Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie

Cover image © Harper Collins.
I’m definitely a fan of Agatha Christie. There’s something about her work that makes me think of Sunday afternoons and Christmas. That said, I’m much more of a Poirot fan than I am of the Marple stories, but, being in the Caribbean, and needing a ‘small island’ mystery, I turned to A Caribbean Mystery (1964).

Set on the fictional island of St. Honoré, Miss Marple has been bought a holiday in the Caribbean by her nephew to help her recuperate from some recent ill health. At first she seems distinctly unimpressed with her location where there is nothing to engage her interest; “Lovely and warm, yes — and so good for her rheumatism — and beautiful scenery, though perhaps — a little monotonous?”

To pass the time, as one could expect at an exclusive resort like the Golden Palm Hotel, gossip is an easy method. When retired Major Palgrave starts spinning one of his yarns about a murder, he stops abruptly, just as he is about to produce a photo of a murderer from his wallet to show Miss Marple.

Needless to say, by the following morning, Major Palgrave is dead. The rumour doing the rounds at the hotel is that the amount of Planter’s Punch he'd drank, plus his high blood pressure, has been the final undoing of him. But did the Major ever actually say that he had problems with his blood pressure to anyone? Miss Marple’s interest is piqued and she is skeptical of the cause of death being simply natural causes.

There are the usual cast of eccentric characters to both move the plot along and cause distractions as the mystery unravels: the young proprietors of the hotel, Tim and Molly Kendal; a strange quartet of nature lovers, Colonel and Mrs Hillingdon, and Mr Greg and Mrs ‘Lucky’ Dyson; Canon Prescott and his sister; the mega-rich Mr Rafiel, his assistant Esther Walters and masseur Jackson; and a Venezuelan family, the de Caspearos.

As is often the case with Agatha Christie, and indeed many a crime novel, the first death isn’t the last. It isn’t long until the “tall and buoyant” Victoria Johnson, a local woman who works at the hotel, thinks that something is awry with the murder of Major Palgrave, noticing that another guest’s medication was left at the scene of the murder; she doesn’t last much longer.

A good Sunday read and you don't have to be in the Caribbean to enjoy it.
In many ways, the descriptions of the “West Indian” girls with “such lovely teeth and so happy and smiling” may make post-colonial readers cringe a great deal, especially when coupled to the frankly bizarre comment that it is “a pity they were so averse to getting married.” Indeed, the unfortunate Victoria is depicted as living as married, but not actually married. Furthermore, the representation of a Caribbean island, where rich white tourists use the region as their playground, may not seem too far from today’s realities – something that Simon Reeve's recent TV series may have helped to partially dispel.

Overall, the book is a good read as, in true Christie fashion, the motive and the culprit for the murder are kept well-concealed until the all important Agatha Christie Moment at the end. Read it on a Sunday in November, or on holiday on a hot island, and you'll not be disappointed.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #10: A Rugarama Mini-­­­­­Drama

Jas, feeling good before his unplanned hospital visit to Rugarama.
Wednesday 8th April 2015 ­­— 11.30am

Shortly after breakfast I was returning to my room when I was intercepted by Tamera on the stairs. It transpired that Jas wasn’t feeling too great.

“He says he was calling out all night, has a fever and has cramps all over his body,” Tamera reported with wide eyes and without breathing mid­-sentence.

I visited his room and found him looking a rather ashy colour and decide that he had to seek some attention. 

After a conversation with the hotelier Deborah and her daughter Hope, we decided that best option was for him to attend Rugarama Hospital in town. Deborah also kindly offered to act as an ambulance and drive him to the hospital with Tamera escorting him.

Jas’ behaviour was so uncharacteristic that both Tamera and I are worried. Gone were the jokes and wisecracks. He was suddenly acting like an old man who could barely walk. Indeed, I was later told, that upon arrival at Rugarama, he was put into a wheelchair and wheeled into the building.

Whilst the group left for the hospital, I escorted a group of students to Blessed Academy as no one, neither John the pickup truck driver, nor Tash, knew the way. Amazingly it later transpired that John’s children attended Blessed Academy and that he was a resident of the Nyakambo district of Kabale. I put this all down to a small lost in translation moment.

When I finally got back to Rugarama, I found Jas and Tamera along a shady corridor and in Treatment Room One. He was quite easy to find as I just asked everyone for the “Muhindi man.”

The treatment room was much darker and more sparsely furnished than an NHS hospital room in the UK would be. There was a bed with a wooden frame from which a curtain hung. The only electronics in the room seemed to be a ward nurse’s phone charging in the corner. This said, the room was clean, tidy and well ordered.

It was quite fortunate that, after six years of coming to Kabale, this was my first ever visit to a hospital and that I was not the patient. I seem to be better at injuring myself, with the help of my bike, in the UK.

The doctor appeared after a few minutes of me being there and decided that the primary cause of Jas’ malaise seems to be a particularly strong, but not wholly unusual, reaction to his antimalarial medication.

His blood tests all returned a normal result and thankfully didn’t show any evidence of something more serious or sinister.

Jas was eventually discharged, along with his small entourage, and given the advice to stop taking his Malarone with immediate effect. He was told to go to bed, rest and get back to full strength before returning to get any alternative medication. 

Whilst being driven back to Green Hills by Deborah, I wheeled out Evelyn’s advice about drinking some good quality tonic water as part of an alternative course of action, which Jas graciously accepted.

