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Monday, November 22, 2010

What do we do when we’re not working?

The moon is full, no street lights obscure the impenetrable black sky and the cicadas’ steady descant rises high above the sound of the blues floating out through our French windows and across the wooded valley. Children’s voices rise and fall from next door and we can hear the faint thrum from the Pentecostal church down the hill.   Stuart is sitting on the balcony with a beer, doing nothing very useful or improving.  Every so often the askari  (guard) paces round the compound and we look down and wave.

Just another Sunday evening, warm and peaceful, with nothing much to do.  And what did we do for the rest of the weekend?  What do we ever do during our time off these days?  We don’t write any papers or edit any reports.  We don’t pack our bags for another week away working or read any background material for the next day’s inspection or meeting. 

Not that that means our working life is made up of five happy days of unadulterated pleasure.  The leader in Thursday’s New Vision included the encouraging words ‘the ministry’s schools inspectorate is not operational.  If the inspectorate were functioning effectively etc etc etc…’.  Well, it’s our job to try and make sure that it is, but transforming the inspectorate can be left until Monday.  

So, what do we do then when we are not working?

Well, we almost always go swimming at some point.  Just a few yards along the road from us is the Divine Providence Health Club, with a clean little pool, squash courts for upwardly mobile Ugandan business men, exercise classes which I ought to go to but don’t,  and a quiet undemanding atmosphere.

Divine Providence Health Club
Occasionally, if we feel like a taste of the ex-pat world, it’s off to the Kabira Club with its nice big pool, gym with intermittently functioning equipment and first-rate Indian food.  We hide among diplomatic families, off-duty UN officers and wealthy Ugandans, and pretend to be better bred than we really are.  A trip down to Entebbe brings us to the original Windsor Lake Victoria Hotel, frequented by a similar clientele, though with a higher proportion of NGOs like ourselves, and more Ugandans.  Here I regularly opt out of accompanying Stuart around the golf course and lie by the pool reading, a glass of fresh passion fruit juice in my hand. 

Windsor Lake Victoria poolside
And just a few yards away is a little patch of paradise: the Boma guesthouse, a wonderful discovery to which we will now take all our visitors.  This beautifully restored and furnished colonial villa has a lovely little pool, immaculate lawns shaded by high trees and excellent food. Golf and swimming over, we may wander by the lake or through the Botanical Gardens before tackling the road back and the traffic mayhem which awaits us on the streets of Kampala.

Stuart preparing himself for the Botanical Gardens

Lake Victoria itself, but no swimming - bilharzia!
Vervet monkeys in the Botanical Gardens

Botanical Gardens - rainforest where they shot the original Tarzan.  Note lianas.
In the last forty years, Uganda has grown from a country of five million to one of 33 million, many of its inhabitants making their way to Kampala.  Like Rome, the city originally occupied seven green wooded hills.  Greater Kampala’s twenty-odd hills are rapidly being swallowed up by corrugated iron-roofed shanties and smart villas and blocks of flats like our own.  The banana groves for which it was once famous are disappearing by the day.  In fact, we rather sadly noticed that the grassy field at the end of our road which is normally occupied by a couple of cows, some goats and a hen or two, has now been dug up and heaps of sand and brick indicate the imminent erection of another jerry-built building.  With its mad traffic, choked streets and smoking heaps of garbage, Kampala should be a dreadful place to live.  However, not being poor, workless or sick, we rather like it despite its flaws.

Kampala is home to Makerere University, with a reputation which extends well beyond Uganda’s borders, as well as a number of other universities and tertiary institutions, some more prestigious than others, to be sure.  It has the usual businesses and support services you would expect in a city, though they don’t always function very well, and is surprisingly well supplied with excellent and reasonably priced bookshops and other cultural enterprises.  Just as well, for we don’t have a television so we are reading more than ever before. 

There’s plenty to go to out of the house as well.  The National Theatre was founded shortly before independence in 1962.  Endowed by prominent members of the British and Asian populations, it has struggled in the past to make a name for itself as a centre for African creativity.  Nevertheless, it does put on some interesting theatre.  We saw the play Cooking Oil, which is this year’s winner of the BBC African Performance Playwriting Competition, about a teenage girl who illegally sells donated cooking oil to raise money for school fees.  Despite being slightly rough around the edges, the play asks some difficult questions about the impact of foreign aid, using song, dance and storytelling.   We also saw Uganda National Contemporary Ballet in Memories of Child Soldiers, back from its tour of Europe and East Africa.  And in case you think that all our theatre-going is about misery and death, we spent a most enjoyable evening with the Ndere Troupe, based just a mile or so from where we live.  These talented young people perform Ugandan dances to the accompaniment of indigenous instruments.  So, difficult as it may be for friends of Stuart to believe, it’s not all just golf and swimming. More’s the pity (SR).

Stuart preparing himself for the Ndere dance troupe

Musicians playing traditional instruments at Ndere

How many pots can you balance on your head at once?  Ndere dance troup
However, most enjoyable of all is an evening in the company of our VSO friends.  Our Fridays are often spent at one of Kampala’s excellent restaurants - Indian, Chinese or Italian – and a couple of times we have moved on to the Emin Pasha Hotel to listen to a wonderful Ugandan group called Quela.

Elisabeth preparing for Quela's performance at the Concert for Hope
The VSO crowd hold various celebrations as well, such as birthdays, farewell parties and so on.  We have become surprisingly sociable in our old age.  They are very good company.  We all have rather tricky and, for some of the group, upsetting, jobs to do so we share our frustrations and then just move on and enjoy ourselves.  So Friday night is still Friday night for us, though in open-air restaurants enjoying the balmy climate of Kampala rather than huddled inside away from the cold east wind of Auld Reekie.

Undugo family dancers at a VSO farewell party
Stuart had had plenty of preparation before he took part in this performance!
So that’s what we do when we’re not working.

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