2 Friends found and lost; friends found again

I met Stephen Ediamu in 1994 shortly after his wife died in childbirth and we soon became good friends. We knew enough of each other’s cultures and found enough experiences shared to be able to understand each other well. Stephen had spent his primary school days in Karamoja (where I worked 1984-86 and 1988-91) so we used to practise our ngaKarimojong over a beer and a plate of pork kebabs. We became very good friends, visiting each others houses, meeting family and friends. I suppose one reason we got on well was that we had a similar taste in humour – rather droll. But, he could also be a roaring good laugh.

Sadly Stephen also died after a short illness in 2003, leaving four teenage children. He had been in charge of a busy department at one of the Ugandan newspapers.

A year or so before he died Stephen set up a small business with another man with whom he had studied. At the time I was driving a quite distinctive old and tiny 4×4 which drew either admiration or derision. It was a conventional diesel with a fairly fast tick-over. When I first got it Stephen asked me (over the pork),

Nick, is that a car or a generator?

One day I drove past Stephen’s office and work-shop building in Kampala’s old industrial area; immediately my cell phone rang. (I have to confess that in those days I answered my phone while driving if there was not much traffic about.)

Nick! You are not supposed to drive past my office without calling in to see me.

During the years that followed, now back in the UK, I tried to keep in touch with Stephen Ediamu’s children: Margaret, the twins Opiyo Matthew and Ochieng Patrick, and Robert Okello – who was only 13 when Stephen died. I still remember him holding the picture of his Dad at the memorial service. The clan elders decided that the family should stay in the house Stephen had built 12 miles to the east of the centre of Kampala, together with his older niece, Joy Alinya, whom Stephen had put through education and was now working. There would also be financial support from the other members of the extended family. But it was inevitable that this support would eventually dwindle as their own families moved towards higher education.

For various reasons, not least my own forgetfulness, I was usually not in direct touch with the young people but only with “Auntie Joy” from time to time. It was clear that she was making the best of a difficult job, supporting her young cousins and trying very hard not to ask for help. The previous time I visited Uganda (August 2007) I had seen the boys only; I took them to Nando’s fast food outlet in Kampala and they chose chicken. I guess I should have taken them for healthy eating but, hey, it’s good to have what we enjoy sometimes.

It is hard to believe it was only in January of this year (I am writing in late 2009) that I received an email from Patrick informing me that they were in some difficulties. In subsequent emails, text messages and phone calls I learned that he and Matthew had finished ‘A’ levels and were now at home, doubting whether funds could be found for University in September. It was clear that they were struggling with fewer clothes than they had been used to, and lacking good shoes.

I have a friend who, for the last 13 years had been giving me significant sums towards the needs of individuals in education in Uganda. The last of these, a Sudanese refugee, was to finish University in June this year, so I asked my friend if he could see his way to supporting one or both of the twins at University: he replied positively. Thus began a long process of identifying courses and costs, including ‘extras’ like hostels, food, books. Also I and my friend needed to be sure that the money would be well-spent, that they would be serious students; meanwhile some suggestion of less-desirable behaviour and family dissension reached me. This family was coming back into my orbit in a big way and they were part of my decision to go to Uganda at this time.

So it was that on my first morning back in Kampala (Thursday 23rd July) I rang Ochieng Patrick, now 20 years old, and expressed my hope that they would be at home later in the afternoon. In due time we headed for the house, just outside Kampala city’s eastern boundary. We arrived at about 5 pm to be met with big hugs by non-identical twins Patrick and Matthew. Joy was still at work in town at this point, but her younger sister was there. She and the twins were still awaiting confirmation of places at Kyambogo University in the Kampala suburbs, which had been formed a few years back from the Uganda Polytechnic and the adjacent National Teachers College. We sat and talked, very happy to be together again. This was obviously an opportunity to catch up on many things, including some only hinted at in emails, as well as a little practice of my Ateso – their father’s mother tongue – closely related to Ngakarimojong.