What had to be said for Rugarama hospital was not only the speed with which they dealt with Jas’ condition, but also that the doctor who saw him was female. If we consider the general imbalance between women and men in positions of authority, and also just the various academic institutions in Uganda, this was something of a success story all round.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #9: Back to School

Rain causes the group to take shelter and the distant hills to disappear.
Tuesday 7th April 2015 – 6pm

This is a curtailed version of the entry that appears in the original journal, but, for the sake of continuity, it has been included in this series.

Today was our first full day at the high school. Our group were received, along with the Coombeshead Academy staff and students, by the new head teacher, Steven; a friendly and jovial character who insisted on trying to learn everyone's names by the time we had left his office. This was the first time I had signed a visitor’s book with the name of my new school; a strange experience in itself, but one that puts Fulham Cross on the map in southwestern Uganda.

We had a tour of the school and I could see a number of improvements. The most striking change was the completed main gate to the campus that parents, amongst others, had helped to raise the money for.

Further along on our tour there were also changes to Elizabeth Hall, the girls’ dormitory named after Liz Walton, the All Our Children charity’s chair. One of the prep rooms upstairs had now been given over for use as an additional girls dorm room, further evidence of the slow redress of gender imbalance in the school which still has an overwhelming majority of male students, in line with most of the country.

Robert, who acted as our tour guide, also took us via his house inside the school compound where we met his son Isaac. He showed us around a number of his recent projects involving chickens, super–sized carrots and his homemade microorganisms. 

His key project of the last couple of years has focused around the use of compost to heat a shower. The shower works on the principle of surrounding a water–harvesting tank with composting material from his farm. Robert then adds his proprietary blend of microorganisms, that are cultured underground, and covers the whole lot with a tarpaulin to encourage anaerobic respiration.

The net result is that the reaction causes the water to heat up to around 70°C. Essentially speaking, a completely free hot shower.

A little after lunch, running a little bit behind schedule as one expects due to rain, the students dispatched themselves to different lessons; some went off to a History class, the others to English. I took some time to catch up with a few of the Kigezi teachers and students, including one teacher who I'd actually taught in my first visit to Uganda. I then also spent a while talking logistics with Tash.

Overall a reasonably quiet, yet busy day, but, by the time we’d walked back to Green Hills, everyone seemed ready for an early night.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #8: Unbeaten Bike

An Eastman bike parked outside of the fabric shop in Kabale. I want one.
Monday 6th April 2015 - 5.00pm

In terms of my health, today was a real low-point. I’d never really felt as poorly as I did on this day on any occasion I’d visited Uganda. I was feeling tired and struggling to hold a meaningful conversation.

Call it paranoia, but having read about Fausto Coppi’s demise at the hands of Malaria, and all of the health checks we had been subjected to in association with the Ebola outbreak, I was feeling a little worried.

I had been drinking a tonic water a day just in case I had malaria and had been taking a heady cocktail of pills and locally-sourced throat sweets too. I was living in the hope that whatever it was would clear soon before the paranoia became as intolerable as my raw throat.

I drifted down with the group into Kabale town, feeling pretty ropey, and opted to wear my kaffiyeh again, today in order to protect my neck from the intensity of the midday heat. As we passed Dave from Coombeshead and saw the colour he had rapidly turned, I was happy with this decision.

We ambled to the Royal Supermarket via the long route, searching for lunch en route at the Hot Loaf bakery which, this year, had only a rather limited selection of cakes available. After this, and stocking up on a few dozen more throat sweets, I led the group towards the fabric shop.

Kabale’s high street, or main street, was clearly in the process of getting a major upgrade. Trees had been felled at the roadside and certain areas of land cleared. There appeared to be money flowing into the area’s infrastructure, that much was clear.

New buildings, and more typically ‘Western-looking’ buildings, were emerging at the roadsides. Also a couple of enormous advertising hoardings had been erected at both ends of the street.

Jas waxed lyrical, in his own inimitable style, saying that he believed that there were more modern cars on the streets than the last time he had visited Kabale back in 2011.

On our walk what caught my eye the most was actually an Eastman bicycle parked outside the fabric shop; dusty, beaten, yet perfect for the job of riding around these rough muddy red roads.

Aside from a robust looking steel frame and tyres of a mighty width, there were a couple of interesting features. Most noticeably there were no cables on the bike. All of the brakes were connected by a series of steel rods and pulleys.

The rear brakes sat parallel to the crankshaft and were also connected by rods. Both the front and rear brakes wrapped over the tyres and rubbed the rims further inward than on regular road bike brakes.

Obviously the bike was single speed for ease of maintenance, but did boast an extra-long chain by way of compensation, and, again, that seemed quite chunky. 

The seat had seen better days, the wheels and mudguards appeared to be a little buckled and the chain looked close to the end of its useful life, but I loved it. I would actually love one for riding around the streets of Islington or commuting to work on.

As the afternoon sunshine sank slowly away, I dreamed of buying an Eastman bike for myself before I snapped out of my daydream and we headed back up to Green Hills for our dinner.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #7: A Sunday with Fast Eddie

The road to Bunyonyi, rising higher and higher.
Sunday 5th April 2015 - 10.30pm

Easter Sunday was a pretty quiet day. With the programme clear due to being a few days ahead of schedule, it meant the morning was a dull affair.

After a while of loitering around the hotel, I decided that I needed to do something and, along with Jas, we walked a less direct route past the hospital and down into the town to change some money at the Royal Supermarket.

The roads were quiet save for the occasional boda-boda labouring up the hill or freewheeling down it. One such boda, with an attractive female passenger on the back, passed us by and she waved – I thought I detected a faint blush in Jas’ cheek.

