Archive for May, 2008

Car horns, dogs, cockerels & muezzins…

May 14, 2008

Warning: The following story is not supposed to suggest that I think every African is noisy and offensive! It may seem that I am complaining about something very trivial and some sections of society will read this and say “If you don’t like it them leave”. To them I say… I am not asking anyone to change – I love it here – merely writing about the fact that I havent managed to sleep through a night since coming here. I love the life and energy here and wouldnt want it any other way (My god, these white church going middle class americans are really a difficult audience!) Like I’m doing this for them!

I’ve been in Uganda for over two months now and even though we’re living in one of the quietest parts of town, I’m pretty sure that I haven’t managed to make it through an entire night without being woken.

I’m getting used to it now – I’ve stopped expecting to get a solid night’s sleep. The locals here not only have much smaller personal spaces (if none at all), but they also have less consideration when it comes to making noise at night. There’s never a question of “I’ll be quiet now, some people could be sleeping” – even at two or three in the morning. It’s not uncommon for someone to return to their home in their car from their evening activity at some point after midnight and repeatedly honk their horn or simply hold it down until their night watchman opens their security gate for them. Even in the quiet of the night it doesn’t occur to them that a simple tiny hoot – or better still, getting out of their car and knocking on the gate – would be more considerate to their neighbours. Maybe it does occur to them but waking others out of their sleep is not considered rude here.

Maybe it’s because that even if they don’t wake me up with their horn they know that the Islamic call to prayer will be upsetting me at four or five in the morning. Even though Uganda is a Christian country the small minority of Muslims seem to have strategically placed their mosques so that it’s simply not possible to avoid the wailing call to prayer – five times a day! I can deal with the screeching tones coming from the muezzin at three o’clock in the afternoon but to be woken by “Allah hu Akbar, Allah hu Akbar” at four thirty in the morning is starting to get a little bit annoying. Maybe it would be alright if the muezzin actually had a decent voice and I could enjoy his song. Oh no. Our local muezzin not only has possibly the worst voice in the entire world but he insists, as so many of them do these days, to unashamedly broadcast his call at full volume via a sub-standard amplifier and speaker system. So not only does the singing sound like it’s coming from a donkey’s arse, it’s also cranked up to max volume and pumped out through a system that’s probably failed quality control at the Panashiba factory in Taiwan. Put it another way, even if I was the world’s most devoted Muslim I’d still be offended by this guy’s attempts to entice us all to mosque.

Even if by some miracle, none of the neighbours returned late incessantly blasting their car horn, there was a power cut and the mosque’s back up generator has failed the pack of homeless dogs that roam our streets at night would find a way of interrupting my slumber. It doesn’t take much to start them off – usually a car horn or the muezzin does the trick! And they just don’t know when enough is enough. They’ll continue to bark, howl, yap and wail until about quarter of an hour before my alarm is due to go off. Why is it that noisy dogs keep you up all night with their relentless barking – for hours and hours, completely unrepentant – and then suddenly go all quiet only a few minutes before you were going to wake up anyway? And then just as you’re finally nodding off the beep-beep-beep of your alarm comes crashing through the beautiful silence, reminding you that you need to leave for work in half an hour. Just perfect!

There is the hope (although it’s not good for the state of the dirt roads in the morning) that it rains heavily through the night. This forces all the dogs to look for shelter and forget about their need to bark for no apparent reason all night. So, on a rainy night when the mosque’s power cuts out and the neighbours all stay home I might just be able to get a decent night’s kip. If only it wasn’t for the cockerels!

Even without the muezzin, the car horns and the wild dogs, you can guarantee that the day always breaks and the dark turns to light. It’s the signal for the cockerels to stretch their vocal chords, mark out their territories and have a crack at wooing the hens. How can any female be even slightly attracted that that repulsive noise? I know it doesn’t do much for Genevieve – but poultry’s not really her thing I suppose. So, from around six o’clock every morning, without fail, the cock-a-doodle-dooing starts – in 5.1 surround sound.

There’s no real solution to my sleep deprivation problems. The neighbours won’t understand that I think it’s selfish to beep their horns in the early hours of the morning. It’s a different culture – there’s no point even trying. There’s a fine balance between wanting a storm to rage all night to shut the dogs up, and not being able to sleep through the thunder. If the rain’s not heavy enough the dogs don’t hide and if it’s too heavy the roads become an impassable mud-bath in the morning. There’s no simple resolution to this complex dilemma!