Joy eventually arrived home from work, having sat in the minibus-taxi as it struggled through the now ubiquitous Kampala traffic jams. It was lovely to see her again and appreciate just how hard she has been working to keep the family together.

Very enjoyable fresh passion/orange juice was served. Subtle hints warned me that I was expected to stay for supper so I sent an SMS text message to my friend’s housekeeper to say I would not need to eat. Joy and some of the others prepared a wonderful meal with a number of different dishes. It is common practice at times to ‘forget’ that the driver also needs to eat. Many, expatriates and Ugandans alike, see the need of a ‘social distance’. Kinder ones would send food to the driver to eat out the back somewhere, or on the veranda (that might be my way). Joy however is not such a forgetful person. She invited Fred-the-driver to the table and he ate with us.

After making arrangements for the next day, Fred and I left for our drive through dark streets, along the dusty road to ‘home’, the other side of town, and my welcome bed.

On Friday 24 July 2009 after finishing my administrative issues in Kampala (see chapter 1), I left at midday with the twin boys for Jinja, Fred driving, to see about the administration of their funding for university education, now due to start late August. In that culture it is not belittling to refer to young men of that age as boys, particularly those still in full-time education.  These particular boys seemed in need of some older male input: I did my best with some serious sharing of ideas relating to freedom and responsibilities as teenagers become men, as well as affirmation, an attempt to complement the tremendous efforts Joy has put into their education and care. Brought up in a middle class urban family they had never lacked for essentials. But since Ediamu died, and support from other parts of the extended family had waned – they had become less than comfortable. They had to borrow shoes for this trip.

On the way to Jinja, about an hour in the car, Matthew sat with me in the back and we had some deep and hopefully fruitful conversation, which was a privilege. He told me how difficult they found it and how discouraged and unsettled he in particular had become in the last couple of years. He assured me of his intention now to travel on the good paths of serious study and behaviour conducive to his own well-being. I was a little amused to observe Patrick straining to hear from the front seat, and assured him that was fine.

Not for the first time I wondered how it is I find myself close to needy people. Is it for their sakes and that of old friendships that I can’t abide the thought of losing contact and input, or is there also something in it for me? Certainly it is a responsibility being looked up to as a parent or big-brother figure. Even to twenty year olds.

During this time we were stopped by a traffic policeman who claimed that we had been speeding. I am not sure of the truth of this, but clearly his main intention was to get a bribe, which we would of course pay willingly in order to not have our journey interrupted by being arrested and going to court immediately, via the police station (Fred and the car, not the rest of us). Fred paid him the equivalent of £10 which I ended up refunding him later as it may not have been his fault, and it is a significant amount, more than three times his daily rate of about £3. This is about average for someone doing that type of  job on a daily basis. However, in terms of rent, basic food, etc., its buying power is perhaps three times that of UK.

The funding for the twins at university, organised by me and paid for by my good friend, was to be administered by TOFTA Educational Trust based in Jinja, which also has charitable status in UK. TOFTA, set up by my friend of several years – John Kirkwood, runs Lords Meade Vocational College (secondary level) in the town of Njeru, just across the Source of the Nile from Jinja. The school is mainly run on bursaries as its pupils are generally from families unable to pay the fees for themselves. TOFTA also pays bursaries for children at other schools, and a few at University. They have kindly agreed to act as a channel for the money for the twins’ university costs, which means the UK income tax can be reclaimed on the donations. John, to whose house we headed, is also a strong Rotarian. He has previously worked as a teacher in both Kenya and Uganda.

John welcomed us and provided us with a late lunch. In the afternoon he took us to the very plain offices of TOFTA in Jinja town where we met Joseph, the Sponsorship Co-ordinator, who introduced the twins to the organisation and its procedures, giving them forms to fill.

It was 4 pm by the time the twins and I left (with Fred) to see their slightly younger brother Okello Robert at school, busy with A level mocks. A mile or so after passing under the railway bridge some 12 miles out of Jinja we turned south on the dirt road towards the lake. The bridge, carrying the line from Kampala to Nairobi (Kenya) is one of the few on the network, level crossings being far more usual. In my time living in Uganda I had known a few people who met their deaths in collisions on level crossings.

