Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Hallowe'en Party by Agatha Christie

Cover image © HarperCollins.
The good thing about Agatha Christie is that there seems to be a book for every possible season, location or eventuality. With the sudden coming on of autumn in the UK, with the yellowing leaves falling and a crispy chill rising in the air, one of her later novels, Hallowe'en Party (1969), seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

This isn't your normal Halloween story though. Instead it seems like quite a typical Agatha Christie mystery, but with the simple fact that it all begins with what should be an innocuous game of bobbing for apples on Halloween. In fact, there is nothing more supernatural than the presence of a local woman who plays the part of the witch at the party.

The novel starts when crime novelist Ariadne Oliver, one time friend of Hercule Poirot, is staying with her friend, Judith Butler, in Woodleigh Common and is twittering away whilst all of the others are preparing for a children’s Halloween party.

During the preparation, a slightly annoying and arrogant teen, Joyce, declares that she has witnessed a murder. Naturally, no one is inclined to believe her considering her reputation for telling lies, or should that be, embellishing the truth.

Later that evening, whilst most of the children are in a different room with the snapdragon, Joyce is drowned in a galvanized iron bucket used for apple bobbing in the library.

Convinced that there must be more to this mystery than meets the eye, and in a mild state of hysteria, Mrs Oliver contacts Poirot at his London flat. What unfolds is a story that has a certain degree of complexity that not only deals with the immediate aftermath of the murder of Joyce, but also links to a couple of dark episodes from Woodleigh Common’s more recent past.

The story draws on many typical themes and characters of the English country mystery: a suspect final will and testament, a few outsiders (the nature of whose personalities are unknown), a mysterious disappearance, and a tightly knit community where everyone knows, and is possibly involved in, everyone else’s business.

Perhaps symptomatic of the times, and what makes this an interesting read, is that the novel seems to have a very different set of concerns to those of some of the earlier Poirot novels. The concerns of a modern world catching up with an aging author maybe.

References are made, at various points of the narrative, to: homosexuality, madness, care in the community of those with psychological problems, social deviance, and the loss of society’s moral compass amongst juveniles. It’s hard to decipher what Christie’s opinion is on the more permissive society of the 1960s, but you get the sense it might not be wholly positive.

Ariadne Oliver, playing the function of the detective's sidekick throughout the novel, is definitely not as entertaining a character as Hastings, but could be considered as the nearest thing to Christie actually writing herself into one of her novels, albeit satirically. As far as supporting characters go, she also definitely lacks the nouse of Jason Rafiel, who assists Miss Marple in A Caribbean Mystery.

Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen: a very atmospheric Halloween experience.

Halloween Party is twisty enough to keep the ‘little grey cells’ warm and doesn’t necessarily unfold in the manner one would predict, but maybe lacks the atmosphere and precision of her earlier novels. As The Toronto Daily Star put it, back in 1969, “Poirot seems weary and so does the book.” Robert Barnard, perhaps more bluntly says, “It is littered with loose ends, unrealised characters, and maintains only a marginal hold on the reader's interest.”

Overall, as mysteries go, it is a decent read, but not as tense as its name might suggest, or as this reader had hoped for.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #12: Progress and Paint Marks

"Abazungu": Arriving under the watchful eye of a quartet of children.
Thursday 9th April 2015 - 9.30pm

Today was the day for me take the lead in a teaching and learning project. 

During Monday’s meeting, I had planned to try and work with Jonan, the head teacher at New Foundation Primary School on the Katuna Road in Kabale. The focus was to be on the coaching model that I had been using since moving to Fulham Cross, all with the aim of trying to improve the quality of teaching.

I had also arranged for Suweyda to run an Art session with a different class whilst I was with Jonan. 

Along with Huda, Molly and Sina, we headed over in a special hire to be greeted by a tidal wave of children chanting “abazungu” rhythmically at us through the gaps in the wooden fence.

