Samantha Maw is an English Lecturer living in Lincoln (England). She has recently completed her MA in Creative Writing and is a member of Lincoln Creative Writers, Women in the Arts Lincoln, and Outspoken Poets. She performs at local Spoken Word events and is a regular contributor for The Blue Nib Literary Journal.
Fried Locusts and Whimsical Musings
As time wore on, I was becoming more used to my surroundings, and I slipped into a sort of contented lull punctuated by occasional frustrated outbursts. My pasty white skin was turning an attractive shade of brown walking to and from school, and my thighs were becoming more muscle and less chapati. I felt like I had been teleported from a sterile, grey, concrete world into one that was technicoloured and heaving, an onslaught of sounds and smells.
Although advised to be choosy about the food I bought off street vendors, there were some tempting options. The fried meat on skewers was a no-go area, but the banana pancakes and Rolex were a constant temptation. In Uganda, a Rolex is a mixture of fried eggs, tomatoes, onions and cabbage rolled up in a flatbread (not an overpriced gold watch given to a retired civil servant). Fried locusts were a popular favourite. These were sold in great big plastic tubs, sprinkled with sugar. I couldn’t bring myself to try them because I have this thing about eating something with the eyes attached.
I grew to love the people I shared my daily existence with. I was touched by their cheerful confidence and an attitude that lifted them beyond their circumstances. This was evident in how they interacted with each other. It wasn’t unusual to see both women and men holding hands, chatting and laughing excitedly or just swinging arms companionably. No one seemed to be lonely.
Apart from one lady.
I saw her dressed in rags, calluses all over her feet, walking up and down Entebbe Road every day with a huge bundle of sheets on her head. She didn’t look very well and must have limped miles in the sun each day. She would call out to people as they passed; I greeted her once, and she started yelling at me angrily. She persisted as I picked up speed in front of her and it really put the wind up me.
"Don't worry; she's a crazy person." Imla tried to reassure me.
“I just wanted to be polite.”
“Bless you and your naïve British ways.”
I didn’t speak to the lady again after that.
Another common sight was small children carrying large jerry cans full of water; leaning to one side with the weight. While walking up a particularly steep slope one day, I offered to relieve a small child of her overflowing can and was horrified at the weight of it when she passed it over. She ran off ahead with some other children, and I dragged the damn thing as far as I could before I was forced to stop and catch my breath. The others looked back and laughed, and the girl ran back, took it off me, and returned to her friends like it weighed nothing at all.
“That was embarrassing. Why are you telling people about that?”
"I don't know – it just popped into my head, and I thought I'd share it."
“I think you should just get on with your attempt at whimsical description.”
“Whimsical? I am aiming for otherworldly…ethereal…”
Now, where was I?
Dogs and Diplomatic Relations
The law of the road appeared to be: if anything was bigger than you, then you got out of the way. You had to keep your wits about you as there were no footpaths unless you went into the city. Usually, you would be warned by a fair amount of honking and shouting, but you couldn't guarantee it. The Boda drivers could be carrying any sort of load; nothing seemed off limits. One day a man passed on a bike with some 9-foot metal pipes tied crossways on the seat, which of course took up the whole road. I was inches away from being felled and knocked unconscious. When I did throw myself onto the grassy bank at the last minute, the driver laughed. I shook my fist and shouted something unladylike, again, beginning with F.
“You need to work on your diplomatic relations,” Imla commented as I brushed the dirt off my knees.
Perhaps saying I was beginning to love those I shared my daily existence with was too much of a generalisation.
I certainly didn’t grow to love the maid next door.
She was really starting to get to me. It began over the dogs.
Her employees owned two Alsatians. Tarkan's house had been burgled one night while he was away and the dogs had been brought on site as a deterrent. The dogs were locked up during the hours of daylight in a small wooden kennel with a tin roof at the bottom of the garden. The first night they came, they were tied up outside my house for some reason and kept me awake with their howling. I eventually moved into the spare room at the back in an attempt to get some sleep. Because there was no furniture in it, I had to construct a fort of pillows and chairs with the mosquito net draped over like a tent. If I had been eleven, this would have been great fun. As an adult, I tried to curl up inside the makeshift tent and woke up with several bites and a stiff neck. I learnt later that the dogs were called Tiger and Pakalast, and that they were extremely friendly. I grew very fond of them.
The maid was responsible for their care, but she ignored them most days and forgot to give them food and water. When she did feed them, it seemed like it was the contents of the rubbish bin. The small amount of food available was not only rotten but full of tissues and bits of plastic.
I complained to the husband, but he didn’t take it very well. I was told not to interfere and from then on when the maid saw me it was clear she had taken offence. She took any opportunity to accost me. I popped out to the communal bin by the gate one day and picked up one of the new black bags that had been left that morning by the waste collection men.
She ran out of the house like a banshee.
"You leave Muzungu!! You leave that!" she screamed, and I dropped the bag, startled.
“That is mine! You cannot take!”
I stepped back from the bin and raised my hands like a thief caught in the act.
