An excerpt from Starchild
Gayaza High School,
Gayaza, Wakiso District,
I’m here. I’m actually here, in Uganda, standing outside the gates of Gayaza High School for Girls. I cannot wait to get past this daunting checkpoint and through these iron gates.
The sentry box at the checkpoint is vacant. I peer through the large metal gates. The tree-lined path to the main grounds of the school is massive. Old colo-nial-style buildings sit strategically on manicured lawns. If it wasn’t for the heat and the cricket noises, I might think I’m waiting to enter a convent in rural England. The sign ahead that reads No Boy Contact reinforces my unease. It’s not hard to imagine a Mother Superior, rod in hand, patrolling the girl’s dormitories. However, the only person patrolling the grounds today is the se-curity guard I’ve spied having a smoke under one of the many trees, which are unfamiliar to me.
A shamba boy lazily sweeps the dry dust and leaves from the path ahead. Bent almost double, his short broom makes me think he could make his job last all day. The rhythmic sound of the sweeping makes every-thing seem like it’s in slow motion. But I’m in a hurry—I want to burst through these locked gates! I’ve traveled over four thousand miles to be here. I’ve had sixteen in-jections, including yellow fever, dengue fever, typhoid, rabies, diphtheria, cholera, meningococcal meningitis, hepatitis A, B and C, and I’m downing antimalarials every day. However, in the past few weeks since arriving in Uganda, I have learned there is something called “Uganda time.” It means anytime. No one is in a hurry here, except the small lizard that has just scurried across the path in front of me. I jump back and a large flock of birds descend noisily on a nearby tree, squab-bling over which branch to take up residence in. I yelp and slap my mosquito-repellent-clammy skin before some insect takes residence on me!
The security guard finally notices my partner Rony and me. Rony wouldn’t let me come to Uganda on my own and has decided to take on the role of the “bodyguard.” The fact that Rony looks like Arsène Wenger, the football manager of Arsenal, has meant that frankly, it’s Rony who needs a “bodyguard”—not me. Everyone wants to shake his hand and try out for his football club. The security guards stubs out his cigarette on the grass. Today we have a meeting arranged with the head teacher. Oh, God, I’m nervous enough. I have a fear of head teachers. Mrs. Edminston, one of my long-standing primary school teachers managed to instill that fear. She made our head teacher sound like a woman who sat in a den at the back of the school waiting to morph into some four-legged, fire-breathing dragon whenever Mrs. Edminston brought her a child she deemed to be stupid—usually me. However, her idle threats of sending me to see the head teacher never made me spell any better. They only gave me nightmares about what this dragon would do to me if I was sent to her “den.” But now, this angry-looking guard is coming toward me with his rifle.
Potholes and Pitfalls
Nothing can prepare a visitor for the assault on the senses that is Uganda. It has exceptional wealth and ex-ceptional poverty, exceptional beauty and exceptional unattractiveness. It can appear to lack visual sophistication, but look further and you will glimpse the magnificence in the meager and the brilliance in the broken. It is a country of vast natural resources and human po-tential. I cannot begin to explore the extreme contrasts of Uganda in this book alone. Neither am I an expert on this massively diverse country. But the rich, varied, and unexpected experiences one can have in Uganda bear witness to Uganda’s unique culture and history. Uganda is often mistaken as having been a colony of the United Kingdom but was, in fact, a Protectorate of the United Kingdom. Although it gained indepen-dence in 1962 it had already absorbed many aspects of old British colonialism, many of which are still superimposed onto its own culture. It is debatable whether this is for good or ill.
Some parts of Uganda are still resistant to change in both the social and religious sectors, and have remained unchanged for centuries. Attempts to destroy or change some tribal cultures have proved too great a challenge; the tribal culture is too ingrained. In some villages, life remains much the same today as it was thousands of years ago. The fast-paced modern city of Kampala appears to have fully embraced westernization. However, scratch the surface and underneath the age-old mythologies, loyalties and obligations still rule. The only difference is that nowadays Christianity seems to be inextricably linked with every aspect of life. Uganda is not for the faint of heart. You could lose your car in the potholes and your life savings in some of its everyday pitfalls. Learning to adapt to its bedlam is a necessity. Resist it and you might as well retreat to what will, on return, seem an overwhelmingly dull home. It’s best to embrace Uganda with every fiber of your body. If you’re anything like me, your tummy will be the first bit of your anatomy to let you know you are out of your comfort zone. And no amount of mosquito repellent and nets will repel those nasty little insects. I remember watching the Dalai Lama on television being asked about the Buddhism doctrine on all creatures having a right to live. He said he agreed, but that he had a real problem with mosquitoes. He pretended one was on his arm, sucking his blood; he looked at it with real compassion then smacked his hand on the imaginary insect and exclaimed, “Nazi!”
I can relate. And guidebooks simply cannot be trusted! A restaurant in Kampala got five stars, maybe for the performance of the twenty-five plus rats that were running in and out of the ovens and work tops of the open-plan kitchen! Sadly we did not catch sight of these performing rats till after we had eaten there. I remember Rony grabbing his camera to photograph them. I thought the proprietor was going to stop him but he moved to put more lights on so Rony could get a better shot. The worrying thing, over and above having just eaten our meals, was that the owner didn’t see anything wrong with the safari in his kitchen. I finally decided we really had to leave when Rony started suggesting to the proprietor that he could increase his turnover by opening a shooting gallery and supplying his guests with air rifles. However, the dichotomy of the country is also evident in the food establishments. There are a number of exceptionally fine restaurants in Uganda; in fact, some are amongst the best I’ve eaten in. And, accommodation is as diverse as its people. Still, if you are thinking of going to Uganda, pack a sense of humor—you’ll need it!
Nothing compares to Ugandan society and with the right attitude you can not only survive the chaos but also learn that life is not a right but rather an honor. The things we take for granted are privileges known by few in this diverse and complex planet we inhabit.
I reckon it goes against most people’s nature to distrust, but when it comes to Uganda I had to teach myself to reverse that instinct until a person proved otherwise. It’s sad but true; corruption is ruining the country. Lying, cheating and stealing have become part of daily life. Ugandan’s call it “Financial Engineering.” I soon discovered that just because someone seems very nice and tells me they are a Christian does not mean they are above deceiving me. Of course, trust has to work both ways. It’s always important to give relationships time and to be vigilant. Everyone has a sad story to tell, and if you are anything like me then they can suck you in quicker than you can let out the breath you’ve been holding while listening to their tragedy. History tells Ugandans that we muzungus are very wealthy; therefore, the opportunist is never far from your side. They come in all disguises—even church collars. I am not saying any of this out of any prejudice. Some of the most beautiful people I know are Ugandan. They are amongst the warmest, friendliest people anyone might ever meet. And it is hard not to be moved by some of their personal daily struggles and desire to overcome the nightmares of the past, especially when you know Uganda’s history. The country’s natural beauty and its warm-hearted people belie the horror of its dark past. (But I know only too well some of the pitfalls for the wide-eyed, do-good traveler, charitable bodies and potential adoptive parents.)
The country has always attracted its fair share of “white saviors.” Many I have frankly found somewhat reckless and distasteful. Some, I feel use Uganda as a bit of a playground. Thankfully, most don’t seem to last long. However, some have created havoc and then, when things haven’t worked out their way, left. I’m sure most, like me, started with good intentions but what can feel like the best thing to do isn’t always the best. Sadly, our white muzungu ignorance can sometimes end up making things worse. Just as the misconceptions and assumptions Ugandan’s have about white people can cause problems too. But, I have also witnessed some incredible initiatives and projects that have been carefully developed by the muzungus. And, thank God for them.