At Royal Supermarket, we undertook a quick exchange of around £2000 into an inordinate amount of Shillings and walked back up towards the hotel to see if anyone had snapped into action. En route, Jas took a moment to point out that my idea of walking through Bugongi, with a load of money in a backpack, might not be the best idea.

It feels like we’ve been out and wandering for ages, but, upon arrival at the hotel, it is clear that very little time has passed in actuality.


The whole group spent the early afternoon period at Acadia Cottages, high up above Lake Bunyonyi in the company of Chris Ruba and a crowd of girls from Kigezi High School.

The sun was furiously hot, so I tied my kaffiyeh around my head looking, I think, like a slightly lost pirate. I then got told by Sarah that I look Jordanian and Khadija decides that I should have the Berber name of Antar Ténéré.

With some gentle encouragement the two groups of students started to mingle and share stories about the subjects they study. Before long, Hannah was having her hair braided by one of the Kigezi girls.


Later that evening we dined at Cephas and afterwards headed to the hotel bar.

We put some money down on the pool table in order to stake our claim to it. I remembered that the rules here were that the winner stays on. So, with this in mind, I played a game against a slightly tipsy man and won.

Having assumed control of the pool table everyone wanted to play me. Next up was an Indian gentleman who I recognised as running the photo shop in town next to the supermarket. More by luck than skill I won again, much to his annoyance.

Suddenly, I was christened the Champion. A small man called Brian introduced himself to me. I suggested that he played against one of the students in our group, but he wanted only to face-off against the ‘champion’.

I struck a deal with Brian saying that he could play Thomson (the name he referred to me by after mishearing my name) as long as the students could play a game of doubles beforehand. It went against the house rules, caused a ripple of unrest, but the serious pool players decided that it would be nice for the youngsters to have a game.

Ironically only one student wanted to play and the doubles match that ensued between Tash and Tamera, and Suweyda and Fabio was a tough match to watch. The balls seem to just be pushed around the table for a laborious twenty minutes. The onlookers, and those who had queued up their money to play a game, started to drift away from the prevailing snooze-fest.

Eventually, Brian got his match and I won. It was beginning to get embarrassing. All the time I was playing, my first opponent stood in the shadows drunkenly murmering to anyone who would listen, “He has no skill. This one is lucky.”

I agreed wholeheartedly and made reference to Irish stereotypes to that effect.

After this there was another hastily negotiated doubles match – this time assented to by the Asian gentleman on the understanding that I had to play him in a rematch first.

Four games in and my luck ran out. I showed myself to be a good sport on a couple of occasions, letting my opponent off with a few minor fouls. Ultimately, Kabale’s answer to Fast Eddie had his win and left the bar satisfied; his honour restored.

The students started to now act as if I was a pool expert. I pointed out that a fair portion of my childhood was spent playing pool, with my dad, in pubs like the now extinct Avon Tavern in Warwick; Sunday afternoons, orange squash and whatever bar snacks were put out by Ray, Rose and Mortitia.

A little more time passed, along with a quick Waragi and tonic water, and we walked back to Green Hills for the night, rousing the grumpy night-watchman from his slumbers at the sentry post. Tomorrow morning we would have another meeting early on.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Living for the Weekend: Arsenal

Match programme from Arsenal.
It’s been a while since I’d really taken much interest in football – at least enough interest to start watching matches at the grounds themselves. Ireland don’t really get up to much these days and my childhood team linger aimlessly in mid-table, or, in a good year, might become embroiled in a relegation dogfight.

After dragging Jonesy along to watch Leyton Orient whilst I was still living in Walthamstow, he decided to more than repay the favour by offering to take me along to the Emirates Stadium on Sunday 1st February 2015; there to watch Arsenal (his team) play against Aston Villa (my team). This all coincided, in a timely fashion, with moving house to Islington. 

Most of the build-up to the match, for us at least, revolved around Jonesy’s anxiety about the distance between my new flat and the stadium itself; he simply wouldn’t believe me that it was a ten-minute walk.

As it was, we managed to get from his place in Leigh-on-Sea to Islington in such a small amount of time that, before long, we were sat in Bedford Tavern on Seven Sisters Road enjoying a drink.

After a quick stroll down Berriman Road, Tollington Road and Hornsey Road, which is always closed to traffic on a match-day, we arrived at a great bowl of steel and glass nestled in between the East Coast Mainline and the residential streets of Islington; the appearance of the Emirates is a lot cleaner and more majestic than many other Premier League stadia.

Arsenal’s decision to move, at the height of their most recent period of success (the "Invincibles" season of 2003/04, most notably), wasn’t unanimously  popular amongst all fans. There was no doubt that the lovely old Art Deco Highbury stadium, just around the corner, was a firm favourite with many of the Arsenal fans I seem to have for friends. Built in 1913 the club stayed at Highbury until 2006 and their move to the Emirates, a stadium, somewhat unglamorously, built on an old waste disposal site.

There was a bit of bumbling around with the credit card-style tickets where the seat numbers aren’t readily apparent, before we finally found the way into the club level seating, scanning our cards on the way, getting handed our complimentary match programme and ascending on an escalator to the middle tier of the stadium.

It really couldn’t be any further from little old Brisbane Road.
An Aston Villa corner; a rare moment of attack in the match.
The ‘club level’ of the ground had a warm bar area, completely enclosed, keeping out both the cold and presumably the riff-raff. Looking down from the large glass wall was an expansive view of the other spectators filtering their way slowly in.

