Tag Archives: people

Eyes wide open

I could put up a lot of photos of Kampala and sometimes I do but I also enjoy the challenge of trying to capture what I see with words. On any drive there is a tableau of pictures spread for the taking if one simply keeps eyes wide open.  A drive in Kampala is therefore never dull and even on the most frustrating days there is, for an observer such as myself, poetry on the streets.

Having just dropped Trooper off at a pool party we drove through a neighbourhood inhabited by foreign diplomats and wealthy Ugandans. It is wealthy and yet no houses are visible, since they are hidden behind large metal gates. Before entry is permitted an armed guard, usually a privately employed police officer comes out barring a large AK47 to give us the once over. Driving away we notice other guards carrying guns, either outside of the large residences or walking to and fro to work. The huge police presence here is something we quickly take for granted but every now and again we remark on how many guns we see on a daily basis. Kampala is very safe, generally, but there lies beneath the surface a frisson of instability and it is the heavy police presence that keeps things from snapping and turning mad with violent chaos. This is a country that knows well the price of such violence and they have taken measures to keep themselves safe.

And we drive on, past bare chested men digging deep trenches into the red soil. Fibre optic cables are being laid, a sign of modernism creeping in, slowly but surely. Yet mere metres away people live without running water in a capital city. Access to clean water and health care are basic necessities that the majority hardly dream of. Cables are laid by hand, the soil dug with sweat and strength; bricks laid one by ones, roads fixed inch by inch by hand, this is a place where everything that can be done by hand is done so. Slowly, painstakingly, with bare arms and sweat.

We pass a woman, an enormous basket of bananas resting on her head. She walks with posture that would make a cat walk model jealous yet she is unaware of posture. She has been carrying on her head since she was knee high, this is not a new skill.

A baby lies naked in the mud while his mother fills a Jerry Can from a slow tap, grey sacks filled to splitting with blackest dusty charcoal lie next to him. Two children race another who rolls an abandoned bicycle tire with a stick, women gossip next to wooden planks that shelf pineapples and lettuce. A mother bathes her child with water in a bucket, another slaps clothes against a wooden frame and hangs them to dry and capture more dust.

Then we turn and home is in sight. More guards, more guns and another woman carrying bananas with poise and a determination to sell. We pass a Boda Boda carrying a family of four, the smallest child sits in front of the driver holding onto the handle bars, the wind whipping his short cropped hair. A group of men sit on the grass before a gate chewing sugar cane and talking in earnest.

In a simple 10 minute drive a world is open, but it is not my world. I am the observer, always watching, reading, imagining, wondering.  Eyes wide open I see but can never really know. I am forever the Other.

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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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A lot of people but not a lot of water.

It was a highly sociable weekend.  Friday we were invited to a large and lavish Jewish New Year party, Saturday we went out on a bar hop and Sunday we spent the afternoon and some of the evening at a wonderful home overlooking Lake Victoria. I have now met people from Israel, Canada, New York, Germany, Denmark, Holland, Austria, England, South Africa, San Francisco, Boston, New Zealand, Australia, Kenya and France. I have met people in public health, the restaurant business, education, policy, water engineers, Unicef, Food and health NGOs, business, construction, art, writers, fitness, pest control, embassies and infectious disease. Most people that we have met are here for only a few years but there are some who arrived over a decade ago and have no plans to leave. The majority of expats here have lived in many places, ranging from Brazil to Namibia to Belize to Rome. Some ( not I)  run and bike and do endless sports, some are content to read by the pool and people watch,  but everyone’s favorite sport is eating, drinking and talking. I have discovered it to be a very sociable place with hours spent getting to know people and talking away the hours. One thing everyone has in common is that they are far away from home and it quickly becomes a unifying fact that bonds us all.

Good thing we were out so much because we have no water. Neither does most of Kampala, it seems. I imagine that soon people will start to smell, or the scent of perfume will just become over powering, as I imagine it must have been in pre-plumbing but post perfumerie Paris. The dishes are piling up, the laundry basket is overflowing, and we have a bucket of water that we have siphoned off the empty house next door that we use to flush the loo. Every few hours one of us optimistically turns on a tap, just to see. The school has water, the club has water, so we do have options for showers, but a home without water is troubling. It has been 5 days.

Last night we lost power. I wanted to laugh but it was not yet funny. Humour needs distance. And clean clothes.

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Lessons from Mr. Charlie Brown

Perhaps mean grownups were once just mean children.

Why is it so hard? It should be so simple. The answer is this. Just be nice.  This works for everything. The smile at a colleague, the have a good day, the can I help you? The lending a student some money, the bringing a toy in for the toy drive, the throwing the best birthday party for your kids, the surprise dinner party, the little thoughtful acts that make the world go round. It does not include the crabby guy on the phone who doesn’t give a damn, the people who cut off the old people’s heating in the dead cold of winter, the nasty immigration officers who make you feel like you are doing them a favour coming into their country, the lazy rip off artists who run a scam, the lawyers who watch the bottom line and miss the humanity, the guys with guns that storm hotels, the police that hit teenagers, the fanatics that bomb houses of prayer, the parents who never talk to their kids, the teachers who put down kids and ruin a dream, the kids who write on walls and ruin a life.

Last night I watched a Charlie Brown Christmas. I had forgotten what a gem this cartoon was. First of all they feature the voices of real children rather than adults trying to sound like children. The writing cleverly reflects the real way that people speak, particularly children who are often painfully honest with each other. They have not yet installed the “filter” that enables them to edit out the brutally honest and often rude comments. It is a fact; if you want to know the truth about how you look in that dress, ask a child.

In the Charlie Brown Christmas the kids all are mean to Charlie Brown, berating him for never doing anything right. Of course they ultimately learn that it pays to be nice to one another. When his little tree becomes beautiful the children realize they were wrong yet there is no fast moral where Charlie “rubs it in.” They just begin to enjoy the true spirit of Christmas once they begin to sing together. Each character is charming in their own way because we can see ourselves in at least one of them.  Each one is eminently human.  They are not particularly kind to each other because they have not yet learnt how important it is. We have our filters. We should know better. We are grown ups and it is a simple as just being kind. When we watch Lucy taunting Charlie Brown we cringe and laugh because we know it is wrong.


Who are you?

                        

charlie-brown

 

 

Charlie Brown.  Worried, intense, means well, acts on his instincts, hates materialism, wants a friend but refuses to compromise his beliefs or actions to please people. Thoughtful, confused, questioning and ultimately right. The lovable loser, symbol of hope and determination.

 

 

lucyLucy. Brilliant, intelligent, bossy, cross, loves to talk, loves money, thinks she is always right. She is a fighter, cuts to the chase, often mean but hard not to love.

 

 

 

 linus

 Linus. In his own world. Needs comfort but is a great friend, highly knowledgeable, brilliantly clever, worried, creative, somewhat of a mess. Very loyal to Charlie Brown.

 

 

 

snoopy1

Snoopy. A great show off. The definition of cool.  Spoilt, extravagant, in love, a good friend, eccentric and a performer.

 

 

 

 

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