We travelled about the same distance on the bumpy and dusty dirt road to the school, passing the junction for Buloba where an Irish friend of mine used to work on an agricultural programme, just on the shore of Lake Victoria.

This was not really the right time to visit a boarding school. Most of them have set visiting days, usually the last Sunday of the month, when parents can visit and bring pocket-money and edible treats to supplement the basic institutional diet.

Will they let us in?

They will.

I had been a bit reluctant to leave at this hour with it being 20 miles or so, half of them along dirt roads. This was one of the occasions when the respect for a white skin, dating from colonial times, could be used to advantage. I have tried not to let this affect my every day dealings as a rule, but Robert had ask me in an email to visit him, so I did.

The gatekeeper let us in and the boys was led me to the headmaster’s office.

Opiyo and Ochieng, you have come to see us.

Yes sir.

You are welcome – to me.

I was offered a chair in front of HM’s desk and introduced myself as a friend of their late father. He told me he was the brother of their late mother. Sometimes “brother” means what we here in the “west” know as paternal cousins, I never did clarify which it was, but then it doesn’t matter because the meaning is “brother” (but why had I not been told before?). He sent another student to find Robert, and meanwhile took me on a tour of the school which was only four years old, and still growing. It is a private school and its attainments have been impressive. He told me that Robert is a very able student, but in need of encouragement to persevere as his attention wanders at times.

I attempted a sentence or two in the HM’s mother tongue and then apologised for speaking ‘vernacular’ in school, where English is required as a uniting factor amongst the tribal languages (about 50 in Uganda as a whole).

We catch you twice and we throw you out, he quipped.

Robert met us as we were walking back and HM left us to sit on some outside chairs and chat in the cool of the evening. It was not easy. I had planned to keep it light-hearted, but after the HM’s words, I thought I had better give Robert some encouragement on the concentration matter, and general behaviour.  Thus it became something of a SERIOUS TALK, which was not at first so well received, he apparently thinking, not entirely inaccurately, that I was speaking on behalf of others, but my words were from me too – and intended to encourage rather than blame. As part of the need for concentration, we talked about the possibilities for holiday studies coming up and his need for books: we agreed to meet at home after school had closed for holidays two weeks later. What pleased me is that he expressed himself plainly and politely, without false respect, and when we parted it was with a hug.

Opiyo and Ochieng meanwhile had been seeing old friends, and as Robert and I walked towards the car they introduced me to some of their cousins studying there. I gave R some pocket-money, including paying off his debt with the privately run canteen, which supplements the rather basic school meals.

Time to leave, and this time it was Patrick’s turn for the serious chat in the back of the car with me. I was feeling a little bruised from the worse parts of the encounter with Robert, but managed to talk with Patrick along similar lines to those I had with Matthew. The time was short and we were soon back in Jinja.

I had arranged to spend the night chez John before travelling ever eastward by bus the next day. Before I asked Fred to drive them back to their home I gave the twins money to buy some shoes, about £10 each, which would buy a reasonable pair of shoes – for less than the cost of the safari boots I had bought in Kampala. Sensible shoes I said, rather than the winkle-pickers which Ochieng seemed to like. They assured me this was enough, and hopefully there might even be enough left over for some cell-phone credit.

Is this paternalism? My answer is that when we have made the world a considerably more equitable place then there will be less need for the giving or the question. Meanwhile I believe those of us who are better off have some duty to those who are worse off, especially those we know. I should also point out that two people gave me money to help out with my inevitable expenses on the trip so it was not only my own money I was spending.

I then paid Fred for his work. They left and I had a less than warm shower as the electricity was off. But in the earlier part of the evening, a cool shower is refreshing.

John is a busy man with his Rotary and TOFTA commitments, so it was later in the evening before he arrived home and we had supper, by the light of small solar and oil lamps.

The electricity often goes off after it rains, he told me.

After he had berated the power company on the phone for what was evidently a long-standing problem, we had a good chat, catching up on mutual friends, the political prospects in Uganda, etc.