We resisted the temptation of anything more to drink and headed straight to our seats in amongst quite a diverse crowd: a Chinese father and his little boy, a pair of elderly women and four burly Turkish men. Still, these weren’t my Aston Villa comrades, all of whom where sat on the lower tier to my immediate left – a noisy minority in this giant 60,000-seater stadium.

For Villa the match didn’t really get started. By half-time they had already fallen behind to a goal scored by Olivier Giroud and Paul Lambert, the Villa manager, was clearly out of ideas already. To add insult to this, Mesut Özil, who’s never really hit top form at Arsenal, seemed to be everywhere.

At half-time there was the consolation of a complimentary bar and, in lieu of any cider, I started the sorrow-drowning with some decent white wine.

The second half brought about more misery as four more goals found their way into the Villa net; one each for Özil, Walcott, Cazorla and Bellerin. At least there were two shots on target for the away team during this half. For the visitors, of particular note was the performance of Carlos Sánchez who, without exception, seemed to lose possession everytime an Arsenal player came within five metres of him.

Villa were looking ropey and the signs weren’t good for either Lambert’s job prospects or the team’s Premiership status.

The one moment of hope for Villa nearly resulted in me outing myself as an away supporter in the home section. After what seemed like an entire match without a shot on target, out of nowhere a shot actually challenged the Arsenal 'keeper. From the pit of all my frustrations came the utterance, “So you remembered how to shoot then?”

Jonesy looked at me with shock, presumably fearing a mini-riot, but, to our relief, another Arsenal fan turned and said, “Yeah, they’re rubbish aren’t they mate?”

Once the final whistle was blown and the 5-0 rout complete, we headed out of the stadium and back onto the chilly streets of Islington once more. There is no doubt that for everything that Brisbane Road offers in terms of heritage and a vibe reminiscent of how football used to be, the Emirates offers sleek, brutal modernity in return. It is Harrods to Orient’s corner shop, but this should not detract from either ground.

I criticised modern stadiums after my visit to the retro Brisbane Road, but the Emirates is proof that it is possible to blend the modern game of football with some soul.

The afternoon ended with a return fixture of our own; a trip back to the Bedford Tavern. The consequences of this visit are recorded, I am told, on a mobile phone belonging to my girlfriend’s sister.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #6: Travellers' Paradox

A boda-boda guy arrives over near to the market in Kabale.
Saturday 4th April 2015 - 5.00pm 

Liz, not assuming that we’d be delayed by so long, had arranged a meeting between teachers from the ominously named ‘Committee’ to take place with teachers from WMSF, Coombeshead Academy and me from Fulham Cross Girls’ School.

The Coombeshead guys had had a late night on Thursday for similar reasons to us, but, after a good night’s sleep sharing with a donkey down in the middle of Kabale, they looked distinctly fresher than us. The meeting was essential and thus unavoidable in order to establish a programme for the next few days, but my health was at a low ebb.

What started as a bit of a sore throat during Wednesday’s parents’ evening had turned into an all-singing, all-dancing cold; in the heart of Africa.

As I was reading William Fotheringham’s biography of Fausto Coppi, who died of malaria after visiting Burkina Faso, I was struck by a bout of paranoia about my cold. Thinking of Evelyn’s advice concerning tonic water, I robbed Raman of a cold and flu tablet and armed myself with a bottle of cheap tonic in lieu of anything better at the hotel.

The meeting was, despite our fatigue, a successful on. We managed to work out a rough programme for the various CPD activities to take place throughout the week with minimal fuss.

With a draft schedule finalised within an hour and a half, we rounded up the students, who had been busy chatting with their Coombeshead countrerparts, and headed out for some orientation.


Amongst the many meanderings and ramblings of the day as we wandered through Kabale's town, one of the more interesting exchanges occurred when we arrived at the football field where the street children were playing.

Upon our arrival, a few of the children started running towards our group. This was swiftly followed by a minor stampede. There was hugging, hand-shaking and greetings in English and Rukiga.

This brought about the obligatory posing for photographs, which I opted out of.

Whilst some of the children started to sing and dance, Tamera came over to Jas and I and said, “I feel weird.”

We looked at her a little puzzled. Tamera is a little strange and so her confession wasn’t out of the ordinary.

“Did you eat something dodgy?” Jas asked.

“No,” she replied quietly. “I feel really uncomfortable with everything. It’s a bit like we’re here and this is all a show; like we’re coming to observe animals at a zoo.”

Tamera, half-Egyptian, half-English, and well-travelled is used to seeing people in different settings and scenarios around the world. Her observations are generally well-informed.

After some discussion we decided that what she was describing was classic Travellers’ Paradox; whereby, in order to try and have a broader experience of the world you travel somewhere new, only to find people singularly showing you what they think you want to see.

“You can’t have a natural interaction any more,” she lamented. “What are we actually doing here? What is our purpose?”

I suppose, aside from the regular arguments about neo-colonialism and voluntourism, there is the question raised about what one’s intentions in coming to work in Africa actually are.

For myself, the friendships and the opportunity to take West London teenagers somewhere new is and has been the biggest draw over the years. Allowing them to have their own existential debate and to learn about something, on the ground, that many students of their socio-economic background wouldn’t be able to. For me, the Bob Geldof “feed the world” mentality of my first trip has long gone.

That said, this didn’t stop the discomfort over feeling that the children feel as if they had to put on some form of show in order to impress us. They really don’t; we would have happily learnt from them and helped where we could regardless.

All we require is a little normality and the chance to learn about others without feeling that we’re in a strange parallel world.

