Samantha Maw

A Lizard in my Bra: A Memoir


‘I love my wife, but she has an odour problem.’

I clutched the Red Pepper Newspaper in my sweaty, ink-stained fingers while travelling down the road from Entebbe airport towards Kampala. Travelling at lip-quivering speed and feeling somewhat fragile, I smiled at the bizarre article. Not only because it was a little too much information, but also because it reminded me that from now on my world had changed. Frank had met me in arrivals that morning with an energetic smile and a piece of crumpled cardboard reminding me who I was. 

            “Ah Teacher Samantha, you have reached! You are so welcome!”  

I had met Frank earlier that year when I had visited Asiimwe College of Excellence. He was a member of the ground staff and a genuinely good human being. The sort that was always around to solve any problem and make you feel better about life in general. However, at that particular time, even Frank’s jolly disposition couldn’t settle my nerves.  

I had visited Kampala 6 months previously with some friends who worked at the college, and they introduced me to the Principal. We had discussed the possibility of me teaching at the school for a few months, and after deciding to quit my job as a Secondary school R.E. Teacher in Lincolnshire, here I was, doing what I had always dreamed about. I was finally in Africa.

My anxiety threatened to get the better of me, but crying in front of Frank would confuse and probably alarm him, so I tried to focus on the article. `You must advise your wife that there will be no relations of a sexual nature unless she attends to her personal hygiene, ` Dr Dembe wrote.  I had been wearing the same clothes for more than 24 hours, and I smelt like a Baboon’s armpit. Clearly, there would be no relations of a sexual nature for me either. 

“I can’t believe you are finally here! I never thought you’d make it!” shouted inner-monologue-lady (does anyone else have one of those?). For word economy, she will henceforth be known as Imla. Imla and I go back a long way. She has always been quite feisty and to this day views herself and her commentary on my daily life as indispensable. I questioned her lack of confidence in me as Frank careered down the wrong side of the road to miss some cows. 

I had made it to Uganda all by myself, and this thought caused the panic to dissipate a little. Four thousand miles of dragging cases; being screened for illegal substances; enduring incomprehensible flight entertainment, eating processed food and making frequent trips to the toilet to sample the hand cream. Just a small travel tip for the uninitiated – never use the plane toilet without shoes. The floor was damp, and my socks became suspiciously moist. My naked thighs also experienced the horrors of a liberal toilet seat sprinkling.  

The journey had taken 24 hours, with a four-hour change-over in Dubai. Hours of being squashed between two blanket-covered human mountains. Every square inch of the plane was crammed tightly with bodies and luggage, and I had been allocated the dreaded middle seat. Moving any part of my body had been difficult, and because the blanket-mountains had slept the whole way, I found myself having to perform impressive acrobatics to reach the aisle. I was concerned one of them might wake up to see my butt in their face. The stress got to me at one point, and I choked on my Murray mint, swallowing it whole. As my airway began to close, I wondered if any of the flight attendants had performed the Heimlich Manoeuvre on a passenger before. Fortunately, the offending mint managed to dislodge itself without assistance, and I finally started to relax. 

The road from Entebbe to Kampala had a charming, reckless beauty that made my heart beat faster. It was covered in cavernous potholes and faded road markings, and the soil each side was a baked orange colour. Banana trees and palms nestled amongst small rustic shops and market stalls, created from corrugated tin sheeting and shipping containers. There was a hefty police presence; military pickup trucks parked up every mile or so with uniformed men brandishing automatic rifles. There were crowds of people moving between the traffic with cows and goats; chickens scattering noisily in all directions; barefooted children with babies on their backs shouting, “Hallo Muzungu!!”[1] and waving excitedly; countless scooters racing by with all sorts of seemingly impossible items stacked behind the rider: front doors; three-seater sofas; metres of lead piping; perplexed looking goats. 

This was the beginning of my great adventure. 


The Only Muzungu in the Village

 Two days later, after spending some time with the Principal and his family in his palatial house in the mountains, Frank dropped me off at my apartment in Mbuya. I had a couple of weeks to settle in before the term started. It was the middle apartment of three, and each one had a small front garden. Mine had a well-established avocado tree growing in front of a colonial-style veranda. The front door led into a white-tiled open living space, with some very elegant black metalwork furniture and an open plan kitchen area with space for a cooker and fridge. Down a small corridor on the right was the master bedroom; overshadowed by a set of dark heavy wooden built-in wardrobes, hanging at a bit of an angle. Off to the left was the main wet room, tiled from floor to ceiling, and the end of the corridor, there was a second bedroom.

“You’re going to rattle around in this place. Good luck washing the floor.” Imla quipped.

“It’s going to be just fine. I’m here, and it’s all going to be just FINE.”

