz ketchup

Toblerone

parmesan ( in a solid form)

Broccoli

Boursin

good brie

good bread

baguette

These are the things I long for and can never find:

Refrigerated fresh pesto in a bag

Pine nuts

Flour that is not made from wheat

Philadelphia cream cheese

Challa bread

creme freche

cottage cheese ( to make lasagna)

Tubes of tomato puree

Hagaan Daaz

Chocolate chips

A good variety of decent cheddar and everyday cheese

frozen filo pastry

Rye bread

Chocolate that tastes like I remember it

Well, that is a snippet of my compartmentalized food brain. Moving on.

When it comes time to cook there is no simple opening of a cook book or perusing the nets. Instead it is an exercise in creativity and hope. When the fridge door is opened and the produce tray is pulled out the question is not what shall I run out and buy, but what shall I make with what I have.

I cook a lot of vegetables with chick peas, chili, curry and pasta. Soup is also quite easy, especially if it is butternut squash and lentil, we have made cookies, by making our very own chipped chocolate and now that I have found self raising flour, cake is possible. I have made a yummy sort of fish pie with sour cream and dill and if the potatoes are looking good they can be baked, scooped and mashed with cheese. Eggs here can be a bit anemic but if you find a non rubbery cheese, omelets are always good. The avocados are brilliant, so guacamole is a staple although it is impossible to find real corn chips. Rather than despair the trick is to throw together some imagination with a pinch of salt. We hardly eat meat but when the non vegetarian half of my family does it is normally chicken and it is easy to throw together a good marinade. Ginger and coconut milk are readily available and both can be life savers in the kitchen. And when all else fails and the fridge lends itself more to headaches than inspiration, the are excellent Indian restaurants to be found, one great Thai place and some lovely Pizza.

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Prom Night, Kampala style.

At first I didn’t want to go to prom here. I had such fond memories of being involved with the prom in Trinidad last year and such special thoughts about the people at that prom; I thought this could only be a disappointment. I don’t know or teach any of these students, they are all much older than the kids I spend my day with and I could think of plenty of other things I would rather be doing on a Saturday night. Some teachers were having dresses made and buying tickets and getting all geared up for a fabulous night but my heart was elsewhere. Then I was asked to photograph the evening and not being one with much ability in the  saying no dept., I found myself at the Serena hotel this past Saturday night. I had to get dressed up and I wasn’t in the mood so I chose a rather casual dress with some soft bronze satin, gold shoes and a rust coloured scarf in my hair. With dangly earrings and a splash of lip gloss I found it passed for sufficiently making an effort.

I arrived grumpy, I will admit it. When I realized the lighting was all wrong, I got more grumpy. Then once I faced up to the fact that my SLR was once and truly broken and I would have to use my Leica point and shoot, I was not happy at all. I looked around for wine.

Then something happened and the prettiness and effort put into the event started to charm me. It was so different from the prom last year that my nostalgia didn’t get the better of me.  Still, I couldn’t help but  compare the Trini kids having fun with the mainly African kids having a good time. For much of the evening, between snapping pics and having the odd dance I was more than happy to sit and watch these kids interact with each other.

In Trinidad the girls were beautiful, there is no getting around the fact that the Trini’s are some of the most beautiful people in the world. And there was access to fashion there, even though some of the girls got their frocks from Florida. Here I was impressed that any one found a dress! Yes, the taste was much different but the effort was the same.

This was the first prom ever in our school and none of the students knew what to expect. Yet the girls donned frocks with a shine and sparkles and had their hair done up with flowers. Heels were worn, although for the majority it was obvious it was the first time, corsages were placed around wrists and the men ( and these boys looked like men this night) wore the sharpest suits that they could find. Many of these boys, in fact visited tailors to select material and cut. This was a big deal for these kids who had rarely, if ever, got this dressed up before. Everyone looked rather shiny and polished, as if a giant shoe brush had been rubbed over their scruffy school time looks.

Certainly, because they were dressed to the nines and all had dates, they were obsessed with having their photos taken. Like an affirmation, when standing before the black boards with blu-tacked silver stars, they were saying “these are MY friends”. Like wolves circling the chief in their pack, the boys took turn having the pics snapped with the sharpest dude in the room. Girls lined up to have photos taken with best friends and then more and more squeezed into the photo, everyone wanting to be part of that special group.

In true pack behaviour many of the dances involved all the shiny teens dancing in a circle while one after another of the coolest guys in the room displayed their dance moves in the centre. And yes, these guys could dance. Their rise to a premier position in the teen social pecking order was assured by those moves. High school would be easy for those guys.  Maybe not so for the tall, sort of shy looking guy watching from the outer ring of the circle. Or the few girls that sat at table and watched, occasionally throwing out the odd comment.