Whilst Tamera was finishing her explanation, a car pulled into the playing field and group of boys, who weren’t part of the project we were visiting, got up from their slumber and ran over to it.

These boys were in a really untidy state. Unlike the children at the centre, these boys didn’t have the look of children who were cared for and most looked as if they were under the influence of some strange narco-stimulant cocktail.

The car they ran to was in good condition, and, after some initial herding around the car as it come to a halt, the boys started to form a line. One occupant of the car emerged with a camera. The boys briefly arranged themselves for a photograph.

Something was then passed out of the driver’s side window to the children and they dispersed, running in the direction of the town, leaving the field they were occupying completely empty. Being some distance from them, I couldn't see anything conclusive.

No one but Jas, Tamera and I seemed to notice this peculiar moment. Was this duo benevolent or in some way manipulative? I was not sure that we would find an answer during a stay.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #5: When The Road Rises To Meet You

Pretending to write something in my journal and getting a dusty backside for it.
Friday 3rd April 2015 - 11.45pm

This was the day of the big road journey. After some careful consideration involving an emergency meeting with Kevin and Raj at WMSF, it was decided that that we should push on to Kabale as soon as possible due to the terror threat warning issued by the US Embassy in Kampala and the subsequent assassination of Judge Kagezi. 

Despite arranging for breakfast at 7.45am, we only managed to depart Entebbe Backpackers at 9.30am. Some expert faffing around was one of the principle reasons for our tardiness, but the cooking and eating seeming to be a slow process exacerbated this.

Whilst the final faffing was going on, Jas organised the repacking of the back two rows of Brian’s Coaster bus with our luggage and we headed off in the direction of Kabale via Kampala.

As always on the Entebbe-Kampala road, wherever there was the most minute confluence of roads the traffic ground to a halt. Larger traffic and more patient drivers waited in line whilst matatu buses tried going around the outside, the inside and would probably have tried going over the roofs of other vehicles if they could. All this just added to our slow progress.

After passing over the mothballed railway line in the middle of Kampala, where small market traders have long since replaced trains, we turned left onto the Masaka road.

As we slogged our way through further traffic, a siren came from behind. We pulled over to the side of the road as a convoy of government cars, tooled-up paramilitary police and motorcycle outriders passed by.

“Who was that?” I asked. “A government official?”

“Sure,” Brian replied. “It was the Prime Minister.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I saw him in the third vehicle.”

Once we were clear of the suburbs, the road opened up a little and the settlements became sparser and less built-up; the three-storied buildings of the city traded for the smaller single-storied structures of the country.

Our first proper stop was on the Equator. Here we allowed the students to stretch their legs a little; some went shopping for crafts and gifts for those back home. I took the opportunity to pose for a picture on the Equator roundel – sat facing southwards with my journal in my hands, much to Suweyda’s bemusement. 

With some food and drink supplies on board, we departed after an hour of respite from a bus seat.

Not long after bypassing Masaka, we stopped for a toilet break. A public toilet in a village is clearly a potentially lucrative business and I’m pursued by the caretaker for 200 shillings whilst I’m in the middle of my own business. I pointed the slightly over-zealous man in the direction of Tash who paid for everyone. 

In the meantime, an ever-increasing crowd of children had emerged to witness the bus full of bazungu, bahindi and Somalis using the toilet. With the hyperactivity of the local children reaching silly levels we boarded the bus to cheers as if we were a visiting football team.


The journey progressed smoothly along the road as we headed towards Jas’ old family home in Mbarara. Here we picked up Brian’s son and nephew from the rain-soaked high street, surrounded by the buzzing of boda-bodas fitted with special umbrellas.

After Mbarara the road was in a major state of disrepair, and, because of the intensifying rain, the going was very slow.

The bus banged and bounced its way along the road, occasionally slowing as the tarmac came and went.

We cleared a narrow section of the road and started to make some faster progress over the potholed, but as yet unsurfaced new road when Brian pulled over to the side of the road.

He got out of the bus and looked under the nearside wheel-arch. After a few minutes he came back around to the driver’s seat.

“Everything okay? All Good?” I asked, sensing the inevitable.

“It’s not good,” he replied. “We have lost the air filter.”

I’m no expert, but I guessed correctly that this was something connected to the exhaust system.

Brian hopped back out of the driver’s seat and hailed the first boda-boda he saw.

Time passed slowly as a murky dusk started to fall over this bit of anonymous road in the middle of nowhere in particular. The inevitable requests for a trip to the toilet, a cigarette, chocolate and all manner of other things started to appear.

After just under an hour, he returned.

“Did you find it?” I inquired.

“No, but I have a solution,” Brian responded, and, armed with some form of black builders tarpaulin and two bits of rubber tubing, he set about fixing the gap in the exhaust.

After a relatively short time, we were ready to move once more. By now it was dark but our pain wasn’t over yet.

Not much further down the road we noticed a stationary queue of traffic in the distance; a snake of red tail lights in damp blackness. A figure outside on the road muttered, in Luganda, to Brian that a truck had slipped on the wet mud and was now blocking both carriageways.

It took around 45 minutes for a group of guys with shovels and torches to dig the truck out of the hole, but this still left it floundering on one side of the road, sinking ever lower in the mud as its wheels tried to find purchase. The oncoming queue of traffic saw its chance and like a predatory anaconda started weaving truculently through the gap. We could only sit and wait as an unending stream of headlights came towards us.


When we got to Ntungamo we stopped at a petrol station for a toilet break and a morale-boosting pile of Cadbury’s chocolate.

