The Helicopters and the Crowds

1995, Lincoln International School, Kampala, Uganda.

Break time on a sunny Wednesday morning: children of all races aged 5 to 18 years strolling around the quad or out on the playing field, some kicking a ball around, others playing tag; teachers and helpers enjoying their hot coffee in or around the staff room except for the two outside on duty and those embroiled in last-minute lesson preparations in the classrooms. I, the Maintenance Officer, happened to be down in the corridor near the computer lab which led to part of the field.

Military helicopters buzzing around Kampala’s sky were not unusual. This one however got louder and louder. I moved outside to where I could see it. It was hovering quite low over the field. Children moved to the edge as it … to my horror I could see it was landing in the middle of the playing field.


January 1984, the road to Kotido, Karamoja, Uganda

My second day travelling what, because of my experience of the English countryside, I could only regard as a 150-mile-long cart track: red soil, red dust, red blistering heat, ameliorated only by the hot air blowing through the door windows in the cab of the green Mercedes truck – left over relief transport from the 1980 killer-famine. We stopped to view a couple of human thigh bones – all that was left of two teenage school boys killed by the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) some days earlier.

A few weeks later, on the way to buy timber from Mbale, 200 miles away, I am shown the place known as Lorengacora. There was nothing left, save a couple of burned-out mud huts that had once been grass-thatched, where once there had been a whole village of people, caring for their animals, growing their crops, collecting their water from less-than-clean shallow wells, or over-used boreholes with heavy-duty hand-pumps. The village had been bombed and set on fire by the military, in helicopters.


1990, Moroto, Karamoja, Uganda.

With the approval of the local community I took under my wing a 13-year old orphan boy, in need of care and fees for school where he had previously shown promise. His story was long; it took many months for him to tell me most of it. People who suffer trauma, not least children and not least those who suffer long, find it hard to provide an intelligible and consistent narrative. Their listeners struggle to know wisdom and compassion in teasing out and piecing together some coherence.

Almost no part of Karamoja (near to the size of Wales) was free from senseless and violent persecution under Idi Amin, and later under the second regime of Milton Obote. The Karimojong inhabitants were punished for being ‘backward’ due to being semi-nomadic cattle keepers. They were also said to be ‘uncivilised’ due to their entirely-healthy tendency to avoid the wearing of clothes. The earlier colonial ‘Protectorate’ administration had ‘pacified’ and then pretty-much ignored them. It was left to the missionaries to introduce formal education, for better or worse.

James was from the south, the youngest by far of three boys – like his new dad, born later in the marriage. His parents died of natural causes when he was small. In 1986, when the villages around Namalu were attacked by the UNLA in helicopters, nine-year-old James had the unenviable experience, along with other residents, of running from the burning villages, soldiers firing live bullets at them from the open doors of low-flying helicopters. Obviously he survived, while many he knew did not. Not happy memories, nor what someone taking over parental duties would wish to hear.


1995, Lincoln International School, Kampala, Uganda.

Even before the sound of the engine faded away, children started moving towards the helicopter, drawn perhaps as moths to light. As fear caught hold of me and possible scenarios flashed through my mind, I knew that, whatever could have caused a military of helicopter of the Uganda National Resistance Army to land in an International School playing field, I did not have the authority to deal with it. I began to run up the stairs towards the administrative block where I hoped I would find the Director. Time appeared to slow down, yet I was running. I had no time to be shocked and scared at the children and staff who had appeared as from nowhere and were flooding down the stairs to get a close-up view of this exciting event; yet I was.

“You’re going the wrong way!” I tried with limited breath to yell to a teacher. With what seemed to me a foolish disregard for the children in her care (and their large-fee-paying parents), she grinned and continued on down. Had I the time to think, I would have been aghast at the crowd mentality or dangerous inquisitiveness that drew them.

Running up more steps and across the grass of the quad, ignoring paved paths, I reached the Director’s Office outer door and ran in. He American, and at the top of this little heap, I would normally ask his Business Manager if he was free or, if she was absent, knock and wait. She was not in evidence: I knocked once and rushed in. He was apparently in the middle of interviewing parents of a potential pupil.

“I’m sorry to interrupt, but an army helicopter has just landed in the school field. The buck stops here.”


It turned out that the pilot was confused as to his location; he also appeared to lack common sense. He was eventually persuaded by the Director to fly away: I presume the latter was trained for any eventuality. Later I was told that one child, who had previously witnessed a military coup in another country, had been scared out of her wits. She and me together. It’s not hard to see what might have lain behind my and her reactions to the situation, but still I wonder about the teachers and why their first instinct was not to move the children away.

I never found out whether the interviewed parents sent their child to the school, but I do confess to experiencing a moment of pleasure in saying “the buck stops here”.


© Nicholas Robert Jewitt and, 2012. 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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