Muireann taking photos in Uganda


Mac Cool's Uganda Letter

Photographs and Stories by Muireann Mac Cool


B l o g

What I see as I go to work

28 Aug 2007

My world in a mornings walk. Perhaps a long account- but one I wished to get down on paper.

Locking my front door I move around to the back of the house and pass through a gate that leads to St. Luke's Intern Accommodation where I used to live. The back door of their kitchen is open and the cook on duty is busy sitting on the porch peeling matooke or Irish potatoes into a large aluminium saucepan. We greet. I rush it because I always seem to be in a hurry, no matter how early I get up I feel anxious that I'm running late. I trot around the building, hearing the sounds of morning television and radios coming from almost every intern room. I peek through the mess common room where the television blinks with the mutterings of some evangelist preacher.

I pass the nurses quarters and other staff and doctors' accommodation. The path runs by one student nurse block and the student nurses are standing in neat rows on the verandah as the tutor calls out their names. She wants to check that all are present and ready to move out onto the hospital wards. The majority of the girls welcome the distraction of staring at this white woman rushing through their compound, I feel their eyes press hard on me. I wonder how long it takes them to iron their cool white and pink uniforms so straight. Sometimes I curse them for being on the generator when our house is cut off from electricity.

As I move through the hospital compound some patients or relatives are sitting on mats outside the ward taking some air. Huge trees arch over the broken path. It's a green hospital. Because many of the buildings were built at different times they are surrounded by green lawns. Each building is a separate island some with verandahs others with modern bricks. I greet the giggling escali (guard) who is always amused with my basic luganda. His gate swings open to allow me take a short cut that few visitors are allowed to take. The benches outside the clinic and Out Patients Department are lined with old men with sticks, women in bright African prints heavily pregnant and very quiet children. Occasionally a real life emergency is coming out of an ambulance [if they're wealthy] or a car. They wheel past me up the ramp on a trolley. Boda Boda road accidents are the most common. When I'm in the car park I think about CM, our friend's mother delivering a baby in this very car park during the 1980s war. She laughs about it now, but luckily her husband caught the baby boy as he slipped out - before he hit the tarmac!

Opposite the main gate there is a haphazard kitchen cooking slum beside the shops and the Nsambya Home Care building site. Women line the muddy no mans land between the hospital land, the school compound and sports field. They cook on charcoal stoves in the mud and wander around with plates and saucepans. They are mostly preparing Katogo which is a mixture of steamed bananas (matoke) and offals or beans or meat. No matter how many times these women see me they ask in luganda if I will join them for food or they abuse me thinking I don't understand. I smile but continue to walk, pretending to be oblivious to their chatter because I don't have time. Further along I greet the woman selling vegetables from her make shift stall. Benches lay empty beside her. In only a few hours local men will take their seats to gamble and play omuweso and ludo.

One of the slum houses along this path to the main road really interests me-about thirty old paint cans are used instead of pots to create an amazing garden of trees and shrubs. It's a little miracle to make a green space in the typically red dirt place. Little rocks and stones mark out the red and greeen garden and although the earth has not been swept yet, I know that it will.

As I slope down past the garden house I see more ramshakle dwellings, wild dogs sleep by the sides of the path and I wander past them wondering what my GP back home would think if he saw me wandering past without my rabies shot. I usually push such thoughts from my head with the help of the smell of the rubbish. It lines the path and as I approach the main road it is piled around the swimming pool sized skip in large heaps. I take a huge breath and focus on the cubist like pictures on the musical instrument shack.

Depending on the time of day or the weather I may fight to enter a share taxi (matatu). I state the fare I should pay and the conductor either agrees or adds a hundred shillings to that. Squeezed in amongst the 13 other passengers I look at the young conductor adding coins to his shirt pocket and retrieving notes from his trouser pocket. The luganda speaking Djs talk wildly about love affairs and scandals. We pass high-tech petrol stations, street children, the railway houses, disabled beggars, furniture workshops, pedistrians and police.

The matatu approaches the Queens clock tower which is marked by old election posters and posters with a Chinese dignatory on them, the shell logo and the long stopped clock. This former roundabout is a mess of a junction with police waving pedestrians and trafic haphazardy through. The matatus fight with each other, trucks, car, cycists and boda bodas to over take and bully into the top of the queque. The traffic fills every inch of the road and the boda bodas close off the remaining gaps. In solid jam, the driver turns off the engine. Once I saw a group of drummers in the back of a pickup stacked with chairs beating large local drums. It was an inspiring vision that carried me through the day with the memory of the beautiful African beats.

The street preacher shouts at the marching crowds, quoting verses in the Bible that I never knew could be memorised so. The hawkers line the streets selling newspapers, pens, sweets and snacks. I'm now in downtown Kampala which to the untrained eye is a clutter of shop doors and signage. I pass bakeries, hardware stores and spare part shops but mostly I'm in clothes central where cash is king. Keeping the old taxi park to my right I continue up the hill that is Ben Kiwanuka St. This has to be one of the busiest streets in Kampala and the majority of deals, I'm told take place here. The multistoried buildings hold wholesalers and retailers wares.

The footpaths aren't wide enough to hold all the pedestrians, idlers, 'business men', hawkers, telephone women and labourers. Hot plates and buckets of katogo is ferried around by women in aprons to men siting on steps eating. Men carry stacks and stacks of plastic buckets on their backs. Sweating men push bicycles with flour up and down the street. How can one man balance and hold 13 matresses on his head? Boda Boda men lounge on their bikes at their station joking and jostling for customers. “Muzungu, where are you going?” Labourers throw bricks over their heads to the workmen on the first and second floors of the scaffolding. Once one building is complete another is shooting up. Shinny men lift heavy loads from trucks. Import. Export. Import. Export. Fish smells and car fumes. All the while, touts scream encouragingly at people to board matatus. I push through the crowds of Indian, Chinese and Ugandans on their way to work in this crazy part of town.

When I reach Bombo road I relax into a slow pace. I admire the art deco buildings from the 1930's to1950's. They are in need of repair but I enjoy the spacing of doors and the wide street. These buildings are associated with Indian Ugandans and contain mostly 'Indian' run businesses. Outside one shop selling motorbikes and mopeds an Indian Ugandan with a 80's haircut supervises the comings and goings. It is here that I attract the least attention as I have left the calls to the muzungu downtown. The street sweepers sweep as the matatus go by. Few people are here so I gather my thoughts for the day ahead. The sign for the shop is growning bigger and I begin to see the trees that line that latter end of the road.

I can see the sign and the station of boda boda men sleeping on their bikes below it. I greet Patrick and the rest of them when they wake and move down through the carpark. I wave to the ninety year old escali who has not been granted retirement by his employers so sits guarding the cars. I look up at this dilapidated building wondering what our customers must think. Before ducking under the building gangway I greet Regina who is sitting up on the bridge by her pay phone desk waiting for customers. She smiles down and asks how my night was.

I smile to myself. It was good.

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