A Lizard in my Bra: A Memoir continued
See Issue 1 for the opening of this memoir…
Domestic chores have always been a thorn in my side. Whenever Imla tells me off for leaving the washing up until it becomes a hospitable environment for lower life forms, I remind her that I was born on a farm. When I arrived in Uganda, I was determined to carry on doing my own chores, but without all the mod-cons, it wasn’t long before I descended into a domestic nightmare from which there would be no return.
First, before you judge me, give me a little credit for my initial efforts.
I managed to purchase a large, blue plastic washing basket with a lid from one of the local shops. It was almost as big as me, and I struggled to carry it home – resorting to holding it in front of me with both hands like a giant battering ram, knocking a few goats over on the way home. Several days later it stood in the corner of my bedroom, spilling over with putrid laundry. Not only that, my acreage of tiled floor had been streaked with footprints and food detritus for some time now, and I knew there were rats about. Something had to be done.
Two hours later it wasn’t only the washing that was limp and wrung out. I had no hot water, so the kettle had to be boiled repeatedly, and I ran back and forth with it from the yard to the kitchen. In between boils, I threw as many clothes as I could into the large washing up bowl and did my best to swish things about and stick my bum out like I had seen the ladies in the village do (harder than they make it look, seriously, but I have the figure for it). I then left the washing in a soggy heap in a second bowl and started on the next load. I had to repeat the entire process again to rinse. Eventually, I managed to hang everything out on the line, but despite my best swooshing-swishing-bum-extending efforts it all still seemed to be full of soap. The maid next door kept poking her head out to see how I was getting on. I’m sure she was laughing.
I tackled the tiled floor next. After two minutes the mop head fell off. I decided to sweep up instead but then realised the brush handle wasn’t the real brush handle, just a long thick stick that had been secretly wedged in by the lady who had sold it to me. It was also too short, so I had to bend at a funny angle. After the fifth time of re-inserting the stick into the brush head, I decided the whole thing had been a ridiculous idea and started overusing the F-word in a fit of frustration.
“TOLD YOU!” Imla said excitedly, enjoying her moment of victory.
“Yes, but at least I tried. Aren’t you proud of me for trying?” I moaned, slumping against the wall.
“Don’t forget there’s some beef in the fridge that needs eating! If you can manage to feed yourself!” she said, just to compound the issue. It was true enough; the fridge had been on and off over the last couple of days.
Because Uganda could not generate enough electricity for everyone, the Government back then was doing something called `load sharing`. Various parts of Uganda were given electricity at different times. Our area only got electricity every other night, at least that was the theory. I could just imagine what would happen if the British government had come up with this plan and how people would react being told they could only have power three days a week. It would be apocalyptic.
I had asked Frank to assist me in buying a second-hand cooker and a fridge a few days before. Buying new white goods in Uganda was a problem; the import tax made the reliable brands impossibly expensive. Second-hand electrical items were sold on the side of the road close to the city centre. Frank had pulled up outside a line of ancient cookers and fridges, and a middle-aged man in a white shirt had hurried over, clearly very eager to see me. I picked the least battered looking appliances and handed over what still seemed like an extortionate amount of cash. I didn’t get a receipt, let alone a guarantee. Frank loaded both items on to the back of the pickup and on the way back we stopped to get an orange gas canister from the TOTAL garage. When we arrived home, he carried all three items into my kitchen and showed me how to connect the gas canister to the cooker. The canister would last me about three months, which was economical, but there was always the risk of it running empty while I had pans on the hob or a cake in the oven, as I found out later in the year.
The fridge came with some helpful instructions:
Hour in addition to frost. Ice slice can’t use sharp or the metale piece pare away to evaporate the machine surface of frost layer. The in order to prevent damage evaporates the machine. Right method: adjust temperature controller knob goes to “0” flies to shut down the position to order, waiting for 10-20 minutes then use dry the cloth wipe in addition to then.
The beef casserole was a relative success. The pan was thin tin with no handles, and flames leapt precariously from underneath coating the outside with thick black soot. As I stirred the casserole, I fell something fall down my bra. I looked down and there he was – a little lizard, staring up at me with a kamikaze look in his eye. He turned his head and carried on down my top, and I started to do a `get the lizard off me` dance while waving my wooden spoon in the air. Where did he come from? The ceiling? Did he take a James Bond style leap from the light shade? Nod bravely to his little lizard friends and say, “Right lads, I’m going in, you can have my collection of dead flies if I don’t make it!”
Odd, but my life was now a plethora of oddities. And I was growing happily accustomed to it.
This Little Light of Mine
I was never in the Girl Guides, and I think I lasted about three weeks in the Brownies. I’ve no idea what you had to do in the Eighties to get ejected from Brownies, but clearly, whatever it was, I did it. That being said, I achieved my tea making badge and have a photo to prove it. With the likelihood that I could be cast into darkness while in the middle of something important, I now had to learn to be prepared; Kampala style. This involved ensuring I had plenty of alternative light sources.
