Uganda and me in the mid 80s

An expression in very free verse, written for spoken poetry event that was cancelled.

July 1985
Idi Amin gone six years, all NOT well in Uganda,
in second reign of Milton Obote.

Do you have any money?
This politely to the bank teller.
Naaa, maybe next week, he said.

Have you got any petrol?
This at the fuel station.
Naaa, maybe next week, if God wishes.

Two hundred dusty cart track miles to Kotido town,
almost at the end of the world someone said.
On the way, remains of youths butchered by army,
a few bones left by hyenas.

Construction programme,
Anglican diocese, Welsh bishop:
White men on pedestals take frequent falls, saying
‘People who live in grass houses shouldn’t stow thrones’.

The president is coming!
We must paint the town.
English man give us paint,
National colours red, yellow and black.

I’m terribly sorry, Town Clerk,
I have only white; white man grins and adds,
Maybe he can bring it when he comes.

Summoned to the District office,
for meeting with local heads:
District Commissioner, Administrative Secretary, Party Chief,
Police Commander, Army Commander
and, of course, the Town Clerk.

How can the President concern himself with paint?
You British are the ones who taught us,
‘when in Rome do as the Romans’.
Would you say that about your Queen?

Well I might sir, but you are right of course;
No disrespect intended to his Excellency,
Or indeed to anybody else.
Everyone afraid for their own skin.
As it was, the President never arrived.

Two weeks on: Our man is threatened,
Give that Land Rover, we go help him,
He hears we did nothing where shall we be?
This from the ‘friendly’ local militia.

‘Be Prepared’, we also taught,
spark plug leads swapped in advance
removed the need of having to say ‘no’.

Obote fled to Kenya, now General Okello rules.
Dilemma: now he’s not the president should the apology be
Museveni’s rebellion gaining strength,
Teenagers recruited to fight him.

January 26 1986, six months to the day:
Okello follows to Kenya too.
Rebel Museveni now reigns in Kampala,
But here, fleeing soldiers run rampage.

Builder loosens fuel pipe on diesel Landy,
‘loses’ keys. Give us keys, open the gate.
Foolishly responds: Don’t have, it’s not my car.
Men, take down the fence;
Don’t need keys to bump-start a diesel with no steering lock –
or to take po’ whitey’s clothes from the line.

Two crazy aid worker friends drive down from compound on hill,
to see how bad things are in the town;
Stopped and were told of two Landies taken.

Get out, get out of the vehicle or I shoot!
Soldier points gun mounted grenade launcher.
I’m getting out, but if you shoot that you won’t have a vehicle.
Soldiers race vehicle away – ex-pat lungs in shock, full of road dust.

An Englishman, an Irishman and an Australian,
were left standing in the road,
The English man says, would you like a cup of coffee?
The Irishman says, Coffee? after that we need whisky!
Terribly sorry, but Anglican church here does not allow alcohol.
Cawfee it is then mate! said the Australian.

Kind bishop drives crazy friends home up the hill;
for them, one vehicle gone, five remaining.
Evening comes, Army helicopter passes low overhead,
Bishop yells at English colleague shooting photos.

Such a noisy night!
Deserted barracks full of materiel, collected by locals,
time to finish old grievances between neighbours and clans,
Guns and mortars – surround sound, the whole long night.
Under the bed safer? on top more comfortable.

Morning comes with relative calm,
But daylight offers different opportunities:
Kids playing with mortars which … ‘played’ back;
Report of diesel Landy found abandoned,
no wheels, no brakes, no cylinder head;

Women pass by, carrying on backs,
bundled guns, for their men,
like so much firewood
– for future cattle raids perhaps.

Teenage soldier returns from the front – to protect, he says;
But, high on local brew, fires indiscriminately at shadows;

Joint action with tall black priest to take boy’s set-down gun,
which Whitey picks up, gingerly pointing upwards,
as priest and boy fall in rugby tackle on hard road;

Enough delay to reach empty police station,
Pass to barracks where drunken sergeant accepts offered gun,
Cocked ready to shoot, his colleague said.
Said the Bishop: You should have got a receipt!

Pecking order for departure of foreigners from rural war zones:
Aid agencies: immediately (if not before),
no expense spared – most likely by plane,
Land, load and off, avoid local officials if poss,
Debrief in capital, off for unplanned coastal holiday.

Anglicans: first fumble, discuss, pray, um and ahh,
Eventually they trickle out, by plane or by road, depending on

Roman Catholics, mostly Italian, they never leave it’s said –
maybe that’s why they get so many converts?

Six days on, cadge lift in Catholic vehicle,
to Kenya, via the back escarpment road,
built in 40s by Italian POWs.
Travelling, relaxing, visiting friends.

Then, Feb 16, ’86, preparing soon to return:
walk last seven miles up to the crater of Mount Elgon,
4000 metres high, and seven miles back.