Ntungamo was our last major hurdle. The time was now 8.30pm and we had plenty of travelling left to do, but the roads were smooth and peaceful; our only company seemed to be Congolese trucks and the occasional car.

Not far outside of the town, the road became akin to the inspiration for The Beatles’ song about a ‘Long and Winding Road’. Jas made the joke; the audience were too young to laugh.

Morale stayed amazingly high, all things considered, and the group continued to sing all the way to Kabale, with Khadija showcasing her hidden vocal skills and latent potential to become Algeria’s first country music superstar.

At the sight of Taufiq Islamic School on the edge of Kabale, we knew we’d made it at last. The clock read 11.00pm. This indicated a late dinner, but at least a comfy bed to lie down in.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Matchsticks on the Shore

Grey skies and fishing boats, Bognor Regis in West Sussex.
On a field trip to Bognor Regis with Year 9 I was tasked with the job of leading a session on coastal poetry. After reading the poem 'The Sea' by James Reeves, we embarked on seeking inspiration by walking over the shingle and out into the sea.

Here's the sum total of my efforts, written into my red Uganda Moleskine, whilst standing in the cold English Channel under grey skies.
In the grey they are
Dancing dots
On a shingle dance floor;
Walking out
Matchsticks on the shore. 
Softer sand awaits
them as they spark into a
brief flame of laughter
as a wave breaks sleepily; 
Before, extinguished and
exhausted, they return to
their stones,
their homes, 
But never to be put back into their old box
Again.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #4: On The Beach

When lakes in Wales are your only point of reference, Lake Victoria is an ocean.
Thursday 2nd April 2015 - 8pm

After we’d settled into Entebbe Backpackers Hostel, Tash and I went off to change money – not a simple process when the bank clerks don’t seem to like explaining the procedure.

Upon returning to the hostel there was just enough time for a shower before getting back on board Brian’s bus and setting off for Lake Victoria.

Once en route, I told Brian to head to ‘Imperial Beach’ and so he drove us the short distance to Imperial Beach Resort. When we arrived, something wasn’t quite right. If you ever ask me to remember something useful like a phone number I cannot do it; ask me to recall something visual and I usually can.

After a brief chat with an unimpressed female security guard we performed a rapid u-turn, trying to avoid letting anyone know about the mix-up, and proceeded to the different, yet remarkably similarly named Imperial Resort Beach. As soon as we arrived we knew we were where we should be. Brian and I looked at each other and laughed. We were supposed to be the experts in this scenario.

By the time we arrived the sun had done most of its setting and was covering just a small part of the beach. With Entebbe being on the north-western edge of Lake Victoria, it faces out eastwards and thus the sunset was behind us.

All along the beach there were a number of people playing with volleyballs and footballs, almost all of them local. Further in the distance, along the beach, young Ugandans were walking gingerly alongside each other, away from the gaze of adults or other prying eyes, but still not holding hands.

Our group settled on the seats near the water’s edge and immediately started dipping their feet into the lake – despite dispensing with Grigorios’ advice not to. 

I ordered drinks for everyone from a sleepy waiter and there was a sense of collective relief that we were in Uganda, with food and beds waiting for us far away from airports and aeroplane food.

Amongst the people, seemingly patrolling the beach, were flocks of awkward looking marabou storks. These birds are the complete antithesis of Uganda’s national bird, the grey crested crane. They look like a cross between vultures and sunburnt old men, and caused excitement and fear in equal measure amongst the group of students.

As I went to check on the status of the drinks order, I saw the form of a woman hiding behind a large pair of geek glasses. It was my long-time Twitter contact Evelyn Masaba who I’d had to call upon to chase the manager of our accommodation after they’d taken too long responding to my emails.

As I walked closer I saw that she was deep in discussion, to put it politely, with the security guard at the gate. She clearly wasn’t in the mood to hand over her ID card when she’d never been asked to before. Although she is shorter than both the security guard and me, she struck a certain degree of fear into both of us as she made her case.

Once the group’s drinks were finally sorted, Evelyn and I headed to the bar away from the main group and ordered Tonic water – the sense of which only dawned on me later when I remembered that a key ingredient in it is quinine, a chemical used to treat malaria.

There’s always the risk when you first meet someone in person that after the initial phatic talk and general jibber-jabber calms down, the awkwardness will creep in. Luckily this wasn’t the case.

She was an amusing character and took the time to enquire about my life in the UK, to translate the Ugandan news for me and to punctuate all of this with gentle mockery of me and my mzungu ways.

The only element of awkwardness came when she pointed out that the staff would likely compare us to all of the black women with white men sat around the grounds of the resort.

Sure enough, in various parts of the gardens and corners of the bar there were middle-aged white men sat with young Ugandan women; wine flowing and food being ignored in favour of tactile demonstrations of mutual affection. It was hard not to make certain assumptions, but equally none of my business.

After what amounted to just a brief hour, the group started to congregate ready to take the bus back to the hostel.

I walked Evelyn to her boda-boda and asked, “Surely you’re not going to take that all the way back, are you?”

“No,” she replied. This time she chose to travel back to Kampala in the relative luxury of a matatu.

I waved goodbye, boarded the bus and Brian drove us back for a much-needed night of food, Sister Act 2 and sleep.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #3: Hurry Up and Wait

Behind schedule and back down to earth in Entebbe.
Thursday 2nd April 2015 - 3pm

For the second year running the connecting Ethiopian Airlines plane was late leaving Addis Ababa. This year the delay occurred as a result of Yemeni airspace being closed because of Saudi Arabian airstrikes against Houthi rebel positions.