No one wanted to be the first on the dance floor,. In Trinidad no one wanted to be the last. It was a couple of girls, the ones with the shortest skirts that got up first. After a minute or two they dragged a guy up and then his friend followed. Still, until the coolest kid got up to dance, the crowd looked thin. Once he had okayed it as cool to dance, the whole room was moving.

A few girls looked longingly at the beauties, knowing how much easier their lives are. They loved to watch each other and with a mixture of lust and envy these teens found the best way to look was with a camera. Every time someone did something remotely funny or cool cameras were whipped out. I am sure that the day after at 3pm there will be over a thirty albums on Facebook called Prom 2010.

When I was a teenager film was expensive and not everyone had a camera. Our every move on the dance floor was not recorded for perusal in Facebook the next day. I think these constant flashes have created a vain teen culture, more vain than even ours was. People are self consciously recording every moment all the time and they know that these pics will be poured over and then rarely looked at again. But tomorrow when the shy girl sees how pretty she looked and how many people were standing beside her in the picture, she’ll smile. When the guys, who through some bizarre code were not allowed to smile in photos, see their ice sharp expressions, their smooth suits and the celebrity pose they struck they will feel good, knowing that just for one night, and maybe even one moment, they had it, the IT that every teen so desperately wants.

In the end I am glad I went to this prom. I think the kids had a great time and there is no happy feeling quite as great as watching a room full of people have a really good time. The spirit in our school and the bonding between these kids has increased because of this one night.

Of course what ever scandalous activity happens at the after party will probably over take the memories of the actual prom. But isn’t that the whole point of prom? No one got all dressed up just to dance in front of the teachers. What was going on, for the most part was a mating ritual and the rest of the story happens where no teachers exist.

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Hell is a cockroach

A cockroach jumped on me twice. The first time I was at the club, it was pouring with rain and everyone was huddled inside by the bar, wet towels in piles by our feet. Children shivered in damp bathing suits waiting for the sun to come back out and grown ups sipped beer and munched on guacomole and chips. All of a sudden I felt something on my leg. At first I thought I must have brushed against the strap of a raffia pool bag, but when I looked down I saw the horrid truth. It was a huge black roach crawling up my shin. Yes I screamed and shook my leg and pointed and made a spectacle out of myself, but I don’t care. Because there was a cockroach on MY leg. As I frantically shook my leg it came off and started to run, very quickly along the wall of the bar, still too close to my feet. Finally a bemused waiter came to sweep it away into the rain where it would battle against the sharp rain drops for it life. I would have preferred it killed, dead, squashed, eliminated, but that’s just me.

Then this past Tuesday night I was standing behind Trooper who sat, texting like mad into her cell phone, with a large white towel wrapped around her damp freshly washed hair. I offered to comb it out and braid it and just I I whipped that towel off her head I felt something hit my chest. At first I thought it was a moth, the speed with which it has slapped into me and then taken off seemed moth-like. I screamed and jumped and acted a little freaked out until, out of the corner of my eye I spotted it. The roach was running along the arm of the sofa, inches from me and it was enormous, ugly and brown. At this point the jumping and screaming and scratching at my chest intensifed somewhat. Dinner was a mess, I couldn’t eat until it was dead and despite handsome and heroic handsome spraying cancer causing roach killing spray all over the place we couldn’t find it. Then it ran across the room. right under the coffee table, then under a chair and finally with more spray and squealing ( there were four girls there that night) the roach took one last gasp and stopped. A broom was brought into the sweep in outside.

Okay. You might laugh and call me hysterical. You might point fingers and ask how I can cope in Africa, but every one has their room 101 and that is mine. I cannot handle a roach.

To tell you the truth I think I may be mildly traumatized, I keep thinking there is something crawiling on me. Often it is just a stray hair that has fallen out, but my skin is crawling never the less. This morning two dead roaches, lying on the backs greeted me when I came down stairs. Must have been all that roach spray.

Just writing this has made my itch.

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All packed into one little Saturday.

This past weekend was something special. I finally left my little shoe box, my litter strewn classroom, the tiny corners of my life and ventured out; right out into the country for a luncheon. Such an old fashioned yet relevant world. It was too grand for a simple lunch and yet informal enough to be relaxed and welcoming. It was too generous and beautifully laid out to be a simple Saturday lunch, no this was a luncheon replete with tables laid beneath massive trees in view of satisfied ponies resting after the attentions of so many children. Our hosts brought together many characters from different circles. The newly arrived expats, the old timers, the teachers, the people who know not to whom or what they belong. Above all it was the children who brought together this group of adults, and it was the parents of these children, friends of the mini hosts who sat and watched the youngsters living the idyllic life of an African afternoon.