I was feeling a little bit homesick and wobbly again. For someone who suffers from anxiety, the whole giving-up-everything-and-moving-to-Africa was an interesting life choice.

“Pull yourself together!” chelped Imla. “Try to keep up the pretence of being adventurous for at least the first week.” 

“But what if it’s all been a terrible mistake?”

I felt snot bubbling in my nose.

“Well, you’ve no one to blame but yourself.”

A high wall surrounded the apartment block, secured by a large, blue steel gate with two deadbolts and a padlock. The apartment itself had swirly iron bars at the windows, and the door was in two parts: a metal door resembling the gate, locked with a padlock and bolted from the inside, and then a swirly iron frame, also with a padlock. The bolts were always a bit stiff and made a screeching noise every time you pulled them across. It became a very familiar sound (it was like living in a high-security prison), and you couldn’t leave or exit in a hurry.

On the right lived a Ugandan couple with a baby and a maid, on my left, a Turkish businessman called Tarkan. The couple relied on their maid to open the gate, whatever time of day or night it was. At 3 am I would hear the car pull up outside, the engine grumbling intrusively, and the husband would honk his horn loudly several times until most of the village had woken up. Everyone in Kampala who could afford it had a guard or a maid whose responsibility it was to open up for the householder, but the process seemed to take forever. One night I became so mad I marched out, opened the gate myself, and then yelled something unsavoury to the driver.

It’s odd how you assume that the rules you grow up within your own country are applicable everywhere. Take the noise curfew, for example. Tell someone in Uganda they can’t make noise after 11 pm in a residential area and they will look at you with confusion. Your party is judged on how big your P.A. system is and how many miles the decibels can travel. 

Morning hours weren’t sacred, either. If it wasn’t the cockerel next door that woke me up at 4 am, it was the local primary school bell. Or the call to prayer. Or the women next door sweeping and sharing jokes. One morning it was a pair of Marabou storks arguing like old men. Definitely, last in line when it came to good looks; four feet of mite ridden plumage, a grotesque boat-like beak topped with wild beady eyes and a small bald head. I knocked on the window, and they spread out their vast wings and bandy legs and glided off to horrify someone else.

Despite the late-night honking, the P.A. systems and ugly wildlife, my new world became increasingly delightful and fascinating.

 Outside the compound, banana, paw-paw and jackfruit trees gave shade to women shelling peanuts, children washing from bowls, and men bent over their motorbikes sleeping. Other women sat outside small single-roomed houses with a curtain serving as a front door, boiling rice or matoke in a pan balanced on a makeshift fire. Clean washing was slung over fences and hedges to dry. The local shops were small huts with a random selection of presumed essentials: peppers, onions, bogoya[2], string, jerry cans, milk, airtime, brushes, matches, and gin or vodka in a bag (it was almost cheaper than water). The shop I often went to was managed by a lady who seemed to spend her whole time watching U.S. prosperity sermons.  I was reminded regularly that God wanted me to be rich, and all I had to do to achieve this was send twenty five dollars to the Apocalypse Healing Centre in Michigan.

Where the village path met the main road, there was a bar with a T.V. fixed to the wall. I say wall, but what I really mean is a collection of plywood stapled together. There was also a pool table and a short man in a brown bobble hat selling Nile Special and Bell Lager. The roof was corrugated metal, supported by a wooden post at each corner. There was often a match on, watched by men in old Arsenal and Man U shirts. Local hip-hop music crackled through ancient speakers, and when I passed, I usually got accosted in some way.

“Ahh Muzungu, you’re my style! Let me try you on for size!”

It wasn’t too long before my polite, but awkward smile was replaced with a scowl and a mildly offensive hand gesture. I think we eventually came to an understanding.

Sometimes, if I needed to go further afield, I took a Boda Boda[3] from the Stage opposite the Bar (stage meaning rank or stand). This stage consisted of a line of about eight motorbikes straddled by their drivers. They would loudly compete for business, and I would stand and wait until they decided whose turn it was to take me and at what cost. It was very exhilarating – sat behind a sweaty stranger, gripping the seat with my thighs, hair flying, dust in my eyes, sailing over potholes. One false move and I could end up arse over elbow; a pile of bloody, bruised limbs in a ditch in the middle of nowhere.

“Oh, for goodness sake, stop exaggerating!”

“I’m not Imla – it was a genuine possibility!”

“Why did you keep taking the risk then?”

“I didn’t think I had a choice. I just went with it…”

I guess that’s always been my problem.