When the couple was at work, she played music so loud that it made the crockery in my cupboards rattle. I started off by going over and asking her to turn it down, but she gave me the look of death and shut the door on me. I wanted to punch her square in the face, but I settled for turning up my own music as loud as it would go on the laptop, which proved overwhelmingly ineffective. Sometimes I even banged on the wall with the broomstick like a grumpy pensioner.
All this made things very awkward later on when I got really sick, and she ended up looking after me.
All The World’s a Stage
Teacher Rose was a tall, slim lady in her twenties who always wore a very smart dress and six-inch stiletto heels. Bear in mind the school campus was a landscape of trip hazards - even some of the classrooms had large looming holes in the floor. I managed to fall over every few minutes in my sensible flats. I admired how she negotiated the paths with ease. Her days were long; she lived on the other side of the city with her mother and was a single parent. She had to get up before five to catch the bus to work and didn't get home until after ten – six days a week. She was always exhausted, but the situation wouldn't be changing for her any time soon, so she stoically got on with it.
I was due to take over a couple of Rose’s RE lessons, and the syllabus was taken from an old student`s exercise book that she worked through bit by bit.
“Teacher Samantha, before you take it, wait!” she said, then she spent some time making a cover from the wrapping off a ream of photocopier paper. “It will keep it in good condition.”
The drama teacher, Julius, was a small, enthusiastic man who had some disruptive students in his class. He handled these with great patience. Back in the U.K, when people said, `It must be nice to teach students who want to learn`, I agreed to a certain point. At the College yes, most students wanted to learn, but like anywhere, there were exceptions.
“What are we doing today, Teacher?” a well-developed young girl with long braids in her hair shouted as she entered the room during the first of Julius’s lessons that I attended. She was chewing gum with her mouth open as she spoke, and Teacher Julius paused at the interruption.
“There’s one to watch!” Imla grunted.
“Good morning Namazzi – you are late,” he said calmly.
Namazzi didn't respond, but fist pumped the other five girls in the class and started telling them she had been in trouble with the matron. Teacher Julius tried to carry on teaching in his soft, enthusiastic voice and I was desperate to intervene, but I bit my lip and just watched. I learnt later that the name Namazzi meant a soothing calmness. The irony was not lost on me.
Ray Charles wasn’t offered a fist pump. Ray was a reticent and dedicated student who drew lots of flourishes on his work as the teacher was talking.
“Ray Charles! He’s called Ray Charles!” Imla screamed with delight.
“Did you know you share your name with a famous musician?” I said to him excitedly when we spoke later.
“Yes,” he said abruptly and carried on doodling, not impressed.
I moved away slowly, singing Hit the Road Jack under my breath.
My first two lessons with that particular class went quite well. They were used to a lot of theory, so it took a while to draw them out. We started with a few warm-up games and did some simple improvisation. I realised that I had to slow my speech down significantly and simplify it, as although they all spoke some level of English, they were from different parts of Uganda and beyond and were struggling with my accent.
One girl, Miremba, was frowning furiously and it put me a little on edge. In England, if someone frowns or has a straight face when you are addressing them, it maybe implies they don't like you, or they are bored. In Uganda, the straight face was the norm, and I needed to fight the urge to break out in song or tap dance on the table to get a smile out of them. It's one of my character flaws; I've always used humour to deflect awkward situations. I did try to crack some embarrassingly bad dad jokes in lessons to start with but moved swiftly on when it wasn’t having any effect. I learnt very quickly that English pun jokes weren't very relevant to African teens.
My first maid, Winnie, came highly recommended. I called her my `cleaner` as the word maid didn't come easily to me. She was polite, slight and pretty and had black hair that she tucked behind her ears. She had boundless energy and would refuse my offers of tea, cake and a sit-down. She came on a weekday while I was at College and when I arrived home, dusty and bedraggled, I enjoyed going from room to room surveying the sparkly-ness (yes, I know it's not a real word).
Then later, when I moved to a new house, it was too far for Winnie to travel so I took on a lady called Amara, a friend’s sister. It was Amara’s first cleaning job, but very quickly she became Uganda's answer to Super-Woman. Amara was in her mid-thirties and had four children she was supporting on her own. She was a committed Muslim and was always covered from head to foot, although her face remained visible. I ended up hiring her four days a week, and she hand-washed my clothes (not my underwear – that was my job), hung my washing out on the line, did the pots, scrubbed every inch of the flat clean, washed down the veranda and the back porch and boiled up some rice and beans for supper.
When we first met, she spoke very little English, but over the months we grew very close. When I got home from work, we would sit and have tea, and we would share our news. We would make each other laugh with silly stories and remonstrate over the men in our past who had mistreated us.
“He was Katala!” Amara would say, shaking her finger up and down. ”He was bad...stupid...had no brains!”
"Yes, Katala!" I would repeat enthusiastically.
“Samantha, you find me a nice English gentleman who is not Katala!”
“Sorry Amara, many of them are Katala also.”
“Ehhh?” she would look at me suspiciously, “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure!” I would say, nodding vigorously.
“Then they are all the same!”
We would laugh with satisfaction at our considered evaluation of the male species and boil the kettle for some more tea.
When I visit Kampala these days, Amara and her sister are always the first people I look up. All three of us remain single.