Having been lured into a false sense of security, sat around drinking buna with Jas in a haze of frankincense smoke, a call went out: “could all passengers for flight ET330 to Entebbe please board the plane.”

Gripped by a sudden sense of panic, we rushed to get through security and onto the plane, gathering students as we went, only to find we were not the last to reach the plane. After around fifteen minutes sat on the tarmac, a swathe of Ugandan passengers boarded. 

I was sat writing in my journal, all the time being rhythmically elbowed by the woman in the seat next to me, when the man the other side of me started shouting, “Why haven’t you taken that man’s walking stick? It is a potential weapon!”

The old man in question hardly looked physically able enough to cause any real trouble with his stick and the Ethiopian air stewardess stood looking nonplussed. The man repeated himself a little louder and finally the stewardess acquiesced and took it away from the old man.

I understood his sentiments. I think.

After a few more minutes of writing, the man next to me took hold of his sick bag and wrote on it, “Where are you from?”

“London,” I replied audibly, not wanting to get into a strange written exchange. “And you?”

“I am a Ugandan,” he said proudly, “but I am travelling from Sudan.”

“South Sudan?”

“No, from Khartoum. I am working for the United Nations there. I am a trained engineer in water and irrigation projects, and I’ve been working for the UN for seven years.”

The whole time that he was talking, he wrote down key facts like “Sudan” and “7 years” on to the sick bag; a strange form of subtitling. 

I asked him where in Sudan he works.

“Darfur,” he answered. It is a name that for many months back in 2003 filled news bulletins because of vicious attacks by the Janjaweed militia and the resulting rise in internally displaced people. 

As with so many other stories the media seemed to forget about it and moved on to new stories, taking the spotlight of attention away whilst people in the region continued to suffer.

I asked him what Darfur is like now.

“It is in a state of relative peace,” he answered, “but it is unpredictable. You can never be sure what will happen. I work there for six weeks at a time, protected by guards, then have a week off. You are never really sure how stable things will remain while you are there.”

I enquired about whether he has a family.

“I have a wife and two young boys,” he said, showing me some pictures of two cheeky-looking little boys posing next to a shiny new motorbike.

“Do they not worry for you?”

“Sure, but the pay is good and means that I will always be able to afford the best for them. If I worked in Uganda doing a similar job, it would not be the same.”

Eric, as I discovered his name was when I saw his official UN passport, is a good travelling companion. He waxed lyrical on topics ranging from corruption, to infrastructure and small businesses, often punctuating the conversation with critiques of the pilot’s flying style.

In no time at all, albeit one hour late, we arrived in Entebbe.

Upon disembarkation there was a new form to fill; the Ebola screening form. We then moved on to have our temperatures checked by what looked like a small white handgun before heading to immigration.

Here, almost as expected, two students were selected to be ‘screened’. Huda and Idil, both girls of Somali descent, were asked to wait in a separate area.

Armed with a full range of documents, I went with them to wait. Tash joined us and we presented the relevant documents to prove that the two girls are A level students, under-18 and that we were legally obliged to stay with them.

Our friendly yet truculent manner panicked the guards and immigration officers. They argued that they were just doing their jobs and then argued with each other over who could fill the forms in the quickest.

Their supervisor came over and said, “Get it done and get them out of here.”

He was clearly worried that our being there might expose something that the immigration service weren’t keen about us knowing, or simply that it might look bad.

When we were done, Tash asked, “What is the criteria for selection? Age? Place of birth? Name?”

One man answered, “Just understand it is a procedure. It is random. You don’t have to worry.”

I pointed out that I’d been to Uganda seven times and by the law of averages I should have been selected for screening by now.

A second man smiled. He knew what we were getting at.

“Sometimes it is best not to ask,” he said. “Different people have different profiles.”

That said it all really.

We proceeded to baggage reclaim, explaining to the girls that their first experience of being racially-profiled should be considered a learning experience. I think they understood this, even if it wasn't the perfect way to arrive.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #2: The Way Home

Pictures of aeroplanes aren't fun, so here's some fabric in Kabale Market.
Wednesday 1st April 2015 - 11.30pm

With the plane finally in the air around 9.30pm, the opportunity to relax finally came about. I was sat in the middle aisle of seats on a row with Raman and Fabio; behind me were Suweyda, Hannah and Idil.

It was interesting to talk to Suweyda and hear about how she is currently getting on at college. She made quite an impression on my student teacher, Nimah, and I last year. She had a most impressive aptitude for being late to lessons on a Monday morning and somehow getting away with it by using ‘Puss-in-Boots’ eyes in the style of the character from Shrek.

Aside from her school life, she couldn’t help but talk about recent events in the news concerning aviation, namely the crash of the German Wings flight over the Alps.

As she was going through the amateur dramatics of ‘what if it happens to us’ scenarios, a white woman with a Southern African cut in with, “you’ve just about as much chance of being hit whilst crossing the road.” 

Of course the woman was right, but there is nothing quite like a bit of Crucible-style hysteria to spark a teenager into life from time to time.

I got talking to the woman who, it turns out, was Zimbabwean. I go into my usual preamble about never having been, but that my father had lived as a boy in Zambia and had visited the country then known as Rhodesia.

After being raised in Zimbabwe and then having kids there she eventually decided to follow in her daughter’s footsteps and move to the UK. She has now been living in the Scotland for 10 years.