The Juice of Enthusiasm

The first morning I was due to be at the College, I woke up to find a large pig in my backyard. It was meandering in and out of the bedsheets I had hung out the night before. I lived in a closed compound, so I couldn’t understand where it had come from. Our eyes met, and it regarded me with some menace. Were pigs in Uganda violent? A headline quickly ran through my head. MUZUNGU TEACHER TRAMPLED TO DEATH BY RABID PIG. I clanged the back door shut. I never saw the beast again and have since wondered whether the anti-malarial drugs had pig visions as a side effect.

It was too hot to walk, so I decided to get a Matatu[4]. The attendant ushered me inside with a hand gesture, and I tentatively stepped over a rolled-up carpet, two live chickens in a bucket and a large lady wearing a very brightly coloured Gomesi[5]. She had a small girl on her lap.  There was no space on the floor under my seat due to a drinks crate, so once I had squeezed my rather large bottom into the unreasonably small space, I had to put my legs up so that my knees were almost touching my cheekbones (particularly unfortunate as I was wearing a skirt). The sweat ran into my eyes, and the smell of distressed chicken made me want to gag. I smiled inanely at the small child next to me who was poking me and pulling my ponytail.

`This is your dream, remember! ` Imla was quick to point out.

I did my best to ignore her.

After shouting, `Masao` (Luganda for stop) and creating a riot of laughter in the bus, I managed to extricate myself from the vehicle and pay my dues.

The path that sloped down past the primary section and into the College had a couple of shiny SUV’s filled with luggage parked up on the grass verge. As I got closer to the college gates, a parent was having a loud, heated discussion with one of the security guards. In front of the College gates, there was a mountain of cement, and a large steel drum of boiling tar. A man in a t-shirt and slacks was poking the boiling asphalt with a big stick, steam spiralling around his face. I managed to squeeze past the drum of death and headed off to the dining hall for training.

The dining hall was full of wooden benches and doubled up as a theatre, as it had a large stage at the back. I, however, didn’t have to sit on the benches as the Headteacher had gone to the trouble of getting me a `special chair`. It was high backed and had a red velvet seat. I was very grateful, but it did make me look like a visiting Bishop, which was a bit awkward. The staff were extremely smart and very welcoming, and I liked them all immediately. It didn’t take me long to clock a broad-shouldered man with very dark skin who was moving about the staff, greeting them and filling in a register. I saw him from behind at first and waited eagerly for him to turn around. When he did, his soft eyes and broad smile stalled me.

“Close your mouth, you’re looking desperate,” Imla said with disgust.

“Quiet, Imla. I think I have just met the man I am going to marry.”

I asked the lady next to me (an English Teacher called Ranya) who he was.

“That’s Teacher Aakil. He is head of Maths but is also in the Senior Leadership Team.”

“Seems nice,” I said, trying to appear nonchalant. But in an instant, I had become an advocate of the Love at First Sight theory. There must be something in that because later I did grow to love him very much.

After lots of milky tea and some banana pancakes, the training started. We all had to introduce ourselves, and I was asked to share my marital status. I felt a little bit like a contestant on a dating game show. When I said I was single all the men cheered, including Aakil. I gave him my best coy smile and undid the top button on my shirt.

During the first session, we looked at how to cope with stress, conflict, uncontrollable anger.

“Very appropriate in your case, remember when you….”

“Shhh, Imla, I need to concentrate!”

I listened carefully, although it sparked in me a sense of foreboding. My temper had, on occasion, got the better of me.  Apparently, if I was overcome with any negative feelings, I could pray to God, consider myself lucky, and take a cold shower. There were, of course, the usual references to talking about your feelings and planning your time wisely.

The Principal also gave a talk on Attitude vs Output. You can tell if I am enjoying something because I will make lots of notes, and on this occasion, my pen was flying. He talked about having the juice of enthusiasm flowing through your veins at all times, regardless of the circumstances. I needed to ask myself each day whether my juices were in full flow or whether I had let negativity suck them out of me.

“Ask yourself in private though,” said Imla, “as it could lead to some misunderstanding.”

When talking about developing good relationships with the students, the Principal used the Art teacher as an example. He listed the reasons why she had been so successful at this over the last year and then encouraged the other teachers would give her a special celebratory clap. This consisted of two long claps and three short ones. I had even been noticed as someone who had demonstrated the `juice` of enthusiasm (although I was too new to get a celebratory clap).

“Wait until they get to know you. Then they will realise it’s all an act,” said Imla. 

I couldn’t disagree.

It wasn’t just all praise and rhythmic clapping. The teachers were asked to think of a colleague who had done something annoying and unhelpful during the last term. They went on to openly discuss this in front of the whole group.

“Teacher Juliet is always late for duty!”

“Teacher David steals chairs from my classroom and forgets to put them back.”

“Teacher Amira slurps her tea!”