If I came out of my compound and turned left up the hill, I would pass the Blessed Furniture Centre, the Trust God Beauty Salon and the Tesco Driving School. Outside the Tesco driving school, there would be a very battered, rusty Toyota Corolla with a wheel missing. It leant precariously towards the ditch, but a sign on the roof still claimed proudly claimed that my safety was their priority.
If I continued walking, I would reach a small carpenter's workshop. Here you could get solid wood made-to-order furniture for what seemed to me an absolute steal. I had recently drawn a vague cartoon-like picture of a desk with three lockable drawers, handed it over, and the carpenter had nodded encouragingly.
It took him about a week to make, and Frank offered to help me transport it home for me. I was happy to discover that my complete lack of spatial awareness was shared by all three men taking part in this ambitious exercise; Frank, the carpenter and his apprentice. The desk was indeed a beautiful piece of work but was a fair size, and I watched for about ten minutes as the three men tried to fit it into the back of the van. They removed the drawers, tried to lift it in at several angles, chipped bits off it in the process, and then when it dawned on them it wouldn't fit it took them ten minutes to get it out again.
The scene had a Laurel and Hardy feel about it and attracted the attention of most of the village children, who had gathered on the grass verge beside me. They were yelling instructions, and at one point a naked child was running around holding one of the drawers aloft, laughing with delight.
We went home defeated.
Some days later Frank delivered the enormous desk in a pick-up. It was a thing of great beauty; lovingly handmade to my specifications with a top that sloped in the middle and one leg that was shorter than the other three. I had made a desk tidy out of cereal packets ready for the occasion and placed it in the top left corner of the desk with a sigh of satisfaction. It was beginning to feel like home.
Fish Eyes and Fancies
"I work hard so that one day I can leave this place and set up my own school," Teacher Julius was telling me one day, over a plate of rice and beans. "Teacher Samantha, what is your dream?"
"My dream has always been to teach in Africa, and here I am!” I said enthusiastically.
He stopped eating and stared hard at me, his fork suspended in the distance between plate and mouth.
"Your dream is to work here?"
It's all relative, I wanted to tell him. But all I said was, "Yes."
"Well,” he said, once he had processed his thoughts, “We are happy to have you!”
"And I am happy to be here," I said, tucking into my porridge.
And I was.
We were in the Home Economics room. This was in the main reception block underneath the large dining room upstairs. It had an oversized metal door that looked like it should have been attached to a very old shed, and it creaked on rusty hinges. The room doubled up as a staff area, and it was where we had our break and lunch. The age-worn wooden desks with their mottled iron legs stood at odd angles in a U shape, and lunch was served in huge round barrels. Drinks were served in large plastic red and white flasks with religious motifs on them. You could have milky sweet tea or tea masala (black tea with sugar and spices). Freshly squeezed orange and passion fruit juice was also on offer. At break, there were cold boiled eggs, doughnuts, bread and butter or banana pancakes. On some days there was also millet porridge served in mugs (a little bit like wallpaper paste, but quite filling).
At lunch, the barrels would contain plain rice, beans, matoke,posho, g-nut sauce, chapatis and on alternate days chicken, beef or fish. Illogically, I have always been scared of fish, and because the Tilapia came pretty much intact (including the eyes), Fish Day was a struggle for me. I would settle for rice and beans, but my colleagues would surround me with their beady-eyed dinner looking at me menacingly.
"You're missing out!" they would say, "the eyes are the best part!"
And as they scooped the eyeballs out of the head with a teaspoon, I felt a little green around the gills myself. The chicken would come in large pieces – looking too much like the real thing. Legs, feet, neck, head; it all went in. The beef was stuck fast onto shards of white bone. You had to wrestle it off with fingers and teeth and juice would flood down your chin. Then you would spend the rest of the day prizing pieces of meat from various corners of your mouth. For dessert there would often be huge slices of watermelon, pineapple or avocado, freshly picked from the plant the day before and utterly delicious.
The kitchen was next to the Home Economics room. Fires burnt under industrial sized pans and staff in blue stirred the pans with equally large wooden spoons. It was always very dark and hot in the kitchen and a stifling fog obscured the inhabitants from view. It was only for cooking; the washing up was done outside in cold water by the students, not far from the toilets. It wasn’t unusual for there to be an outbreak of food poisoning across the campus from time to time. In fact, what with the sporadic power and the lack of hot running water at home and at school, it was an inevitable part of the initiation process, as I was later to discover.
Disclaimer & Acknowledgements
I have tried to recreate events, locales and conversations from my memories of them. In order to maintain anonymity, I have changed the names of individuals and places. I may have changed some identifying characteristics and details such as physical properties, occupations and places of residence. I have also, on occasion, over dramatised actual events for your reading pleasure.
The College mentioned has gone from strength to strength over recent years and currently enjoys an excellent reputation. It offers an impressive range of local and international qualifications and a modern, high-tech learning environment. It was an absolute pleasure to be part of the team, and I learnt much more than I taught anyone else during my time there. I will always be profoundly grateful for the experience and Uganda itself has contributed greatly to the person I am now.