New Foundation has a sprawling site set back from the recently re-laid road to the border with Rwanda. At regular intervals, large trucks, flanked by boda-bodas, would cough and splutter their way along, mingling their urban fumes with the early morning whisps of soft eucalyptus wood smoke from small fires that usually lend the area a more rural feel.

After some preliminary discussions, and the obligatory signing of the visitors’ book, I headed off to class P5 with Jonan and sat at the back of teacher James’ English class.

Sat with a good vantage over the whole classroom, it was clear that there was a large discrepancy between the ages of the students enrolled in P5. Some students were the expected age, but there were also a group of boys clearly in their mid-teens.

Often, if there are problems for a family in raising funds for scholastic equipment and uniform, there can be a delay in students starting their education despite the fact that Universal Primary Education means that all students, theoretically, have a place at any state primary school. Furthermore, pressures within a family may mean that a child is expected to work or support their family somehow. There are no attendance officers calling home to investigate.

Either way, this reality, where free education still isn’t necessarily free, can result in gaps in a child’s education meaning it isn’t that unusual for a 14-year-old to end up at the back of a primary school class.

As the school has been working with members of All Our Children over the years, namely Grigorios, the lesson that James had prepared was in fact quite inventive and involved group work techniques and role-play, both often absent in such large classes. It meant that, in my seventh visit, I was in many ways seeing the strongest student engagement in the learning environment to date.

After twenty minutes, keen not to cause James to panic about being too closely scrutinised, I suggested to Jonan that we left the room, thanking the teacher on the way out.

Whilst James continued his lesson, I talked Jonan through the basics of the GROW coaching model. It was safe to say that his natural enthusiasm for developing his small school meant that he was receptive to everything we discussed. Most importantly to me, he seemed to really enjoy the fact that coaching is best used as a constructive, rather than critical, approach to staff development – not a tool for monitoring or performance management.

Working with a consultant at Fulham Cross, I have worked on developing how I use my questioning to help coachees to deconstruct their own teaching, rather than me trying to impart my eight years of ‘wisdom’. With this is mind, I ran through a few scenarios with Jonan modelling the digging deeper approach of gently probing questions. We set a date for the feedback with James to take place shortly after morning break the following day.

Conscious that I had left Suweyda in charge of an art project with a large group of children usually run by teacher with nearly 20 years’ experience, I went over to investigate what was happening on the playing field. 

Expecting to see paint and paper strewn everywhere and the four WMSF students cowering in the corner, I was pleasantly surprised to find a hive of purposeful industry with only a few paint marks visible on hijabs and abayahs

Across the width of the field a line was hung up and all the various prints that the students had been working on for the last hour or so were pegged on it to dry. Every imaginable shape and design was attempted: Africa, Uganda, cars, Ankore cattle, houses and accidental back-to-front writing.

With the sun beginning to break out from behind the thick Kabale mist, and lunchtime beckoning, we said our goodbyes and headed back to the road to where our taxi driver had recently returned. 

Late that afternoon we got involved in what is fast becoming an annual custom: throwing the WMSF girls into mixed basketball teams with the well-drilled and well-trained girls of Kigezi High School. This year, the match was a closely run thing between the two teams and the reluctant west London ladies soon let the adrenaline take over and put up a good showing despite their fatigue from a busy morning. The coach even offered to sign a few of them, but couldn’t guarantee meeting their wage demands.

The night was a quiet one, spent at the hotel, with a few rounds of Waragi and tonic shared along with some improvised music courtesy of Tamera.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Like a Wilting Flamboyant

Looking down from Blanchard towards the Atlantic Sea, Saint Lucia.
On Thursday 17th September 2015 I took a group of girls from Year 9 to the First Story Young Writers' Festival at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University. The First Story project partners schools with a published writer who then leads a group of students in creating an anthology.

The event saw poetry performances from Caroline Bird, Anthony Anaxagorou and Andy Craven-Griffiths (who all instantly gained new fans), a lunchtime Q&A with Sally Green and an afternoon workshop to develop their creativity.

