Uganda and me

UGANDA IS ONE OF many countries that I have not yet visited. Yet, I can relate some personal anecdotes related to it.

When we had our Hindu wedding ceremony in Bangalore (India), several of my wife’s aunts, whose families originated in Kutch (now part of Gujarat State in western India) were present and quite concerned that there were elements of Kutchi marriage traditions incorporated into our three-hour long ceremony. I cannot remember what these were. One of the aunts had lived with her family in Uganda until they saw the ‘writing on the wall’ and left for India before Idi Amin forcibly expelled all of the other Asians from his country. Her son, who lives in the UK, introduced me to Uganda’s national alcoholic drink ‘waragi’, brewed from bananas, which did not appeal to me as much as other drinks with 40% alcohol content.

Soon after I went to India for our wedding, I began working in a dental practice near Portobello Road in west London. It was there that I worked with ‘A’, who was the best dental surgery assistant I have ever worked with. She was resourceful, bright, friendly, polite, efficient, and never lost her cool. When equipment went wrong, I used to want to ring Andy, our repairman, but A would say:

“Let me fix it, Mr Yamey, I saw what Andy did last time.”

And usually, she fixed whatever had broken down.

Occasionally, A worked at the reception desk. Patients used to come up to the desk, often impatient and desperate to obtain dental treatment immediately. Instead of getting flustered, as other receptionists might easily have done, she used to say calmly something like:

“Good afternoon, Mr Brown, how are you today? And how is your family?”

When the patient had been calmed down by her questions, she would get down to the business of making arrangements for the patient’s treatment. She had a civilising influence on others.

A was born in Uganda after Idi Amin had given up ruling the country, but she lived through the troubling times that followed his downfall. She told me that she had witnessed a member of her close family being shot while she hid in a bush nearby. On another occasion, she told me:

“I heard some soldiers coming to my home, and, Mr Yamey, I jumped out of a window at the back and ran into the fields. I ran and ran and ran.”

Despite these and other horrific experiences, one would not imagine that A had had such a traumatic childhood.

A was an evangelical Christian. She kept a small edition of the New Testament in one of the drawers in my surgery alongside tubes and bottles of dental materials. It was printed mainly in black but with some words in red. These were, A explained to me, the words that had been uttered by Jesus. Every day, she used to say to me in her gentle voice:

“Mr Yamey, all you need to do to be saved is to accept Jesus into your life.”

This did not bother me, nor did the evangelical Christian radio station that she liked to hear while we were working. However, one day a particularly nervous dental patient, a frequent attender who had been born in the USA, was lying in my treatment chair, when he lifted his hand and said politely:

“There are two things that upset me. One is having dental treatment and the other is having religion thrust down my throat. So, A, will you please turn off the radio now.”

A did as asked, and we never listened to that station again. Often, A encouraged me to try ‘matoke’, a Ugandan dish made from a type of banana. She thought it was delicious, but I have not yet sampled it. I have not seen A for a long time now and hope that she and her husband are thriving and enjoying a life far better than she experienced in Uganda.

Long before I became a dentist, in my teens (in the second half of the 1960s), I loved collecting travel brochures: leaflets, maps, and booklets issued free of charge by travel companies and national tourist offices. My friend ‘F’ shared this passion. One day during the summer holidays, F suggested that we, that is F and his brother, me, and ‘H’, another close friend, should have a brochure collecting competition.  F and H formed one team, and F’s brother and I the other. The plan was that we start together at Oxford Circus and then work our way down to Trafalgar Square, collecting as much free travel literature as we could gather. The winning team would be the one which had collected most material, but taking duplicates was not allowed. Speed was also important, so we tried to waste as little time as possible in each place.

My team entered one travel agent or national tourist office after another, taking whatever was on display and asking the people working in them for any material that was available but not on display. We piled our ‘loot’ into the rucksacks we were carrying and moved from one location to the next. Our loads were quite heavy when F’s brother and I arrived at the locked door of Uganda’s tourist office on the south side of Trafalgar Square. We rang the door and were admitted by a man who led us upstairs to his office. There, we were asked to sit in front of his desk. He chatted to us politely, passing the time of day, whilst we sat there anxiously as the minutes, which we could be using more profitably, slipped past. Eventually, we got around to asking him for travel literature. He handed us three thin coloured brochures, which we considered to be a poor haul given how long we had spent with him.

Passing the Ugandan tourist office, which is still where it was during the 1960s, today in January 2021, soon after a recent election in that country, brought back memories of our brochure collecting dash and made me wonder whether at that time I should have been chasing after girls in my spare time, as many of my schoolmates were doing, rather than picking up leaflets about exotic destinations. By the way, F and H won our competition by a narrow margin.

So, finally, this is almost all I have relate about my somewhat tenuous connections with Uganda. All I wish to add relates to my father’s regular purchases of the satirical magazine “Private Eye”, which gave the term ‘Ugandan discussions’ a new meaning in March 1973. If you do not know what I mean, then I will leave you to search for the term on Google.

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