Profuse apologies from the named offenders followed, and everyone seemed to take it in good faith before the next topic was introduced.

“I don’t like the way you always forget something when you leave the house,” said Imla. “And when you squeeze the toothpaste from the middle.”

“Shh, Imla I am trying to concentrate. The Principal is now talking about what to do when I start vomiting and having hallucinations. “

In the afternoon, I had the chance to explore the school grounds. Both the junior and senior school were built into a hillside so everywhere was either a climb or a descent. The junior school was a collection of rectangular buildings with metal-framed windows and doors and blue corrugated tin roofs. Each classroom was painted in two colours, brown on the bottom and cream on the top, inside and out. The international curriculum classrooms were white and blue to reflect the new uniform. There were also rows of dorms and a large block of staff apartments.  The campus was a myriad of ochre stone paths, ditches, steps and smartly clipped bushes. There were signs that said, `Discipline is the Mother of Success` and, `You Rest You Rust`.  At the foot of the junior campus, there was a small swimming pool, and an immense playing field lined with Banana and Eucalyptus trees. I had been advised that it was common to see Vervet monkeys on campus, so if I had food on me, I needed to keep it well hidden.

The secondary campus was similar but much more extensive. The gate welcomed you in several languages, and a sign painted in blue on the wall said, `Education that strives for Excellence`. A small stream ran between the two campuses, through a wooded area that supposedly contained snakes. As you walked up the main path, there were well-manicured lawns and explosions of green, red and orange foliage against the bright blue sky. In the middle of one lawn stood a large circular piece of metal suspended from a free-standing iron frame – the school bell. If you took the path to the left, it would take you to the main reception building; the school bus parked up in front. To the right of the reception and up some metal stairs was the assembly hall and dining room, and if you walked around the back of the building, you saw the kitchen on the left and the staff toilet up on a high stone ledge. It was quite a climb. The door was made up of several planks that didn’t quite reach the top, or bottom, so at least plenty of light was allowed in. There was a porcelain long drop inside – two ridged areas each side of the hole where you could put your feet. There was also, unexpectedly, a flushing mechanism. While still lingering over the porcelain on my first visit, I tugged at the chain.

“Next time remember to jump out of the way to avoid splashback,” Imla advised.

Back on the main path, if you continued upwards, you passed the classrooms, the dormitories and eventually the staff quarters. This was a small cluster of basic three-roomed houses; an open plan living room, two bedrooms and a small toilet. Most rooms had concrete floors with pieces of carpet here and there. Some had a kitchen area, but most of the teachers had maids who did their cooking and washing out on the porch. I felt a bit guilty about my large apartment and thought perhaps I should have accepted a house on site. But I just couldn’t get used to the idea of not having a bathroom and a kitchen. At that time, it was just a step further than I was prepared to go. I had always been a bit spoilt, and Uganda was yet to work its magic on me.

  Looking back now, jetting off to Africa was rather a rash thing to do, especially when I had a mortgage and a secure job. The effects were more far-reaching than I could have imagined at the time, but then I wonder if we would take any risks at all in life if we knew what was around the corner.  I planned to stay out in Uganda for a year but ended up there for four incredible, frustrating, rewarding, and hot years. In that time, I worked in three schools (both as a volunteer and employee), lived in three different houses, fell in love, had my heartbroken, and had several near-death experiences. I went to Uganda as one person and came back another. A fact that didn’t go unnoticed by my dad, who looked at me over breakfast one dreary Tuesday morning back in Lincolnshire and said,

“It’s like you’re some kind of alien now.” 

I am sure he meant well. 

Disclaimer & Acknowledgements

I have tried to recreate events, locales and conversations from my memories of them. 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, overdramatised 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 significantly to the person I am now.

[1] Muzungu or Mzungu is an East African term referring to a white traveller. Its literal meaning is `someone who wanders around without purpose. `

[2]   Bogoya is the collective name for the yellow, large bananas grown in Uganda.

[3]   Boda Boda is an East African term for a motorcycle taxi. It is thought to originate from the fact that you could cross country borders on one of these without having to supply the necessary paperwork.

[4] East African term for a 14-seater minibus taxi. All Matatus in Kampala are white with blue dashes along the side. They usually have a religious motto on the back window, such as `Love Jesus` or `Allah is Merciful`.

[5] A Gomesi is a floor-length colourful dress woman wear in southern Uganda, with huge sleeves and a wide belt.

Samantha Maw is a teacher living in Lincoln (England).  She has recently completed her MA in Creative Writing and is a member of Lincoln Creative Writers and Outspoken Poets. She performs at local Spoken Word events and is a regular contributor for the Impspired Literary Journal. She also hosts Word Perfect on Siren FM.

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