Maybe, if there’s an extended solar eclipse during the normal sunrise hours, the cockerels would miss their cue to crow? It’s unlikely that I’ll ever get to find out. Solar eclipses are rare enough for me to be waiting for one to happen at sunrise in Kampala! Anyway, I’m starting to think that the time of day bears no relevance to the timing of the cockerels’ calls. I hear them going off in the middle of the afternoon, a few hours after sunset and even in the middle of the night. This idea that they act as nature’s alarm clock and go off with the rising sun is very dubious.

So what about the off-key shrieking muezzin? Last week, I went to the mosque to find him. He wasn’t there but I asked the imam if they had electronically amplified calls to prayer in Muhammad’s day (praise be upon him). He didn’t understand the sarcastic tone to my question and told me that the prophet Muhammad was around in the 15th century – well before the joys of the electronic age. Ok, I had to be more direct. I asked him it was possible to turn the volume down for the 5am call. He was shocked! He says he gets many complaints about the early morning call. I was happy to hear that I wasn’t in the minority. I turns out that I was! Apparently all the other complaints have been grumbles about the volume not being loud enough, causing them to not hear it and miss their prayer. He also saw nothing wrong with the fact that there are literally thousands of people living in the near vicinity of the mosque and only a handful of them are devout Muslims. He told me that the Christians also like the early morning call to prayer because it acts as their alarm clock. Surely they have cockerels for that!? I was clearly fighting a losing battle.

Just as I had given up the struggle and made peace with my broken sleep, right there at the mosque with only the Imam and Allah as my witness I had an incredible epiphany – earplugs!

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The bus journey…

May 14, 2008

Warning: The following is a simple account of an event in Uganda. It is not intended to offend. It is not criticising anything, but merely some observations of the events of that day. There is some sarcasm, tongue-in-cheek comments, laughing at myself and others around me and is supposed to be read in a light hearted comical manner. Some conservative church going middle class americans have had a few things to say about it ;))

Trying to get a bus out of town from Kampala’s central bus park is an interesting experience. The large buses operate in a similar way to the smaller minibus taxis in that they don’t leave the station until they are completely full. There are almost 100 seats to fill so this can take anything between five minutes and five hours, depending on public demand. The long distance buses in Uganda have five seats on each row arranged in a three and a two with an aisle between the two that’s barely wide enough for Flat Stanley, never mind the huge bottomed African ladies.

If you’re one of the first onto a bus then you get the pick of the seats but you may be waiting hours to set off. If you’re one of the last few to arrive than you’ll be on the back couple of rows. All though you won’t be waiting long to leave, the lack of rear suspension on all of these buses means that you’ll more than likely arrive at your destination with bruised buttocks, compressed spinal chord and minor whiplash. A lengthy departure delay is usually preferable!

Last week we got on bus that was around three quarters full – usually this is the ideal moment to board as the bus will be leaving soon (ish!) and we managed to avoid the agony inflicted by the back row. The two of us chose to sit in a triple seat – the window seat was missing its back and so we thought we could put our bags there to keep an eye on them. The bus started to fill up – the broken window seat next to two muzungus was clearly not high on most people’s order of preference. However, I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to sit on a backless seat for a few hours. There were other seats next to windows that were missing their glass and even though the passenger would have had to put up with a gale force wind blowing in their faces for the entire journey, these seats still filled up before the one next to me. I’ve been told that the African’s think that muzungus’ body odour is just as revolting as theirs is to us. Being a muzungu who’s had to endure lengthy bus journeys under the armpit of a local man standing in the aisle I know which type of body odour I’d rather suffer. Maybe it’s an acquired taste – like Vegemite or Guinness – but a strong smell of African B.O. for me, at this early stage of my life on the continent, is something that absolutely repulses me. I’ve never smelt anything like it. It’s repugnant. It makes me feel immediately queasy. It’s actually much worse than vegemite! I really don’t think there’s any comparison that can be made. I don’t know what it is. If it’s due to the food they eat or maybe the soap they wash in, but the smell that some of these locals exude is truly amazing. Certainly not for the feint hearted.

