Kampala, 2012

I’m writing this on my last day in Uganda before I take the Entebbe flight. The Femrite workshops covered a lot of ground in three days, but were too compressed to allow ideas to percolate, as I would have liked. The groups have now formed an editorial teams to revise and present material for a feature on the CTWR website. That will include the portraits I’ve taken and samples of writing that have undergone close reading. I’ve avoided any direct editing of the work and have also asked participants to write a forward for the anthology, so that it’s all their own, mediated only by the experience of the workshops. There was a stop-start quality to the event, which was frustrating, but I’ve seldom worked with such a good-humoured and accommodating group – except in Uganda, of course.

I’m pretty shattered by Saturday afternoon and Saturday night is a riot of Kampala-style nightlife – a traditional music event a few yards away, faint gusts of singing from all over the city, ululation, fireworks, howling dogs, bass-lines from a hundred parties. It goes quiet at about 3.00am, then quietens. But footsteps and voices start early, and just after breakfast the new church hall is rocking with amplified African hymns and an intensely repetitive oration. Religion is everywhere in Uganda, from quietly held faith to the brazen materialism of the new churches. I must admit that I find it the most depressing aspect of Ugandan life, with pastor creaming money from people living in poverty or on the edge of it.

On Sunday morning I meet Susan Kiguli, poet and HOD at Makerere English Department. Her answers to my questions are fluent, complex and voluble, offering perhaps the most nuanced account of the complexities of Ugandan writing in English. The church has provided an atmospheric wild-track to my recording when I check it for clarity. Hugh Moffatt from the British Council checks in and I arrange to meet him at Mish Mash restaurant in Kololo. He’s got his own children and others in tow fresh from a 5th birthday party, but we have a very pleasant lunch and catch up a bit more. Mish Mash is typical of ex-pat joints in Kampala – secure compound, pleasant gardens and not a Ugandan customer in sight. It’s a glimpse of the good life Europeans and Americans find here.

Next stop is the ATM at Nakasero to find cash for my bill, then the Bancafé to buy Ugandan coffee beans. A young man is lying full-length on the pavement asleep, too ill or intoxicated to move. He’s endured a blazingly hot morning, but clouds are thickening as I stroll back to Wandegeya, trying to walk slowly. There is a new bus service here with smart double-decker coaches and bus stops. A big new building is being erected at the bottom of Wandegeya and the roads at Makerere are being repaired – albeit in a dangerously improvised way, as workman splashes kerosene onto the tar that will take the new surface. By the time I reach the Guest House I’m a very moist muzungu. Thunder is crumpling the air and rain is bouncing from it to pock the red dust. What sounds like a single gunshot cracks out under the rain, then the deep carillon of thunder pealing out over the city and the muezzin’s call.

Now it’s time to pay up and pack my bag and think about the journey home to Yorkshire. I wonder if the beans and courgettes I planted are pushing through the soil yet. How big the lambs in the field below my house will have grown. Whether whitethorn has given way to May blossom. It’s probably too early for that. And, yes, I can still hear that tennis ball being hit on the clay court below my room, like a row of exclamations marks being punched into the air.

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