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The First Week

Kibutika, Kampala 21-24 January 2019


Rain, a tropical rain shower. It’s pouring down and I’m glad I came back home directly just before it started. Noga wanted me to go with her and Gilbert to see the Somali refugee kids that they visit every Saturday, but as it is not the group that I am going to teach, I said that I could go on another day, there’s plenty time since I’m going to be here for the next 4 months. For now I have more urgent matters to deal with; where should I start with so many thoughts on my mind, so many pressing requests as well that I can’t put at the back of my mind although I realistically would need to?  I could already start preparing the class that I am going to give to the Congolese LGBT refugees. I met them this morning for the first time and class is going to start on Wednesday. More prosaically, I could finish the cleaning of the house where I just moved in, which would be convenient as it is still empty save for a mattress and my suitcase; I could also try to answer some emails and messages, many of them asking, how’s everything here in Kampala. Given that with the rain coming, the electricity promptly went off, as long as the battery of my laptop lasts I can at least start a word doc to be sent later. So be it, writing always helps me sorting my thoughts out.

I arrived in Entebbe in the middle of the night, 3:30 to be exact, so not a decent time to expect anyone to pick me up. Landing here for the first time, not knowing how long it could take me to get my luggage and go through custom and having no idea how far and practical it is to reach the city, I didn’t want that. But I felt equally uneasy with the idea of taking a cab to whatever hotel in the city for the same reason. Thus I had proposed to meet Noga at her place sometimes after 8 am on Monday morning, killing the time until then at the airport with a good book and that’s what I did. For once when I didn’t wish to rush as quickly as possible out of the airport, the procedures went faster then I needed! Taking seat in the yard outside the arrival hall in the mild night where a small crowd of local people and taxi drivers were idling and talking quietly felt safe and pleasant. The ride to the city took over one and a half hour, the first 30 km or so at good speed on a good and rather empty highway, the last kilometres in the city eating up the benefit of the record and giving me a first taste of the traffic conditions in Kampala. Bumper to bumper means bumper to bumper, possibly more than one on each side at the same time and a horde of motorcycles around. It immediately reminded me Phnom Penh, in much worse, not least because of the road conditions. And even with all windows closed, the exhaust fumes are so powerful that one wants to stop breathing altogether. 

A precious indication that I had together with the address was the mention “close to the Italian supermarket” but once there I realised that I had the street name and no number.  Indeed Noga’s house has none, overall house numbers are few and apart. I gave Noga’s number to the taxi driver for him to call and get the details, but bad luck, a digit was missing in what she had written in her message. I asked the taxi driver to leave me at the little café next to the supermarket instead and asked for the wifi together with a can of coffee. They were very friendly and gave it to me with a smile. Thanks WhatsApp too! Noga came hurrying a few minutes later. 

Albeit having spent the 2 flights reading and not sleeping any bit, I was fit for the first encounter with my surrounding of the next months and meet the team in charge of this community of Congolese refugees, refugees themselves, 3 pastors having been in Kampala between 7 and 10 years. Over time, for lack of any other solution each of them has been taking care of an increasing number of orphans beside their family, currently 7, 10 and 15 respectively. As they say, what else to do? They can’t be left on the roadside. Their houses are overcrowded and they don’t have enough to feed them, the whole community helps with whatever they can. Some of them were among the group of kids that I saw playing joyfully in the field next to the church and will attend the English class, some are already teenagers. The meeting took place in the church and so will the English classes, the bare building is indeed multifunctional as we would say. I knew I would be meeting people and kids living under dire conditions. However heart-breaking, the least they need is someone falling to pieces. What these pastors want above all for the kids is being able to give them to eat daily and enough basic education so that, ideally, they would be able to attend the government school in Uganda. That’s a long way, English (mandatory for the local schools) is only the very beginning. 