I bought Kerosene from the side of the road using a vintage pump with metal digits that changed when you rotated a handle. I managed to get more of it on my hands and down the front of my shorts than I did in the container. I walked around with the stuff sloshing back and forth in the plastic container and tried to avoid anyone with a cigarette. After also purchasing two blue, slightly rusty oil lamps, I skated my way home through the thick mud.
“You look like a very dirty Florence Nightingale!” said Imla.
“Awww, thanks,” I replied.
“So, you are actually going to light those lamps?” she queried.
“No, duh, I’m going to shut them away in a cupboard. Of course, I’m going to light them!”
“You plus Kerosene plus matches = potential first aid incident.” She said.
“Not as good at maths as you think,” I said.
Later, it took several attempts because the local matches were like tiny little slithers of plastic that bent when you tried to ignite them. I also used up most of the oil, and I stank like the inside of an engine for the next three days.
I eventually bought myself two rechargeable camping lanterns and a rather fetching head torch from Uchumi which did the trick. You live. You learn.
My Great Intelligence is Finally Recognised
Not to harp on about the power issue, but it made things a bit difficult at school when there was no access to a computer. I was used to my own PC and printer and had spent the last few years in the UK teaching `interactive` lessons on my whizzy high-tech whiteboard. I knew I was in a different world now and was prepared to do whatever it took to get the learning across. Within reason.
Most lessons were taught with a stick of chalk and a blackboard. I guessed the teachers didn’t print much, as stocking the printer with paper meant putting two sheets in it at a time. These were found by rustling around in the bottom of drawers and cupboards or bribing the photocopying man to lend you some. On my first attempt at printing some worksheets, smoke curled out of the back of the printer, accompanied by a burning smell. I would have to make do with reading the information to the pupils in a theatrical fashion and introduce the idea of group discussion.
Before I was given my own classes, I would be observing a few lessons to get a feel for the culture of the place and how the students were used to learning. The first lesson I attended was Divinity with Teacher Joshua. This was a small A-Level class that I would potentially take over. It was Old Testament Studies, and the students sat in beige uniforms with eager faces and large notebooks. Perhaps I had been too effusive about the lesson because Joshua paid me quite a bit of attention from then on. He often asked if I needed help and came and sat by me wherever I happened to be sitting, staring at me for an uncomfortable amount of time. There were usually several missed calls from him on my mobile.
“You gave him your mobile number?”
Imla again – interrupting my train of thought.
“Yes – I can’t remember why. It had something to do with the fact that he had written a 200-page commentary on the Bible and was eager for me to read it and give feedback.”
“Why did he ask you to do that?”
“Because of my `great intelligence` apparently.”
“Sounds like a chat-up line to me.”
“I know. Most women get, `Get your coat, you’ve pulled` and I get, `Please can you read my 200-page Biblical exposition`.”
Joshua often laughed at my jokes too. I asked him how he managed with the length of the working day and the fact that they always seem to have staff meetings through their breaks and lunchtimes.
“It is very tiring, but it is the system,” he said matter-of-factly.
“Yes, Hitler had a system”, I replied goofily.
My joke paid off as he laughed so much I thought he might fall off his seat.
That guy was so into me.
It was an uncomfortable love triangle, as I was beginning to wrestle with unprofessional feelings for Aakil. When we spoke for the first time about room timetabling, I was now the one staring. His smile was so wide I imagined what it would be like to fall into it.
“He’s going to think you are a proper weirdo if you keep gawping at him like that,” Imla chided.
To my utter delight, Aakil and I slowly became friends. By week three he had already started making fun of me, so it wouldn’t be long before I could begin the wedding prep. It would be a traditional Ugandan affair to start with, and even though a Gomesi would do nothing for my figure, I was prepared to take the plunge. At least it covered the love handles.
Actually, that was the whole problem. Even if Aakil was interested, I couldn’t date him, let alone marry him. I had been in this situation before, and it hadn’t ended well. I had been brought up in very tight Evangelical circles, and although no longer much of a church-goer, I knew that the moment I mentioned that Aakil was a Muslim the only response I would get from those closest to me would be, “I don’t think he would be the right choice.” From then on, the conflicting feelings of joy and condemnation fought for supremacy daily, and Imla often came down on the side of the latter.
It was difficult to hide how I felt. I was at the stage where I looked forward to seeing him in the morning in the staff room, and if he wasn’t there, I would go all limp and disorientated. Then later, when he appeared around a corner or came up the path towards me, I uncurled like a sunflower and felt like bursting into song.
I was oblivious to it at the time, but I should have noticed that he had the same effect on one of the other teachers. She was, like him, a tall, beautiful Muslim. Someone who I would also become quite close to in the coming months. Someone who proved to be tough competition.
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, 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 greatly to the person I am now.
to be continued….
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.