Neither Genevieve nor I were particularly stinky that morning but the spot next to me just happened to be the only one remaining. It must have been the lack of back on the seat. I suggested to the conductor that we should go and leave this space vacant as it’s not fair to charge someone to sit on broken seat. There was no way he was going to leave now and miss out on a fare. We waited for another person to come and he was shown to the seat next to me. When he sat down I hinted that he shouldn’t have to pay full price for half a seat. We all paid 12,000 shillings and I suggested he should tell the conductor that he is only going to pay 6,000 for half a seat. He didn’t understand what I was getting at. His opinion, and also that of all the other passengers, was that if you’re on the bus then you have to pay full fare.

At the moment a newspaper seller came past our seat. I bought a Daily Monitor for 1,000 shillings and took the middle 20 or so pages out and offered it to the man next to me for 1,000 shillings. He laughed at me saying “Why would I buy half a newspaper for the full price?” Only then did it become clear to him as to what I was saying about his seat! He started explaining the newspaper analogy to all the other passengers. They were amazed by his insight. It was like twenty light bulbs all turning on at the same time. I’d started a revolution. Never again would anyone in Africa pay full price for a sub-standard level of service.

The conductor came to take the money of the last passengers to board. The man next to me told the conductor, in Luganda (the local language), that he wasn’t willing to pay the full price for the ticket. He said he’d pay half. The conductor laughed. The passenger laughed. The word “muzungu” was used quite a bit. Everyone around us laughed. We laughed. The man ended up paying 10,000 for his seat.

So now every seat was full it was time to set off. Not quite. Apart from the bus companies there is also a whole host of mobile market people operating in the bus park. I’m not sure exactly how it works but it seems that in return for being able to run a bus business the owners of the bus station require that the market people are given ample opportunity to sell their wares to full buses. I suspect that the owners of the bus park also take a percentage of the market takings. So even after all the seats on the bus are occupied, the passengers still have to experience the hard sell of various mobile market men and women as they walk up and down the aisle on the bus. The variety of goods available to purchase is just staggering. If someone can carry it then someone is selling it. You name it…

Television aerials, 20 litre pesticide back pack spray, hot plates of fried chips and vegetables, AM/FM radios, watches, meat samosas, glucose biscuits, single boiled sweets, pens, handbags, muffins, baby clothes, and fake football tops, loaves of bread, sunglasses, jewellery, bags of maize flour, fluorescent camping lamps and beard trimmers (always comes as a pair).

There’s more… cold drinks, ladies dress shoes, newspapers, belts, gas lanterns, cutlery sets, silver windscreen sunshields, floor mats, sandals, plastic food storage containers, cakes, children’s toys, mobile phone airtime, wellington boots, photo frames, handkerchiefs, socks, toothpaste, pain relief balm, table cloths, footballs, cotton suit jackets, men’s vests, photo albums, leather wallets, note books, bibles and worm treatment (in both the tablet and cream variety).

Each market person, apart from the men selling fluorescent camping lamps and beard trimmers has a specific single product to sell. So for each of these items there is a separate salesman that tries to convince you that it would be good to buy from him. It wouldn’t be so bad if you had to tolerate each of these sales pitches once. But for some reason the same sellers come onto each bus at least five or six times while the bus and its passengers are waiting to go. I suppose the repeat hard sell of the pain relief balm could be a good idea for the seller. The first few times you don’t need it but by the eighth time of asking you’ve developed a stress headache that you’d like to relieve. The persistency with the food items is also understandable. At the first time of asking you’re not hungry but by the time they’ve come back for a sixth time a few hours have passed and your desperate for a cold meat samosa.

But for most of the other items?! Gee let me think! I didn’t want to buy that pesticide spray the first, second or third time I was offered it but now the seller is asking me for the seventh time, I’ve just remembered the locust infestation on my vegetable patch – I’ll take two please!

And if the relentless bombardment of sellers inside the bus isn’t enough as you’re sitting waiting patiently to leave the bus park after three hours of waiting, there’re always the sellers that hassle you from outside your window. It’s amazing that the same person who you’ve already told four times that you don’t want to buy a loaf of bread can stand below your window smiling up at you, hoping that you’ll think his bread is somehow different when he’s outside the bus. You have to admire their persistency.