Back to Noga’s place, I met Gilbert, the only Ugandan of the 3 board members of Anyie, the third member being David, a Somali refugee student in engineering I met on the next day. Together we went to get a sim card for my phone/internet, first priority in getting settled anywhere but even more so in Africa, the next thing being to find a place where I can stay. Gilbert took charge of it and already on the next day, he called me to say that he had found a suitable house, describing it in much detail, worried as he was that I might not like it. It sounded perfect to me, in walking distance from the church and I confirmed on the spot to go ahead and finalise with the landlord. The call came in as Noga and I were meeting another Congolese, trying his best to support the group of LGBT having fled from Congo as well. Being able to communicate in English is their hope to improve their condition here. While risking their lives here less than in Congo, homosexuality is illegal in Uganda and a perfect reason for discrimination in every form and for abuse, let alone when communication fails. We agreed on a schedule of Wednesday afternoon (after the kids) and Saturday morning weekly.

Gilbert joined us on his way back to town with a couple of photos of the house: 2 rooms with a lot of light and a shower/toilet, all neatly and freshly painted and tiled, the electric and plumbing all new: that amounts to luxury, I would say. The landlord agreed to equip the kitchen with a sink and Gilbert ordered 2 shelves, no more would fit in the “kitchenette”. They don’t describe it so elegantly, especially in this area where the norm is no kitchen at all and cooking outside on a little charcoal stove in terracotta (not quite the outdoors kitchen in Malta - at the poolside ☺).

The idea was to move to the house on the same day, but eventually it was too late. That happened on Thursday morning when Gilbert came with a pick-up to load a mattress and an armchair that Noga didn’t want, and my luggage of course. The thought of transporting the 25 kg suitcase and the 10 kg hand luggage on 2 motorcycles as we did on my arrival between the Italian supermarket and Noga’s place – luckily only some 800 meters away - this time in the heavy traffic to reach the other side of the city, was definitely not appealing, so I was relieved that the 2 other pieces amply justified a proper transport type. Not to mention the bumpy dirt road that we took from the main road for the last 3 km or so! 

Predictably, refugees do not live in posh districts anywhere and Africa is Africa. Nonetheless, I reckon having had a bit of a shock when I realised that I was going to live there in order not to have to commute daily. It is still Kampala City, but the very outskirt of it. As the house is “self-contained” meaning unfurnished, after depositing the truck load, Gilbert and I attempted to get some essentials in the neighbourhood. We found very little and the most striking was the stares of the many people seeing me carrying a broom and a jerrycan (the jerrycan was at the top of the list in order to get ready for the water cuts). Obviously they don’t get to see many foreigners here, let alone one seemingly living here! The first uneasiness disappeared within the next 24 hours: the house already feels home and having roamed through many of the numerous little shops lining up the main road of the area (precisely because they have hardly anything to sell and even less what I am looking for) in the last 48 hours, the stares are relaxing a bit, or perhaps I notice them but I am more relaxed about them myself. And whatever I ask, they are very friendly and do their utmost to be helpful, indicating the other shops where I may be more successful with my purchase and even bringing me there as the exact indications are rather difficult. Even with good English skills it would be since it all looks the same: simple houses with some goods hanging around.

Yes, Ugandan are very friendly and I don’t mean just Gilbert who has spent most of his days this week arranging things for me, staying in the house to make sure that the workers would not run away before completing the work, taking me here and there to find the right solution.

For instance, when asking for an information or with the “boda boda” (Ugandan speak of “border to border” because they can take one anywhere). Thanks to Noga and Gilbert, so far I knew approximately what I should expect for the ride and of course it is subject to negotiation, what I thoroughly hate. Unlike what so commonly happens to foreigners in countries with no set tariffs, here they may add a little bit but it’s still moderate and when I ask for the price that had been indicated to me, they promptly agreed and that was it. No fastidious bargaining; it feels good knowing that when I will have no idea of a certain route, I can rely on the price without feeling having been taken for a fool. 