Dozing against the woman was a youngish child. Her grandson. For the duration of our conversation the boy didn’t move once, despite him using his grandmother’s side as a pillow. 

They were travelling for a visit to family members who the little one had yet to meet. She was, for the most part, positive about her return and the Zimbabwe that was awaited her.

“When you’re in the town, Kwekwe, it could be like you are in any other town in Southern Africa,” she started. “It’s just when you head out into the countryside that the situation can become more dangerous or edgy. But, in many ways, that is like anywhere in the world.”

I asked her how stable the economy was now for your average Zimbabwean and whether the Zimbabwean dollar was coming back soon.

“Well, we have some dollar bills for use just in Zimbabwe,” she replies, “but it’s still effectively the US dollar. 

“As for the economy, let’s put it this way: if you want a whole 200 box of cigarettes you’re talking about paying the same price as a single pack in the UK, but something like a flat-screen TV is up to $1000 at times.”

“Really?” I ask a little shocked. “Isn’t it typical that, despite the state of the economy, you can still kill yourself by smoking yourself to oblivion?”

“Yes, but at least there aren’t queues for bread any more,” she says.

I’m enjoying our chat about Zimbabwe when the drinks trolley comes along and blocks our conversation. When the trolley finally disappears, she goes back to reading her book and I contemplate getting some sleep, if only Suweyda would stop trying to discuss aviation disasters.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #1: Running for Departures

A focused approach to packing is the foundation of a good trip.
Wednesday 1st April 2015 - 9.30pm

Having Parents’ Evening for the toughest year group isn’t the ideal preparation for flying out anywhere let alone Uganda. Only my relative experience in making this journey allowed me to be as calm as I was.

At 6.05pm I finished talking to the last parent only for my lift, a science teacher at my new workplace, to get drawn into discussion with another parent. I took this opportunity to change out of my work clothes and pack her car ready for the trip to the airport.

By 6.15pm we were on the road and making moderate progress over the Hammersmith flyover and through the west London evening traffic. As a newcomer to Fulham Cross, it was nice talking to a member of staff who’d been there for twenty or so years. Having just switched workplace, twenty years’ service seems a long way off, and a rather unrealistic target.

The rest of the group had gone through the check-in procedure by the time that I arrived at Heathrow and check-in was closing within the hour. Give or take the ‘streamlining’ of Terminal 2, whereby you do most of the work yourself – printing baggage labels and scanning passports – before you queue up and someone sends your bags off to the plane, the process was smooth, if a little edgy time-wise.

I finally caught up with the group near the gate after spotting the golden glint of Jen’s hair. They’d all had the time to eat and amble through the duty free; I arrived at the gate a little flustered, out of breath and hungry, having had just enough time to purchase two Fantas, a new Moleskine notebook and a packet of crisps.

The group were all there; familiar faces and newer ones. Former students of mine: Khadija, Amal and Suweyda; new William Morris students: Abirna, Sina, Idil, Huda, Hannah and Molly. Making up the staff contingent were: Tash, Jas, Jen, Raman, Fabio, Tamera and friend of [the All Our Children chairperson] Liz’s called Sarah.

Getting to the airport on time for the 9pm flight was a job in itself, but having successfully got this far the enkuto eratukura or ‘red roads’ of Uganda seemed so much closer.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Voyage of Sir Francis Drake Around the Whole Globe by Richard Hakluyt

Cover image © Penguin.
To celebrate the 80th Anniversary of Penguin books, the publisher has released a selection of 80 ‘Little Black Classics’ for a tiny 80p each. After being greeted by a wall of them in the Islington Green branch of Waterstones, I was sold on the concept and bought a load.

The first book to catch my attention was The Voyage of Sir Francis Drake Around the Whole Globe by Richard Hakluyt. The book contains two narratives of maritime journeys.

The eponymous account tells the story of Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the world between 1577 and 1580. The story that is told, in many respects, is void of any great detail, but it is apparent that what you’re in fact reading is a form of propaganda extolling the virtues of English maritime exploration and belittling the Spanish at every opportunity. 

Ultimately, the whole circumnavigation of the globe takes meagre twenty or so pages, and, other than providing a few interesting details about coconuts and the colonisation of Nova Albion (a settlement in modern-day California), it is over too soon.

Perhaps more interesting, mainly for the extra detail it affords the modern reader, is the snappily titled Prosperous voyage of the worshipful Thomas Candish of Trimley in the County of Suffolk Esquire, into the South Sea, and thence round about the circumference of the whole earth, begun in the year of our Lord 1586, and finished 1588.

Thomas Cavendish was a privateer, a sort of state-approved pirate, who was granted permission by the Crown to attack enemy ships and colonies. His voyage was the first to purposefully try and follow the  earlier journey of Drake.

Hakluyt’s accounts of his captain's interactions with various indigenous peoples in South America, skirmishes with Spanish colonists and then trading during a stay in Java are perhaps the most engaging moments in what is another whirlwind story of round the world travel.

The detailed moments of description do evoke a sense of excitement for the maritime and global discovery of the past; descriptions such as: 
“There are also in this garden fig-trees which bear continually, also pompions, melons, cucumbers, radishes, rosemary, and thyme, with many other herbs and fruits. At the other end of the house there is also another orchard, where grow oranges sweet and sour, lemons, pomegranates, and limes, with divers other fruits.”
It is hard to imagine a time where there were genuinely parts of the earth that were only partially discovered and barely understood, and what Hakluyt does, albeit with great brevity, is bring that moment to life.

For more information about Richard Hakluyt visit: http://www.hakluyt.com/
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