Yes. A lunch party between two trees as old as the ancients, on a farm where roses bloom and horses scamper about the paddock. Between courses the little ones zipped around dangerously on quad bikes while the relaxed parents turned an amused blind eye towards those parents who bit their lips in quiet terror. Mud splattered boots were replaced with flip flops and the smiles of sun kissed teens shone in the afternoon sun. Little girls, with cheeks as chubby as their 3 years would allow were scolded for riding quad bikes alone and the tantrum that followed her removal of the dangerous and offensive bike was laughed as wholly reasonable by us all. Some parents snuck in a cigarette while their daughters jumped over fences with ponies who looked a mite weary. Finally a few dads decided that it was their turn to ride the quads, but try as they might, the kids were having none of it. A reluctant 2 minute ride was allowed before they were back on, their rightful place ensured.

Too soon, as the light began to change, and shadows moved between the trees it was time to go. One little boy clutching his sprite bottle, so clearly did not want to leave this paradise, he had to be promised another visit “very soon’ to console him. Women were handed roses as they climbed into cars for the ride back to Kampala. Who could believe that this perfect corner was a mere 40 minutes away?

Finally, when everyone departed and children were told that one more turn on the quad bike would not happen for the 15th time, the light began to sink. Trooper and Princess were invited to stay the night and without a moment’s hesitation, and with eyes glowing, they nodded “yes, please.” The assurance that they would ride again the next morning was just the cherry on their cake. This was life, this was what it was all about! Quad biking! Horses! Friends! Land to run and laugh and be muddy and free!

Handsome husband and I said our farewells and left our children behind, with a twinge of jealously. We were heading out to listen to some Congolese music. From one world to another.

The women were resplendent in costume. Their head scarfs barely moved as they swayed in time to the beat. Hands up, hips out and the dancing shook the ground. Sadly this same ground was littered with plates containing the half eaten dinners of a hundred dancers. For some reason it was not deemed necessary to provide bins. No, not in this culture where there would certainly be someone with the broom at the ready next morning. Yet in the meantime, what was once a garden of green grass was now a rubbish dump of squished french fries and twice gnawed chicken bones. Plastic knives snapped under foot while I walked around, avoiding the booming speakers and searching for my friends. Perhaps the tranquility of the rose farm had ruined, for me this evening spectacle of feet stomping, hip swaying revelers. I thought of Princess and Trooper, tucked into bed, sleepy with their overdose of fresh air, dreaming of another day of horses and fun and I was jealous. All they want is to be grown up and they are so much better being young.

Still, it was good music, for a time, and there was true French pride on this day celebrating the African french speakers. It’s just that the ancient trees were calling and I couldn’t get their song out of my mind.

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Characters, mingling, belonging, part two.

Most people here work in the NGO or Aid field or in Embassies and will stay between 3 and 4 years but there are about 10 core families that live here permanently. The ones who come for a bit have a great time. They mix with other expats, they travel enthusiastically and energetically in every school break and they have an air of luck and happiness about them. They live way better than they would had they stayed at home and  most really appreciate rather than feel entitled to this advantage. Sunday at the club is a big hang out for this group and I would say this is mostly where we fit; despite the fact that we were not brought over with the comforts of a large expat package that includes a generous rent and shipping allowance. Another big difference is that this group’s future post is determined by their job, they know that they should sit back and live it up because who knows where they’ll be put next?  This group does not care about Uganda in the same way as those that have vested interests and business here. They are detached and happy.

But the real characters here are the people who grew up here, the core group of old timers that originates with the white men whose parents came over post war ( or before?) and whose children, despite being sent off for a decent education in an English boarding school, often come back. Mainly the men return, the daughters generally stay in England, especially now that the parents have gone back. This is the generation of White Africans living here.

My handsome husband ofter comments on how similar it is to Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet or other books where the White Man settles in a foreign land. A character is formed, through staying many years in Africa, often eccentric, mildly racist, a big drinker, a bigger talker and one that would never be able to return to his former home. He has many dogs but they all sleep outside, at parties he only talks to men unless he is drunk enough to start flirting. He owns a business but his family probably had land so there is some old money floating about. He loves to talk about money, business and land. His friends are the same as him and they spend every Friday after work at the same bar, with the same people drinking the same beer.