There are certain products which the sellers are not allowed to bring onto the bus and they have to try and sell to you through the windows. These are usually the hot food items such as goat meat on a stick, eggs, grilled bananas, and chickens.

The chickens are still alive. The seller usually has a few of them tied up by the legs hanging upside down. The chickens seem resigned to their fate. They just hang out (literally) without complaint as the seller swings them around trying to convince people to buy a bird. When someone does buy one he’ll release the chosen chicken from his bond and pass it up through the window for the customer to stuff it under their seat. It stays there, clucking occasionally, for the entire journey with very little fuss. It’s like the chicken has seen it all before. How do they so calmly accept their destiny? The elder chickens of the community must tell the youngsters that there’s no point fighting it. “You’re all going to end up as soup – or if you’re really lucky, alongside rice in a delicious curry.”

I’m not sure if all the egg sellers either had the same idea at the same time, all work for the same employer, or just follow each other like sheep. They all carry salt to accompany their hard boiled eggs. And for some reason it’s always offered in a recycled and cleaned out yellow 200ml motorcycle brake fluid container! What’s that all about? What’s wrong with a simple salt cellar?

The same strange methods apply across the board. All sellers of a particular product use the same sales techniques and present their wares in an identical manner. The grilled banana sellers all have their bananas in small baskets of either five or ten, and they give it to you in old newspaper. There are only two kinds of drinks on sale – mineral water and a bottle that contains the most brightly coloured orange juice that I ever seen – it practically gives off light. It must be radioactive. The drinks sellers always carry six bottles at a time in a cardboard tray.

There’s no one minding their own business on a bus in Uganda. Everyone knows everyone else’s business. The person sitting next to you always knows what you’re doing, what book you’re reading, who you’re talking to on the phone, what you’re eating, and certainly what you just bought from a market seller. So, I wondering what kind of person would buy worm treatment cream on a bus? You’d be basically announcing to 100 people all at once, “Hello everyone, I’ve got worms!” I don’t think it’s the kind of product that would sell well on a bus in the UK or Australia but the Africans just seem so much more relaxed with each other in public. It’s clearly not a problem to buy worm treatment from a man on a bus, in the same way it’s ok for a mother to leave her young baby with a total stranger while she gets off the bus to find a toilet. They share their food, their problems, their emotions and even their children.

Meanwhile the bus had been full of passengers for over an hour and was still sitting in the bus park. The engine had been running for half an hour but the market sellers that moved around don’t even flinch when they breathe in the black smoke from the exhausts. How does it not affect them? I suppose in Uganda, with a life expectancy in the fifties, something else is going to kill you before your body begins to feel the effects of breathing in pollution.

I turned to the man sitting next to me on half a seat. I suggested that it would be better for the bus companies and the passengers if this bus had set off three quarters full, three hours ago. It would have reached its destination by now and be filling up for a return journey. The bus could go back and forward four times a day rather than two and the remaining quarter passengers can be picked up on the way so there’s no loss in revenue – in fact there’s a doubling of revenue. I think the man was starting to think that I was some kind of Martin Luther King character planning on bringing radical change to the entire continent.

He lost his train of thought as the bus finally started to move. There were still quite a few salespeople on the bus and they didn’t seem to be in a hurry to get off. They’d seen it all before. The slow edging forward by the driver was just a clever way of letting people that haven’t yet boarded know that we’d soon be leaving. Even though the seats were all full there was still standing room to be sold – still at 12,000 shillings a ticket! A few standing passengers got onto the bus and we edged forward a touch further. The market people were still peddling their wares, unperturbed by the movement of the bus. Painfully slowly, we crept towards the exit of the bus park, the market sellers finally realising that their time was running out. Last minute panic buys took place both on the bus and through the windows from the outside. Maybe the prices get cheaper once the bus starts moving.

A few more standing passengers boarded and the last of the sellers got off the bus just as we left the bus park. The bus park in Kampala is conveniently located right in the middle of the busiest part of the city – also where the town planners very cleverly put both the old and the new taxi parks. It’s absolute chaos – gridlock all day, every day. After sitting in the bus park for a few hours going nowhere it’s not unusual to then sit in traffic jams for another hour or so before the bus finally frees itself from the city tangle and glides through the rolling green hills that make up Uganda’s countryside.