Alongside this, the teachers are also given the opportunity to attend a workshop to get new inspiration for teaching creative writing. The session I attended was led by Dan Powell, who introduced a technique of free-writing whereby a word is called out, every thirty seconds or so, and has to be woven into whatever you're writing.

Here is my attempt, evoking memories of Saint Lucia.
The shack stood alone like a wilting flamboyant
Braced against the Atlantic winds
As they pushed
And jabbed against the remnants of the battered tin roof. 
Its foundations rocked and swayed as a series of gusts
Itched the landscape
And a thousand breaths floated up and away over Ti Rocher gap
To be consumed by the forests
Patiently waiting beyond the next hill.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #11: Conversations in Bugongi

Mist, fading sunshine and lens flare over the trees of Bugongi, Kabale.

Wednesday 8th April 2015 - 5pm

When lunch at Kigezi High School was over, I led the group down the precipitous hillside path, across the playing fields between the cows, and into the Bugongi area of Kabale. 

This area is still one that I know very little about, yet, every morning, it is the part of Kabale that I see emerging first from the mist as I look over my balcony at Green Hills Hotel. 

Its relatively enigmatic status, to your average mzungu at least, means that as an area I had no real judgement of the place, just the general assumption that this quater may be less well off than other areas of the town. Indeed, this was my first observation of the place in 2009 when William Blake’s mind came to my mind. 

I sent the group off towards the town in order to visit Royal Supermarket and I departed in a different direction to rendezvous with Liz to head to Phionah’s house along the Bugongi Road.

There are many small traders along the side of the road: ‘pork joints’, small bars and shops selling various oddments. Children were wandering along as they headed home. Boda-bodas rattled past over the rough red road, darting in between the slower moving bicycles and pedestrians. Livestock meandered aimlessy and freely amongst the myriad pathways and byways of the area. 

We reached a slightly newer row of shops and from behind a corrugate iron gate Phionah emerged. 

A few years back, Phionah had had to seriously face the prospect of being unable to attend University. As a result of not having been able to pay a certain administrative fee, money her parents didn’t have, she wasn’t allowed to have the official transcript of her Senior 6 results. Without this information, no university would accept her. 

In the end Liz, frustrated with the lunacy of the situation, paid off the fees meaning that she was finally accepted onto a nursing course at uni. 

A few years of studying and an internship later, Phionah now resides in Kampala along with a dentist and a pharmacist in a shared house – surely a perfect polyclinic waiting to happen

Her parents’ house was in a small compound set behind the row of shops and away from the road, although not the general noise of Bugongi. 

The house was dark, but comfortably furnished. We were introduced briefly to her mother who then returned to kitchen to talk to a younger member of the family. In true Ugandan style, Phionah had gone all-out to accommodate us; Fresh bananas, butter, bread and Nescafé coffee are all laid-out in front of us. 

We talked a lot about health and naturally, as is often the case in sub-Saharan Africa, the conversation turned to HIV/AIDS. 

“There are still many people being infected in Uganda,” Phionah answered to Liz’s question about the prevalence of new cases of AIDS in the country. “As time has gone on, the government has made anti-retrovirals (ARVs) available for free to those infected by HIV/AIDS.” 

“So why haven’t the numbers of people being infected fallen?” I asked. 

“Maybe people are getting too relaxed about the risks of infection. Perhaps, in the knowledge that there are ARVs available, some people just think to themselves, ‘It’s okay. If I get infected, then I can take ARVs and be okay’.” 

What is clear is that the detrimental effect socially on everyday life and family life is profound, with or without ARVs. 

“If one parent gets infected and the other one doesn’t then the relationship can be over,” Phionah continued. “Even though the partner may have been faithful, the trust can easily go as soon as one partner is diagnosed.” 

“The worst case scenario is that a woman is left alone with her child and with very little social support.” 