On the Saturday morning I relaxed at John’s house, meeting various people, some of whom I had met in previous years. I had a light lunch with John, and he then took me to the bus stop for Mbale, while he went off to a wedding in Kampala.

Since the buses coming from Kampala do not operate to a strict timetable it is a matter of waiting. A lot of the public transport in Uganda is carried out by minibus “taxis”, mostly the ubiquitous Toyota Hi-ace. There were a couple of these at the edge-of-town bus stop waiting to fill up with passengers. The conductors kept coming up to me and assuring me that all the buses are already full when they pass here so, I should travel with them. Those “taxis” are well-known for speeding and having disastrous accidents, as well as being less than comfortable and sometimes overloaded.  I hate them for longer journeys – it would have taken three hours before I gave in to such sales-talk.  The truth is that the buses do usually leave Kampala when they are full, but some people get out at intermediate towns.  Two buses passed me and after an hour or so one stopped and I was able to get on.  They told to take my hard suitcase with me inside the bus (presumably the hold underneath was already full) and there was no option but to block the aisle between the three seats on one side and two on the other. I seemed to be the only person concerned about this: passengers alighting along the way seemed quite happy to jump over it.

The seats were reasonably comfortable and I had a chat with a young fellow-passenger about life in general. When we reached Mbale he insisted on helping me find a taxi-cab to my ultimate destination even though I needed to buy some food first. I had asked him how much I could expect to pay for sugar and some other things. It is normal to appear with some groceries when staying as someone’s guest in a town or city – it may be assumed that it is expensive to live there as food has mostly to be bought (rather than grown and harvested as in the villages), rents paid, etc. I spotted a ‘Chinese Supermarket’ which had not been there before, so in my best Chinese greeted the man behind the counter ni hao and, having checked the prices were sensible, decided to buy from him. My new acquaintance then helped me carry the bags as I towed my suitcase, and we found a taxi-cab nearby, with whom I negotiated a reasonable price to the ‘Senior Quarters’ area of the residential part of town, much of which dated from colonial times or from soon after Independence in 1963.

I had first met Mary Lotiang and her two sons at a Christian conference at a school in Lotome, Karamoja at new year 1989 just days after both the Wandsworth Common train crash and the Lockerbie air disaster, the news of which reached me during that time. The boys, as I remember, wanted to sleep under a land rover rather than in a dormitory. Later I met her husband Adam and they welcomed me in their home in Mbale whenever I might be passing through on the way to Kampala. There I also met their four daughters. We became firm family friends. Sadly Adam died in 1998 and we buried him at his brother’s home in Namalu, south Karamoja.

Now, years later, Mary is a grandmother of eight, five of whom stay with her most of the time. As it happened all eight were there with her elder son Andrew’s partner, mother of the latest grandchild. We had hoped Andrew might be able to get time off from his work with an International Non-Government Organisation (INGO) in Kaabong, north Karamoja, and travel down so he could keep me company on my journey to Karamoja. Alas, this had turned out not to be possible, and apparently Mary had wondered if she would be able to keep me entertained, with only women and children, plus her teenage nephew. She soon realised that her fears were groundless, with a couple of beers and a lot of reminiscing we had a good laugh. I was given the same bedroom I had almost always slept in; goodness knows where everyone else slept – the house is a good size, but only three bedrooms.

About ten years before that I had visited Mary with my then wife, our daughter and Michael, a friend from UK. That was the time when our little girl, then 4 years old, stepped on the concrete apron outside, where a charcoal stove had just been standing, and burned her foot, fortunately not too badly. Mary had a houseful then as well: there were about half a dozen of us males sleeping in a row on the sitting room floor.

The next day, Sunday, I planned to visit another old friend in Soroti, and on from there to Moroto in Karamoja on the Monday.

In the night I woke with a raging headache, pains in my joints and spinal column, and apparently high fever.

© Nicholas Robert Jewitt and nickjewitt.wordpress.com, 2007-2009. 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 nickjewitt.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



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