I am forming a stereo type here as the format of a blog does not allow me to get more specific, although I wish I could. Stereo types are born from a certain truth so forgive me if I sketch a picture that looks too generalized. I am fond of observing people and I form characters constantly in my mind; how I long to have the time one day to put them all in a book.

The English Woman in Africa has often married a man who was born and raised here. She comes over for some reason in her early 20’s, meets a burly man who is more African than British, a man who can cope in the bush, owns land, can handle a gun, is macho in a way that turns on her mind. She marries him and begins a life of permanent expat. She is not going to leave, she has made her home in Africa and has seen her share of people come and go over the years. Therefore she has gathered around her a tight group of women who are likewise married to a white African man, who has made their beds and must now lie in it. She is attractive in a raw sort of way, her skin is weathered but she looks healthy, she has a manner that comes from many years of ordering staff around. She is aloof to a point, desperately lonely to another. She has probably had an affair or two and throws great parties where she drinks to much and flirts outrageously with her friend’s husbands. Her life revolves around the children that she simply adores but she will send them away to boarding school. They all do. And the children will return on holidays and pick off where they left off with their African friends who know and understand them better than anyone ever will. Many of the children will return to live in Africa, it is what they know, where they are happy, where they were raised. Some will leave but will forever have Africa under their skin, moving like blood beneath the muscle.

Children who are raised in Africa have lived with a certain freedom, far from the materialistic world of the Great Shiny West. They do not fear snakes, they can handle a tent, ride horses and live the privileged life of the Other. There are advantages to growing up here and in some ways it is no surprise that many come back to live as adults.

These characters, old timers and new fresh expats mingle and turn together. At every lunch, dinner or afternoon by the pool there is a person who seems to have walked out of a book, or perhaps into one. Perhaps what these people, who choose to live here, have in common is that they don’t really belong anywhere else. Maybe, like me, they don’t know what belonging means.

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An introduction to some of the characters I mingle with.

I am meeting such a wide variety of people here, people that I know, had I stayed in my previous world, I would never have met. It breaks down so many pre conceived ideas to mingle and chat and even befriend people that I had no chance to meet before.

Let me introduce you to a few of them:

The Super Camper family have travelled all over the world with their 3 children in tow. They have seen and experienced so much of the world that I fear their children will always feel like outsiders in their home country, Britain. They are amazing and unique children, however, bright and alert, energetic and motivated, informed. The mother paints and mothers, the father plants seeds and fiddles with solar panels.

The new Super Camper family I have only recently got to know. They have lived in various countries in Africa as well as Ireland and Denmark. They are far more comfortable out of their home countries than within them. Irish, Swahili, Danish and English is spoken by all members of this family. These are the campers that remember wine and blow up mattresses. They put my holiday suitcase to shame.

Then there is a family I have come to call the Perfect Family. They have three adorable children, a chic house complete with fashionable furniture, a patch of land amidst their enormous garden when they grow their own lettuce; they speak both Spanish and French at home and are always dressed in a style more befitting the Cote d’Azure than Kampala. They are simply delightful.

There is my friend I call the Danish Beauty. She loves this country in a deeper way than most, being married to an Ugandan and working in the field of Journalism. She often finds this place tragic and I think it is because she is entwined in Africa, in a way few are.  Her husband is one of the gentlest men I have ever met. He is brilliant yet sad, in love, fatherly and resigned. When they leave it will make the first of many holes in our Ugandan social life.

There is a family of four that have the most beautiful house in Kampala. It faces the lake and is filled with ethnic furniture that they’ve gathered in all their exotic posts. Sitting outside, watching the sun set is one of the best places to be in Kampala on a Sunday afternoon and I always return to my little box mildly depressed. This family has their grip on the artistic calendar of the city, and are always to be found at concerts, exhibits, shows and galleries. There is an air of glamour about them, but one that sits well with the ability to kill a snake that might wander across their lawn. They are immensely capable of making anything beautiful and the food they serve is divine. I think I will call them the Beautiful Ones.

Of course there are also the teachers who are without any great exception young and adventurous. They are prepared to take a major dip in their salaries to come out to Africa for a bit before going home to settle down. They generally don’t stay beyond 2 or 3 year but while they are here they do it ALL.

Then there is Indiana, my good friend and occasional hero. He is a successful business man, entrepreneur and father to two of my most favorite children. He has been in Africa for 20 years and it is unlikely will ever leave. He accepts Africa and Uganda for what it is, not fighting to change it nor complain about it. He knows this place deeply and like the old timers here has a special bond with Africa, one that lays an air of resignation around him.

More to come soon….

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