After finishing our coffee and bananas we made to leave. As we were doing so, we were greeted at the gate by a smartly dressed, softly-spoken gentleman, Enock; Phionah’s father. He was a jovial fellow and couldn’t help but beam with pride as Liz talked about his daughter’s successes in her nurse training. 

The noise from the Pentecostal Church next door had been slowly rising over the last few hours, but, just as we were leaving, the power cuts and the pastor was left voiceless. Liz raised a wry smile. 

Primary school children were heading home in throngs now and Liz, Phionnah and I were swept along in the unending flow of small life calling out ‘abazungu’ as they went. Phionah found it all rather amusing. 

We walked a little way before taking a right and then a left down a narrow alleyway. The alley lead past some smaller houses before gently descending. 

The path had been heavily eroded and more closely resembled an ephemeral river than a walkway. 

We emerged from the narrow path and into a small valley covered in tall eucalyptus trees. Here a small stream flowed into a concrete channel designed to facilitate water collection. 

After walking over a slender log doubling as a bridge, we started to ascend the other side. We climbed up a slippery red mud path, reaching the level of the tree tops and finally stepped out of this small green oasis and found ourselves at the gate of Green Hills. 

Shortly after our return to the United Kingdom we received the unfortunate news that Phionah’s father, Enock, had passed away on the 16th April. My one meeting with him, although brief, was enough for me to see that he was a gentle character who had a genuine abundance of pride in his daughter’s achievements.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Goldfinger by Ian Fleming

Cover image © Penguin Viking
With the occasional shadows of the clouds moving up the hillside from the Atlantic Ocean, my James Bond summer holiday reading continued this year in Blanchard, Saint Lucia. Sheltering from the occasional downpour, I settled down on the loggia to read Goldfinger (1959) by Ian Fleming – the seventh novel in the Bond series.

The novel opens with James Bond in the departure lounge at Miami Airport having just successfully dispatched with a Mexican heroine smuggling operation. Whilst musing on the dirty nature of his job, as Bond does so with increasing frequency through the first six books, he is approached by Junius Du Pont, a fellow gambler he’d met briefly in Casino Royale, to look into the Canasta playing of his playing partner. 

Auric Goldfinger seems to be on an inconceivably long winning streak and Bond, taking on this bit of private non-Secret Service work, soon discovers that, along with his assistant, Goldfinger is cheating Du Pont during each of their card games. It also doesn’t take long for Bond to have his first interaction with a member of the opposite sex – Goldfinger's assistant.

This chance meeting between Bond and Goldfinger sets the tone for the novel, sensibly divided into three sections: Happenstance, Coincidence and Enemy Action.

Upon his return to the UK, Bond is on night duty and decides to do a little digging into the Secret Service’s archives to see what can be found on Goldfinger. The files are empty, but, by coincidence, the following morning M calls Bond for a meeting. The Bank of England are concerned about the amount of gold being smuggled out of the country and there are no prizes for guessing who the prime suspect is.

The action moves forward to the fairways of a Kent golf course, continental Europe and eventually America, the location of Goldfinger’s exceptionally audacious planned gold heist.

The action in Goldfinger is, in many ways, a lot slower and more drawn-out compared to other more action-packed novels in the series such as Moonraker and From Russia With Love, but the character of James Bond is definitely explored in a greater level of detail. The time waiting at Miami Airport and on night duty does give the reader a greater insight into his thought process compared to other novels.

In the words of novelist Kate Mosse, “There is more doubt and something of Rider Haggard’s unglamorous Allan Quartermain than in the slap-bang-wallop superhero of some of the other Bond novels.”

Goldfinger is also the novel in which we meet the amusingly named Pussy Galore, leader of band of lesbian gangsters in America. There is something quite awkward about elements of Miss Galore’s inclusion in the story, not least the fact that Bond ends up ‘turning her’ in a very dated and misogynist perspective on sexuality, but, perhaps within late 50s British society this was the prevailing view.

All in all, I like the pensive, thoughtful 007, but I did miss the sweeping action set pieces and opulence of the earlier novels in the series.

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.”


“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
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