Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Food and Other Matters of More or Less Consequence in Kampala


If you can manage to get atop one of Kampala’s many hills on a clear day, there can be few more beautiful sights.  Most of the hills are topped by something interesting.  The Catholic Cathedral, Colonel Gaddafi’s mosque, enormous hotels, Makerere University, and so on.  And the sky, particularly when it is blue, is always busy, because even in the city you can find a great many birds.  There are the Ibises which stalk through any green or moist area, and which sound just like ducks when they take to the air.  There are the hawks, which dive-bomb each other, circle endlessly around buildings, and nest in the taller of the trees that line many of central Kampala’s streets.

And then, of course, there are the Marabou Storks.  Now you might have an idea of a stork as a kind of elegant, graceful bird.  Some of them undoubtedly are.  Not so these prehistoric-looking beasts which look like a cross between a pelican, a vulture, and something out of your nightmares.  Some of them are easily five feet tall, and there is no neighbourhood in Kampala that they don’t survey officiously as though it were their own.  I was once told that storks are where babies come from.  I’ll admit that for some time I’ve harboured tentative doubts about this claim, but having seen Marabou Storks, I can firmly pronounce it a falsehood.  These storks would most assuredly gobble up any baby sooner than deliver it.  Sometimes people here are in the habit of leaving children too young to even stand up on street corners in the baking sun to beg for money.  I’m always nervous that one of these hulking birds is going to swoop down and whisk the poor child away.

There are pigeons and crows that flap around the tops of the buildings in my part of town, and in the evening you can see whole flocks of pigeons winging their way homeward.  There used to be two chickens scratching around the yard of the place where I stay, but on Easter, Sandra, Elin and I ate them, and consequently, they are no more.  Let me amend that last sentence.  Only two of us ate them, but I shall not be so uncharitable as to identify the party who declined to partake.  Now that the chickens are gone, there is only the little cat, which around dusk comes roaming silently over the rooftops and along the wall separating Tuhende from the next-door establishments, including the supermarket which runs a generator when the power is out, and is thus a great source of electricity envy, a common affliction in Kampala.

The chickens weren’t bad (tasting, that is), but I generally don’t eat my neighbours.  Standard food in Uganda, as elsewhere in East Africa (except for the coast, where they have a commendably firm belief in flavour), is a bit bland.  It’s very pleasant, don’t get me wrong, but not terribly exciting.  The buffets that restaurants catering for all budgets generally have for lunch are a good way to sample the spectrum of Ugandan fare. 

There is matoke, which is a kind of mashed plantain and tastes exactly like nothing.  Then there is ugali, which they call posho in Uganda, and which by a curious coincidence also tastes like nothing.  I’m surprised they haven’t begun eating it in Britain, for it is as stodgy as anything you can get at a pub, and as my grandfather always said about oatmeal, it sticks to your ribs.  But ugali or posho or whatever you choose to call it should not be so cavalierly dismissed.  It is the bread and butter of East Africa.  To Ugandans and Kenyans and Tanzanians, it is what hamburgers are to Americans.  It is in some way I can’t quite identify, the essence of East Africa.  For many people, its simplicity and cheapness makes it the primary feature of their diet.  So central is it that my first words in Kiswahili consisted of the recipe for ugali: “Kupika ugali, unatumia maji na unga...”

But in addition to these two dishes you’re also likely to find ground-nut sauce, which tastes like a subtly modified peanut sauce, white rice, sukuma (a spinach-like mix of vegetables), and lovely, lovely sweet potatoes, which I can eat by the plateful if that small part of my brain that trades in common sense doesn’t intervene.  Generally, the buffets will also offer some chewy chicken or gristly beef, but as a rule I keep my lunches vegetarian.

If I want beef I need to no further than my residence, for the restaurant downstairs, in addition to making a tasty stuffed chapatti, does a mean steak.  If you ask for it rare, just make sure that you really mean it.  Last night, for example, mine clambered off of my plate and started trotting towards the street.  It was with no mean effort that I pinioned it to the table and finished eating, the thing moo-ing unctuously the whole way down. 

The last week or so, I’ve been doing battle with MTN, one of the major cell phone companies in Uganda.  Being that the country’s government is somewhat despotic, it likes to keep tabs on its citizens, and so you’re required to register your sim card, and I’m convinced that it would be easier to get myself proclaimed Pope than to get my mobile phone working in Uganda.  Now I’d be perfectly happy to dispense with a phone altogether, only my mother needs more conclusive proof that I’m still alive than e-mails, which she undoubtedly believes are penned by some pernicious imposter. 

