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.
A Lizard in My Bra: A Memoir Continued
To start with, my trips to the city were infrequent. I went in with an American friend called Julie so I could get used to all Kampala had to offer. On the way there, we liked pointing out shop signs that amused us. Our favourite one was `Used Body Parts, ` and we were also rather fond of `Xing Fwaniture`.
The journey consisted of getting a Matatu to the taxi park (also known as the Seething Abyss From Which Few Return) and then getting a Boda Boda to Garden City, Forest Mall or Lugogo Mall, where most of the western shops were. If looking for a bargain you could always visit Owino market, but this was a vast, crowded, suffocating shamble of stalls. As a Muzungu, you were guaranteed plenty of persistent cajoling.
The local craft markets were a riot of colour and noise too, but they were in the open air and nicely laid out. I had to ration my visits to the craft market because there were only so many Zebra serving spoons and palm leaf footballs I could accommodate.
One Saturday, stuck in the usual heaving, petrol-infused web of traffic that led into town, Julie was telling me about a recent taxi strike. The government had introduced larger orange buses that had plenty of space to stand and sit and were cheaper and safer to use. They were safer, in that pieces of the chassis weren’t falling into the road while being driven, and there were more windows to climb out of when the vehicle ended up in the ditch. The regular Matatu drivers were not happy about the introduction of these new buses and decided to go on strike. This decision, unfortunately, backfired on them (excuse the pun) and on the day of the strike the authorities brought out all of the new orange buses and made a fortune.
Going into the city was an excellent opportunity to learn a bit of the local language. In Uganda, there are over 40 regional languages, depending on the district. In Kampala it is Luganda. I bought an English to Luganda Simple Guide from a man who thrust several articles in my face while the taxi we were on stopped at a gas station to refuel.
I had already picked up some key phrases at College. `Good Morning` was Wasuze otya; `Sir` was Sebo; and `Madam` was Nyabo. `Thank you` was Webale.
However, my favourite sentences in the phrasebook were the following:
Bambi nindako, nkyasanirira nviiri zange. Please wait for me, I am combing my hair.
Okugulu kunnuma. My leg is paining.
Wano wazimbye. I have a swelling inside.
Tusigazizza byennyanja. We have remained with fish only.
Lwaki okaabya abaana buli lunaku? Why do you make the children cry every day?
Bwe twakuwola, nga tewadda! When we borrowed you, you didn’t come back!
Ndaba mbuzi n ante byokka nga birya. I see only the goats and cows grazing.
Ennimiro ezise! The garden is bushy.
I never did get a chance to use these particular phrases, sadly. But you never know when they might come in handy.
Eventually, although I continued to enjoy my visits into the city with Julie, I gained the courage to get about by myself as the year wore on. A little of the language and a growing knowledge of the geography of the city and its suburbs aided me in my quest to become a seasoned expatriate.
Can I Ask You a Question?
My year 9 Drama class were making good progress. We often left the airless classroom and strolled down into the `Park`, a pretty patch of land just inside the front gates. The students chose acting areas in shady spots under trees amongst bright pink flowers and exotic butterflies. This was where the school bell was; students were put on a rota to ring the bell with a big metal stick to alert the community to lesson changeover. The students played a significant part in the running of the school and on the whole, took their duties seriously. When a student forgot or slacked off, effective sanctions were applied. These usually involved extra chores or laps around the school grounds.
My Year 9 Religious Studies lessons were also going well, as far as I could tell. I managed to impart my knowledge each week using a very mottled blackboard and lots of stumps of chalk. The chalk kept breaking, and I kept dropping it. I would then fail to find it on the floor amongst the debris and get some more out of my pencil case. This process was repeated until I was chalk-less and had to ask a student to get me some from reception. By then it was up my arms, in my hair and all over my glasses.
During one lesson I attempted to outline the entire history of the Jewish people in cartoon form from Abraham to Hitler; the students copying the cartoons into their books with varying degrees of success.
At the end of the session, a well turned out student called Thomas came over to me and said,
“Teacher, I have noticed that you have failed to mark my book from the last lesson. Why is this?”
As if to prove a point he held the book open at the page I had neglected.
“Busted!” Imla whispered in my ear. I looked at Thomas, and then at his book.
“I’m so sorry Thomas, I thought it wasn’t finished. You still need to talk about how Abraham must have felt about having to leave Ur.”
“Ah ok, sorry teacher. Let me finish that for you.”
If there’s one thing I have learnt about being a teacher, it is that the art of blagging works regardless of the continent you are in.
Thomas left, and thunder began to rumble overhead. The palm trees were bending in the wind as I left the classroom and threaded the padlock through the metal loops, snapping it shut. It felt like a scene from a movie before a great disaster hit. The birds started screeching at each other and gathered together in big groups to fly off somewhere safe. The temperature dropped suddenly by about 7 degrees, and the Verver monkeys were jumping from branch to branch psyching themselves up for the imminent downpour.
