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A Day in the life of Graham Mort
Earlier this Year the poet Graham Mort was writer in residence at Makerere University in Uganda.
Last night, rain thrashed the palms and eucalyptus trees. A lightning bolt quenched half the lights on Makerere campus. Today, I'm woken up by the squawking of houdada ibis executing their daily flypast. Faint prayers drift from the mosque; beyond that, traffic stirs in Wandegeya. Yesterday was the presidential election. Today is the day of reckoning. Outside, grass is lush with overnight rain, sun streaks an apricot sky, thin cloud evaporates. White cattle egret feed on the lawns. Maribou storks with bald heads wander like doddery professors working out their tenure.
The domestic staff discuss the election in low, earnest voices. Everyone who has voted has a purple thumb to prove it. President Museveni is campaigning for a third term of office on a ‘No Change’ mandate. His opponent, Col. Dr Kizzi Besigye has taken Kampala. CNN News features the UK: burning cows, slaughtered sheep, roadblocks, beds of disinfected straw across farm tracks. The first lambs were just stumbling in the fields when I left North Yorkshire, two weeks ago.
Jjuuko is late because his taxi firm is reluctant to let him risk a car today. He arrives, unruffled, and we drive to Mengo Senior High, where I’m to run a workshop. The road is badly potholed, taking us through ramshackle townships where women carry yellow jerry cans of water on their heads or queue at stand pipes. We’re stopped by a group of soldiers in scarlet berets, carrying automatic rifles. They search the car, then wave us on.
We turn up a rutted, red dirt road. The car gyrates. Traffic weaves as cars, taxis, mopeds, motorcycles and bicycles pass each other on any side of the track. When we arrive at Mengo the campus is deserted. The teacher we’re supposed to meet is still in his home village, where he’s returned to vote. Most people are lying low to see which way the wind will blow.
Back to the British Council office at Rwenzori Courts. I check my e-mails and work on my report on the Ugandan literature infrastructure. It’s almost non-existent: few publishers, few journals, and a generation of writers silenced, dead, or exiled during the Amin era. I go out to buy a sandwich and am followed by ragged street-boys who beg a few shillings. Here in Nakasero, there are beggars and street-traders everywhere, staking out their claim to a scrap of pavement outside the banks and European hotels.
The sky has cleared and the sun is merciless. I’ve forgotten my hat, lured by an overcast morning. Pavements glare, white walls and windows dazzle. Jjuuko arrives and we drive back to Makerere. The city is eerily quiet. Even Wandegeya market is almost deserted.
The parched afternoon turns into a mild and beautiful evening. The light is serene, the sky stretched like a faded shirt over the trees. I sit on the terrace reading Henry Kyemba's State Of Blood, an account of the brutality and waste of the Amin years. Uganda’s gaps, blanks and silences, are beginning to make a kind of fractured sense.
The sky fills with scavenging kites, circling on thermals that build huge thunderheads at the horizon. A praying mantis lands on the table, its slender body vivid green, its triangular head inquisitive as a child's, its eyes prominent as rubies. Like Uganda, it seems naive, beguiling and sinister all at the same time. Beyond Makerere, the election results roll in, piling up Museveni's majority.
I’ve arranged to meet Joseph Mugasa, a young Ugandan poet who teaches English at Makerere College School. He arrives with his new book, The Pearl, self-published and hot from the press. He is full of energy, idealism and hope. He recites a few of the shorter pieces, including his love-poem ‘Anguish’, which is much in demand whenever he performs. Curiously, it’s more influenced by John Donne than any contemporary poet writing in English. When he reads, I notice purple ink, fresh on his thumb.
Joseph leaves, but we arrange to meet again at Femrite (women’s writing cooperative) next Monday. I wander down into Wandegeya to eat at the Afro-Chinese café. The city is picking up speed, getting back to its tumult of traffic, pedestrians, and diesel fumes. A man in a grey suit passes me, a briefcase in one hand, a live chicken dangling from the other.
Later, a full moon glides over the mosque, the dark clots of Eucalyptus trees. It’s slightly irregular, as if a rough tongue has lapped at the surface. Clouds slide over each other, skeins of pale silk. A far-off chanting has begun as results are confirmed, carrying from all points of the city. Makerere is quiet, but the cries surge and fade and surge again from the glittering hills beyond. A lone demagogue, drunk on beer and election fever, delivers his harangue to a deserted campus as he meanders home. The moon looks down impassively. No change.
Graham is now working on a project which will offer on-line support for writers in Uganda.
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