Welsh Bishop arrives that evening –
passing Kenyans calling on the way:
Don’t leave now, they need you more!

If in Uganda, would not so quickly have received
news of mother’s death in England that night.
Take a month off, said the bishop.

© Nicholas Robert Jewitt and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Robert Jewitt and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


About Nick Jewitt

Born Muswell Hill, London, England, 13 June 1954, the last in a spread-out family of five, our one sister being the eldest. Family moved to Cowden, Kent when I was 3 years old, into the house my Dad had been building. He carried on finishing it as I was growing up. We were High Church Anglicans, though Holy Trinity Mark Beech was 'lower' than that which my parents were used to. In 1959 I started at Hever CE Primary school, 60 pupils, leaving in 1965 having "passed" the 11-plus examination (when I was 10). This led to my entry into The Skinners' School (don't forget the apostrophe), a Grammar school for boys in Tunbridge Wells; 'Twigs', the Tunbridge Wells County Girls' School (apostrophe remembered) was just over the road. I never did find the tunnel under the road, being less interested than some, I suppose. During this time I had what is known as "an evangelical conversion", though I called it "becoming a Christian". This awakening of faith had a huge effect for good in my life, though it did nothing to reduce the narrow-mindedness ingested at home, and little to draw me out of my shell in more public situations. Teens were difficult, leading to confusion and uncertainty after two moderate A level passes. I went to an evening Bible College in London and worked for British Rail - Sealink at Victoria station. IRA bomb scares in London were frequent. Later I worked as a full time volunteer in St Mark's Church, Kennington, then ended up in the ubiquitous "P&D" - painting and decorating - from where I branched out into other skills in house renovation, doubtless assisted by what I had picked up from Dad's efforts at home. In 1978 I joined what became Roehampton University, taking a combined degree in Education and Environmental Studies (ES) with the aim of teaching. Teaching Practice (TeePee) in Inner London schools eventually persuaded me that I should give up on that idea so I dropped Education and took up Sociology, finally graduating in 1982 and celebrating with a trip to the Soviet Union – my first time to fly, at the age of 28. In 1982 it was hard enough to get any job, let alone one using my interests and qualifications in ES. I did apply for some jobs in housing management to no avail. Needed money and unwilling to go on the dole, so back to the housing renovation. I believe I imbibed my interest in the less fortunate from my mother, who was a keen supporter of the Mothers' Union work overseas, and collected money from friends and neighbours for Oxfam. I got the call to work in Africa and left in January 1984 for the Anglican Diocese of Karamoja in the wild north-east of Uganda. Administratively, I was a volunteer for a missionary society who asked me if I could supervise and organise the construction of small single storey buildings - houses, offices, clinics, etc. I was reasonably confident I could, so I did. The bishop at the time was an ex-architect so that helped. Aside from that, knowing what you don't know, and knowing where to look were the keys, as well as trying to acquire the necessary management and people skills. Mother died February 1986 at the age of 76. I left Uganda end of same year, did a year's Missionary & Cross-cultural study, and went back to the same job in Uganda in September 1988. Stayed for 3 more years, informally adopted a son, got engaged to be married. 1992, went to Kampala (Uganda's capital) to take up one of two jobs I thought had been offered. Both fell through: there followed the (mostly) dark years, the long night of the soul, which included a marriage begun and ended, the (happy) birth of a daughter, a finding of myself, and, slowly and painfully, the loss of my evangelical faith and acceptance of a different orientation. A new dawn of understanding has contributed to the ongoing process of re-building myself. Meanwhile I dossed around, the odd contract in building- or development-related work, a year and a half as the maintenance officer of the international school. In 1997 I set up a small company – renovation and installation. It helped us survive and eventually covered the cost of a pair of semi-detached houses as settlement for my wife. In 2005 I came back to UK with ten-year-old daughter and have settled in Bangor, on the beautiful north Wales coast, facing Snowdonia. And back to housing renovation for a while, becoming increasingly difficult for my back. In early 2009 I began studying and easing myself into copy-editing and proof-reading. The process continues. Now attending Society of Friends (Quakers), whose meeting for worship is based on silence, with contributions as the Spirit leads. Involved in activism for peace and justice, particularly anti-nuclear; environment too – it occurs to me that I imbibed some of this from my father, a member of the Soil Association from the 1960s, and against inappropriate chemical use. I imbibed his anger too, reduced and hopefully better channelled now.
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2 Responses to Uganda and me in the mid 80s

  1. philsteele says:

    Very good, Nick. Is this blog a new departure?

    • Nick Jewitt says:

      Thanks for your kind words Phil. It’s been here for a while, as can be seen from dates on earlier blog-posts. But I rarely post. Occasionally my Rwanda posts (possibly out of date now) come up in someone’s internet search and get a look. But it is a useful storage place for the (hopefully) ongoing travelogues. I should finish the Uganda 2009 before I go again this summer …
      There I go again, rabbiting on …

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