I managed to get back before the onslaught. It would have been impossible to walk in the rain – it was so heavy that it would have swept me off my feet and into the rain ditch. These ditches were dug three feet deep into the earth on each side of the road, and when full, the water travelled at great speed, carrying along anything in its path. When they were dry, they were often full of litter and other detritus, and you had to be careful you didn’t trip and fall in.
I lay in bed that night under my mosquito net listening to the rain hammer on the corrugated metal roof, and the thunder breaking out overhead. It’s what made this part of Uganda so green – all the rain. It also, unfortunately, caused a lot of damage, and a severe storm would often claim lives.
I had got into bed after having claimed a life myself, but only that of a cockroach. I say `only`, but perhaps they deserve more recognition as they are the gladiators of the insect world and prove very difficult to kill. You have to keep at it until you’re sure. You bash them over the head with your shoe, and they just give you some attitude and crawl off. You pile books on them, and they emerge unscathed. I had resorted that evening to spraying one with `COCKROACH STRENGTH` bug spray for a few minutes, and it still staggered around for ages before finally keeling over. I had to then scoop it up in a tissue and throw it outside, all the while fighting the urge to gag.
As I was drifting off, my phone pinged, the grey screen lit up, and a little envelope icon appeared. At the time I had a small flip over Motorola phone with three primary functions – you could make and receive calls, texts and set the alarm. Getting a text was still pretty exciting. Back then we all wrote in full sentences.
Did you get home ok?
It was Aakil. I felt all tingly.
“Keep it casual! Don’t get needy… remember. ”
Imla was back.
Yes, thanks! Just in bed now. Hope you had a nice day?
“That’s good – keep it casual. He’ll like the bed reference. “
I waited. Maybe I should have put a kiss? No. Not yet.
Yes. I saw you. That made it nice.
“Casual!” cried Imla in desperation.
Hope you are not afraid of the storm?
I am here if you need anything x
There it was. My first kiss. It was ok to reciprocate now.
Thanks – I appreciate that x
A few moments passed, and then the message icon came up again.
Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
“Ooo he’s thinking long term!” Imla said with excitement.
We texted late into the night, and I got very little sleep. We both remained somewhat guarded, but I hoped it was the start of something.
“Just remember, he’s a Muslim,” Imla kept saying.
But the next morning, I couldn’t stop singing.
It was mid-October, and one Friday afternoon while teaching, I started to feel very nauseous and dizzy. A colleague took me to the local clinic when lessons were over.
“Admit it. You were expecting a whitewashed building with a car park and a reception area; Magazines and comfortable chairs.” Imla said as we entered.
I’m afraid I probably was.
In reality, the clinic consisted of two little shop fronts side by side opening onto the road. On the left was the waiting room; two wooden benches leant against the left wall. At the back was the consultation area, separated from those waiting by a large screen. The shopfront on the right was where you paid. There was a little arched window with a sign above it saying, `ACCOUNTS` and a small woman with a brown button-up dress and a tight hair roll sat behind it. I sat next to a very old lady with bare feet and struggled to stay sitting upright on my small area of bench. It was so hot. It wasn’t long before I was taken behind the screen by a large doctor, also wearing brown, with a stethoscope around his neck. He gestured for me to take a seat next to his desk. He took my temperature and listened to my heart while asking me to describe how I was feeling.
“Hmm, your symptoms are very typical of malaria. First, we need to check your blood so we can rule it out.”
Whenever you felt under the weather in Uganda, you were always checked for malaria first. Any slight ache, pain or sniffle was treated with the utmost seriousness. A lot of my colleagues had suffered from malaria more than once, and some just took a couple of paracetamols and carried on working. Once you had had it, you were likely to get it again. But the first time would always be the worst, especially if you were new to the country.
The clinic went further back than I expected, and I was directed to a tiny room no bigger than a cupboard where a man sat waiting with a needle. I’ve never been too good with needles. I needed a lot of injections as a child because of my asthma, and I have vivid memories of the doctor repeatedly stabbing my arm to find a vein, and at one point chasing me around the surgery. I was an eighties child. I grew up just before adults started being held accountable for their actions, and I have the scars to prove it.
The whole process was surprisingly efficient. My blood was tested immediately, and I found myself sat in front of the Doctor again within ten minutes.
“The good news is it is not malaria,” he said cheerfully, “It is probably just a bacterial infection caused by something you have eaten. I will prescribe you some antibiotics. But I am concerned that you are on a very low dose of anti-malarial prophylactic. Seeing as you are new to Uganda, I will prescribe you a weekly malaria tablet called Mefloquine. It is much more effective than doxycycline.”
I knew about Mefloquine. The possible side effects were hallucinations and eventual madness. But at the time that seemed preferable to malaria, and the doctor was quite insistent. I only took it the once. I had terrible nightmares and woke up screaming. I saw lots of giant spiders the size of plates crawling up the inside of the mosquito net. They had hairy legs and big googly eyes. I had become frantic in my attempts to escape, but before falling asleep I had tucked into the base of the bed, and I couldn’t release it. It took several minutes before I realised the spiders hadn’t been real. I remember them to this day, though.
