Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Kampala - 1988

I am aghast looking back at the situations I got myself into in Kampala, back in 1988, by my lack of judgement. I could have rejected that invitation to Cathy's house-warming party, I could have gone and left earlier when the roads were still full of people. But no...

   Mind you, we, expatriates. were all stir-crazy by 1989. From the day I arrived in Kampala on a bright December morning in 1988, all of us British Council Advisers had been confined to our homes after dark. There were no visits, parties or other entertainment allowed. When we travelled out of town to the North, which was still unstable, we had to get a Jeep-load of British Military Police to accompany us. All this in the name of security.

   Us career expatriates in Africa were used to manufacturing our own fun in any case, with visits, dinner parties, clubs and so on. You can imagine how desperate I must have been because I nearly joined the British Women's Association. Dire! My friend, Brian, rather cruelly,called it the Bitches and Witches. Mmm. I was saved in the nick of time when the chair-lady announced that my contribution to the Christmas fair would be knitted doilies and a tea-cosy. Knitting? Me? 'I can offer some free Maths tuitions,' I volunteered, tongue in cheek. That didn't go down too well.

   Looking back, Kampala, after dusk, was near-dead anyway in 1988 and most of 1989. When the sunlight began to fade, Ugandans hurried home to houses where dim electric lights flickered. They rushed through their evening chores before the uncertain power finally went. Salt, sugar, match boxes, petrol, all were in short supply; the local people learned to manage. 'We are all managers now,' my colleague, David, used to say. 'We have to learn to manage everything.' The rich travelled to Nairobi and came back with car-boots loaded up. The poor did without. It was another year before an Indian businessman started supplying salt and sugar, matches, and all things essential for the local market.

   So when Cathy invited me to her house-warming, I got the glad rags out, practised using my Kohl again and went to her house. It was a huge, happy crowd, milling around, downing beer and talking as though they had not talked to anyone in years. I floated in, greeted the few I knew and looked around Cathy's new house. Beautiful. By ten I had found my corner and my group of other desperate expatriates and settled in for the duration. Which turned out to be till 2 in the morning.

   Driving back to my house on the Kyambogo Teacher Training Campus, I was high on adrenalin from talking non-stop. The Jinja Road was well-maintained and I reached my turn-off in about twenty minutes.  There would be a road-block some days on that dirt road, but most days the soldiers packed up with the rest of Kampala.

   As I turned, the head lights picked up a dead animal in front. I reversed to avoid it. As I turned in again I had another look. The animal now looked like a human being and there was a dark liquid pooling around it. It was pitch dark on the road apart from my lights and I was scared to get out and take a second look. But that person could be alive,needing help. I had no way of knowing.

   I drove to the College care-taker's home near by and tried to wake him up with my horn and my lights. He did not stir. I drove quickly to my colleague, David's house. I was reversing in small areas and soft mud, but had no way of knowing where the boundaries were on those little plots full of Matoke trees.

   At that moment I would have given anything for a decent torch or even one of those dry coconut-frond chootahs we used in villages in India. As I turned away and drove the short distance home, I wondered how a middle-aged Malayalee woman could find herself in this kind of predicament. Thoughts of that sad bundle on the dirt road kept me awake all night

   Nothing in my careful Kerala upbringing had prepared me for corpses on the road that disappeared the next morning without trace. No one believed me when I mentioned the man lying dead on the road. I went back and forth on that road searching. Was the soil a bit darker in places? I couldn't be sure.

   Next morning in College, David told me off for going to his house to wake him up. 'Don't you know that no Ugandan will open his front-door after dark?' As for the corpse, he insisted there was none.

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