I use ‘glide’ in the loosest sense of the word. The buses here have long past their sell-by-dates. When new, these buses are used in developed countries until their more stringent rules require them to be taken off the roads. The buses are then adapted to be able to carry more passengers and transported to countries like Uganda to be sold to their bus companies. The Ugandan bus companies will literally run their buses into the ground before they take them out of service. I prefer not to use them but there are many buses here, struggling along pumping out thick black clouds of smoke, many windows missing, others cracked, seats missing, others torn, windscreen wipers held on with rubber bands. The engines are probably held together with gaffer tape. They’re not safe but the drivers insist on driving them as fast as possible, racing around corners, clearly in a hurry to get home.

Speeding is a real problem in Uganda. There are no road side speed cameras and when the government tried to introduce handheld cameras it was rumoured that they render the user impotent! The rumour mill is very strong in these parts – the police simply refused to use the cameras! To crack down on speeding the only way is to physically prevent vehicles from being able to travel quickly. Every road in Uganda is lined with speed bumps in various guises. There’s the huge single speed bump that you have to go over at an angle or come off the road entirely to avoid the underside of your chassis being scraped. There are those that are made up of four small speed bumps in very close succession. If the vehicle goes over them too quickly a violent shudder goes right through the car and its passengers’ spines and necks. At slow place however, these mini-speed bumps can come in handy for making milk shakes and cocktails.

The ironic thing about the speed bumps in Uganda is that the old roads are now so uneven and completely littered with huge pot holes that the speed bumps are actually the smoothest part of the road!

So after ‘cruising’ in the countryside for maybe ten minutes the driver pulled over and told the passengers that if they want to relieve themselves, now would be a good time. In Uganda they call it the “short call”. Considering that all the passengers have been on the bus for four or five hours already, drinking mineral water and luminous orange juice, it’s not surprising that the majority of the 100 passengers take the driver up on his offer. After the toilet stop the bus continued on its journey. By this stage we’ve probably covered a grand total of 20 miles of our few hundred mile journey. Patience is an important quality to have in Uganda!

After another hour or so the bus stopped at the nearest market town. The market vendors see the bus approaching from a good distance and were all ready with their wares as the bus came to a standstill. At these small market towns the sellers all wear identical blue jackets with a unique number on. There are somewhere in the vicinity of 60 or 70 sellers that swarm round the buses – at these towns the transaction takes place through the bus window. For some reason though there is very limited choice at these markets – usually only goat skewers, drinks and grilled bananas. They all sell their identical food for the same price and seem to be in direct competition with each other. If a passenger expresses even the slightest interest in, say, a grilled banana he will have at least ten banana saleswomen at his window all holding up their identical bananas to the prospective customer. It’s absolute madness. They’re pushing and shoving each other to get their banana under the nose of the customer. I have no idea why these people don’t all come together, have one market with their three products, with all proceeds being pooled and divided amongst the sellers.

It doesn’t happen this way though – it more closely resembles a rugby scrum combined with a Worldwide Wresting bout with all the sellers fighting each other over the next 500 shillings. It seems wrong but I’ve come to realise that the words “Uganda” and “logic” don’t often go hand in hand here.

The bus journey usually carries on along a similar vain – stopping every hour or so for a short-call and shortly after that to stock up on provisions. These people eat a lot. They definitely aren’t the starving people of Africa that we had to think about as kids when we left a morsel of food on our plates and certainly not those highlighted by Bob Geldof in 1985. In Uganda they live in a land of plenty – everything they need does literally grow on trees. They may not have the variety in their diets that we enjoy in the developed world but the vast majority of their food is grown locally and travels by foot to their plate where it is eaten. Compared to most westerners it’s a considerably more environmentally conscious way to eat. Let’s just hope the Ugandans don’t discover cheaper ways of growing avocados, mangos or bananas in China.

After five hours on the road and a total of eight or nine hours in the bus we finally pull in to the bus park of our destination town. I can’t say that I feel fresh and invigorated by the journey but the experience has been so much more rewarding than sitting on the high speed train from Leeds to London in silence not interacting with any of the other passengers, shrinking into my own little world. My body may be tired but even the simplest of journeys in Africa rejuvenates the mind and soul.