“Now you have to decide between a terrible life-threatening fever or potential madness,” Imla instructed the morning after.
Thankfully, I didn’t get either. I took the Doxycycline for the rest of my time in Uganda, and it seemed to do the job. I never did get malaria, but it was a matter of months before I became ill again, and this time it was a lot more serious.
Two for the Price of One
A couple of weeks later, on a hot Sunday afternoon, I started to feel a little queasy. By ten that night I had a fever and diarrhoea and could hardly stand.
I managed to attract the attention of Tarkan by collapsing on his porch in my dressing gown while he sat having a drink with his business manager, Suzanne. We had all become quite good friends, and the weekend before we had been to the Sheraton for a few drinks.
I incoherently asked them if they had any drinking water, as I had run out. They decided I probably needed medical help and threw me in the car. It was quite late, and we drove around for what seemed like ages, taking several wrong turns and having to stop at a toilet halfway so I could continue my expulsions. When we finally found an open clinic, my fever had skyrocketed, and I was shaking like a jelly. I had an injection in my backside, and a nurse took some of my blood. My temperature came down slowly, and I was given the option of being put on a drip at the clinic (in a rickety old metal bed by the main door with a white curtain around it) or being sent home with some pills.
I went for the second option, having no idea what the pills were for. The nurse said I had some sort of bacteria in my blood. The next ten hours were awful. Suzanne and the grumpy maid from next door force-fed me mashed potatoes, eggs and orange juice, and then seemed disappointed when I just threw them all back up again. Despite this, I was touched by their kindness, and they made sure I wasn’t left on my own.
Teacher Ranya came over to see how I was doing later that afternoon, and I begged her to call the doctor. I was taken to a local hospital and put in a private room with two beds. For two nights, Ranya stayed with me, all the while going to and from college to do her lessons. She spent a lot of her time following me to the toilet and holding a bowl in front of my face as I suffered doubled ended expulsions. The shaking fever continued, and I had to be rehydrated with a drip and pumped with antibiotics. It was a hectic, noisy place, under constant renovation, and a man was using a masonry drill outside my room. It came through the walls like an earthquake.
I was moved into a different room after I complained about the noise, but things were about to become so much worse. Outside my window, there was a carpenter who had been instructed by the hospital to work through the night to get some hospital doors finished. There was a room directly across from mine that was serving as a dental surgery; the dentist left the door open and I could regularly hear children screaming. The man with the masonry drill decided to move across the corridor and start his business outside my room again. Some locals decided to have a very loud, long conversation by my window. I began to feel like I might just be on the set of Fawlty Towers: Ugandan style.
Aakil was the first to visit. When Ranya announced he was outside, I was utterly mortified.
“Aakil is here?” Imla screamed, “Tell her not to let him in! He can’t see you like this!”
“He’s here?” I cried out loud. “Don’t let him in! He can’t see me like this!”
“Why on earth not? I thought you two were friends?”
Ranya was looking perplexed as I shielded my face with the pillow. Then I heard his voice.
“Hello!” Aakil’s voice floated into the room. “Now, how come you have ended up here?”
“Nothing you can do now!” Imla said, “Just try not to be too weird. Maybe he will see past the sweats to the real you.”
One can always hope, I thought and removed the pillow from my face.
He strolled over and took me by the hand and smiled.
Ranya looked at me and then him.
She must have known.
There were no set visiting hours at the hospital. I think the college had set up a 24-hour rota. Every person I had ever met since arriving in Uganda had squeezed themselves into my room at all hours of the day and night – including both sets of neighbours and their extended families. All of them sat around my bed with me wearing nothing but a night slip and covered in sweat. At one point the Headteacher arrived unannounced as I sat on the bed, cross-legged, lurching over a bucket.
It turned out I had a combination of Gastric Flu and Septicaemia. Two violent illnesses for the price of one. Still, I suppose it got them both out of the way.
After my release, I was invited to stay with the Principal and his family and was looked after exceptionally well by his wife. I was let out of hospital on Wednesday; felt a little better on Thursday; went back in again on Friday and Saturday and Sunday and then they let me out on Monday (my own medical 7-day homage to Craig David).
It turned out that I had gone in with Gastric Flu and had picked up the Septicaemia during my stay. Also, the pills they had been giving me to stop the sickness and diarrhoea had an unfortunate side effect of causing severe sickness and diarrhoea. Once I stopped taking them, I started to feel much better.
As well as the kindness showed by the Principal, Julie and her husband Larry later whisked me off in their 4×4 to their beautiful house in the hills. Larry was a pilot and worked at Kajjansi airfield. They had a garden and a dog and real sofas with cushions and real mattresses and a proper hot shower and delicious food. It was heaven.
So, with my overwhelming expulsions behind me and restored faith in my digestive system, I regained some mental equilibrium.
“Are you sure you are cut out for life here? Perhaps it had just seemed like a good idea at the time,” Imla suggested.
“I’ll be alright now – I’ve passed the medical. It can only get better.” I replied.
And I truly believed it.