A phone would also come in handy to alert Innocent, the caretaker at Tuhende, when I need to be let out the locked gate at some uncongenial hour.  I don’t know if he ever sleeps.  He’s wandering the courtyard when I get up in the morning, I can hear him being woken up at all hours of the night by returning short-term guests coming back from doing whatever people do late at night in Kampala.  When I return from work he’s manning the restaurant downstairs.  And he’s always cheerful.

Which is a marked contrast to the staff at Makerere University Library.  I primarily use the Africana collection, and this division appears to have been set up with the idea of elevating obfuscation to an art form in mind.  If indeed this was their goal, the woman who does the fetching, and whom I’m convinced was specially selected for her truculence, is a veritable Michelangelo.  The day is divided into three borrowing times, with indecently long breaks in-between.  If you borrow during one slot, you have to return your book during the same slot, and then wait while the staff have lunch, take a nap, run some errands, and goodness knows what else before you can get another book.  You can only have one book at a time, which would be fine if there was always someone at the door to the cage to go and fetch the next one.  But generally you’ve got to stand and wait for 15 minutes and hope that no one decides to make off with your notes or laptop while you’re away. 

And when you hand the fetcher a slip with the call number and title written on it, she generally mutters, without even looking at it, “That one’s not here”.  “How the heck do you know it’s not there?” I squawk indignantly.  “You didn’t even look at it!”  (And I do say ‘heck’, although I’d perhaps derive more pleasure from using another word.)  I am then given a surly look before she snatches the paper and slouches off into the shelves, dragging her feet the whole way.  When I hear the dragging stop, I know she’s reached the spot where the book should be.  I then hold my breath, hoping against hope that when she returns it is with the book in hand so that I can gloat shamelessly, because if it is not there, she will be doing the gloating, and that is unbearable.

For this reason, I prefer working in the National Library on Buganda Road, although this means that I sometimes have to wait a good hour or so past the official opening time for someone to remember to come and unlock the gate out in front.  The staff there are friendlier and more helpful, and they have fans that they turn on around 11 a.m., until which time I have to make do with any breeze which comes in through the door.  The open door means, however, that I have to listen to children being brainwashed during their religion lessons each morning at the school across the street.  That is, I have decided, a small price to pay for congenial working conditions.  Today I did have to persuade an elderly Goan gentleman sitting beside me that I wasn't a newspaper holder, and that he couldn't read over my shoulder and keep me from turning the pages of the 1950s newspapers I was scanning for any signs of wildlife.

The other benefit of working at the National Library is that if it looks like they’ll be a while opening up, or during my lunch break, I can run just down the street to 1,000 Cups for some tea.  1,000 Cups is a cafe that also has excellent pumpkin bread, in which I indulge on Sundays.  It is run by Paul, an A’s fan.  Paul is also a jazz fan, and therefore a man of great character.  He’s also actually been to Redding, California.  Given that many Californians are not aware of Redding’s existence, I was impressed to find an Ugandan who had spent time there! 

Just across from 1,000 Cups is a craft market.  Not being the shopping type, I have not visited this place.  I recently discovered that I am not the crafting type either (surprise, surprise!).  On the final morning of an organised trip to the Queen Elizabeth National Park, our party was visited by a crack team of craftswomen from the Kikorongo Women’s Group.  They gave us a brief demonstration on how to make various crafts, and then allowed us to have a go at the process.  I’m convinced that they’re just a bit bored, and so do this purely for their amusement, although the efforts of several members of our group were deemed praiseworthy.

I was given a piece of what I was supposed to turn into a basket, and set about attempting to transform it into a specimen worthy of display.  However, I went awry somewhere, and quickly entangled my various limbs in the thread, only avoiding putting the needle through my heart thanks to my spectacular lack of coordination and my inability to get needle and basket within a league of one another.  Alerted either by my comparative lack of progress, or by the strangled croakings I might have been making, one of the women came over, and promptly began bellowing with laughter at my efforts.  Fortunately, she got her hilarity under control long enough to extricate me from the death-trap I had sewn ‘round myself, or I’m convinced I’d be languishing yet, hog-tied on the floor of the workshop, not 200 meters from the Equator, hyaenas waiting outside the door for me to expire of a surfeit of basketry.

But alas, I escaped, and am here to tell the story.

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