For all my life I never liked riding motorbike and hardly ever did. But it is absolutely unavoidable here, Kampala is a low construction city of over 6 Mio people stretching endlessly over the hills and there is no public transport system. Some bodas are better than others but they are not so numerous: the “safe boda” that can be booked on internet, takes one passenger only and provides the helmet, with route tracking and confirmation of the price on the phone at arrival. And they even stop at the traffic light; they really do and put themselves gently on the side so that the normal bodas can go through!

The only alternative are the “taxi”, a horde of 14 seaters Toyota that easily manage 24 and crisscross the city. But to understand and find a route, one must have been born here. For now I take it from “my hill”, Kibutika (pronounced Tchibutika) to the next shopping centre. As they are private and eager to fill the van to the maximum, they wait when waved from afar and stop anywhere you like on their route. I’ll surely use the taxi on this route often as it brings me directly to the small shopping centre of Freedom City; unfortunately on the way back, when I would most need it with carrier bags, I need to get a boda as I cannot identify the ones for Kibukita and even if I ask they don’t seem to stop at all.

My happiest buy in the shopping centre on Saturday has been a few of the English teaching books used in the regular schools in Uganda. Finally I have books with black people in the illustrations and the African names that go with them beside vocabulary more appropriate to life here. I was so bothered to have only books with little white kids, talking about Christmas, Easter eggs, birthday parties and the like, what I had found on internet didn’t help either.

And I indulged on a small fridge: that for sure is luxury but there are no restaurants or cafés in Kibutika, not even the little street stands, apart from vegetable, some fruits and African porridge I can’t find anything here, so if I want to eat something decent I will have to cook at home.

Still no internet… 21/01/2019

Day 8

At last I have internet. I had to change the provider for the area where I live as the other one didn’t come through. In the meantime I am fully installed here. Monday was another big shopping day to get that far and to get the last things I needed for school. Including some groceries as well, even rice because the rice that I find here has stones! The trip had started with the post office to clear the books that I had sent from customs, after having paid a substantial tax. As I had agreed to meet Gilbert there, I realised how remote is Kibutika: the boda couldn’t find the central post office, brought me to the central police station instead and handed me over to a “city boda” to finish the trip. Having started at 12 pm we didn’t finish before 19:00 and got stuck in the heavy traffic and masses of pedestrians out on the streets. Among others I had bought shelves for the books. The workshops are mostly out on the streets and so these shelves had been kept outside, standing in the mud. Clusters of mud were sticking to them, “wiping” was not exactly what they needed before I could sort any books on them. 

This morning I met the group of kids that I am going to teach and I did a small evaluation. When I called the pastor in charge of the education in the community yesterday to arrange the matter, I got a bit of a shock: ‘there will be about 100 kids tomorrow’ he said, quickly adding that he had the list of those who would attend class, list that I had asked for and was supposed to get on Saturday. And indeed so many were there this morning, toddlers and babies on the back of 7-8 years old included! And without any adult around to supervise them. They sat with great expectation on the chairs that they arranged in rows themselves and when I stepped in the room and went to the front they started moving all the chairs as close as they could to my feet. But they equally quickly moved them back when I asked them to. Another call to the pastor who eventually arrived one hour later and then the evaluation could be started based on the lists sorted by age. The individual evaluation didn’t take long; most could answer the question and tell their name, most could also write it down in letters of any size and recognize it on the list, but when it came to write ‘pen’ or read another simple word most failed no matter what age they were. Obviously they just know by heart how to write their name and that’s it. Thanks god I have brought sufficient material to exercise writing and that’s where I am going to start.

I have been quite worried about the premises: just chairs and a small damaged whiteboard. How could they possibly learn writing on their knees? Back home and sitting on the small stool that serves me as smoking area, I got an idea: I am going to buy plastic chopping boards like the one that I eventually managed to find yesterday after having searched in many shops and we’ll try that on the chairs but I believe the stools will have to be added as well to get the adequate plan level for the youngest. That’ll be the classroom. Watch out for some photos on facebook or WhatsApp in the next days as I am all set to start ☺

Warm greetings from Kampala


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