A GOAN BOY in KASESE, UGANDA
Our parents, who migrated to East Africa, dreamed of one day retiring to Goa. I, and many of my contemporaries, banished to Canada by the Ugandan tyrant, General Idi Amin, still yearn for the days of our carefree early life in Africa. Luck and destiny (and I suppose a general ingrained belief that God would take care of the details) helped to shape our lives.
After finishing School in Nairobi, I was lucky to find a job as an apprentice to a major air-conditioning company in Nairobi, Kenya. The European manager had a special liking for the hard-working Goan community. As an apprentice, I got to do all the grungy jobs required in disassembling, fixing and handing over a fully functioning unit. We took great pride in our work. Our management always preached that a satisfied customer would bring in our next project. And so I worked hard, learned a lot and eventually became a fully-fledged Engineer. I would now travel as a trouble-shooter to the various branches of our company all over East Africa (comprising Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania).
In the early sixties, the three countries had become independent from their colonial rulers. Many Goans stayed behind to work. There were new opportunities opening up. In 1965, I was transferred to Kampala, the Uganda capital. One day we got a call from the fish-processing plant TUFMAC in the village of Kasese, in Uganda, located right in the center of Queen Elizabeth National Park, on Lake George. Kasese is approximately 345 kilometers (214 miles) by road west from Kampala. It is almost on the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Tony, my Engineer was a Lebanese and I served as his apprentice. As such, my job was to look after every other aspect of the project (and sometimes after Tony). After loading up the service car, we set out for the first stop on our safari -- a town called Fort Portal located west of Kampala. The roads alternated between awful and non-existent. We almost rolled the car coming down a hill! After passing Fort Portal, we headed south to the Kasese area and Bauman Village, so called because the fish-processing company by that name employed the whole population. We arrived about 5:30 p.m. and the first thing we looked for was a place where we could get something to eat. Apparently, the local shop was closed, forcing us to drive another 20 miles to a Greek-owned shop close to Uganda/Congo border on the road leading into the Ruwenzori Mountains. After picking up a few basics--milk, bread, butter and a can of Corned beef--we returned to the village.
I was ravenous and hoping to eat before starting work. Tony however decided to take a look at the broken-down machine first. So, I grabbed the toolbox and we made our way towards the crippled freezer unit. I had never seen anything this colossal in my life. (It was a Jackston-Froster freezing system), and I was beginning to doubt our abilities to fix this monster. However, Tony was already at work. He pulled out a whole bunch of wires, and started to replace them one by one -- and this without the benefit of a wiring diagram. It must have been fifteen minutes before he stood up and smacked his lips and asked me to throw the main switch.
I went over hesitantly, instinctively made the sign of the cross, and did so, putting both hands over my ears, expecting a big bang! Nothing happened! The system was on a timer, which eventually clicked on. I soon heard a whine here and then there, and soon, everything started to hum smoothly like a Mercedes Benz engine. He winked at me with a smile on his face.
“Roy, go find the foreman. He may wish to announce that the workers can return to work in the morning.”
“Will do,” I replied and set off in the direction of the factory office. We returned to Tony sitting on a log, smoking a cigarette.
I was now very hungry and it was getting dark. We asked the foreman where we were to spend the night, and were directed to a whitewashed building with a thatched roof. I grabbed the ‘dinner’ still in its paper wrapping from the Greek store, now warm from the sun-heated car and l entered the shack. It had a tiny kitchen, and toilet with a flush system and two small bedrooms with a single bed in each. It was still daylight, and then I saw these wild buffalo and a couple of elephants about 100 yards away. I must have looked nervous! The foreman just said “Don’t worry, they are used to human beings, but one thing... if you hear funny noises at night, it is only the elephants scratching their backs on the thatched roof.’’ After devouring our dinner, we turned in to sleep. Man! When I turned off the light in my bedroom, was it pitch dark! The luminous dials on my watch were like spotlights!
At about 2:00 a.m. I heard screams coming from Tony’s room. He seemed to be very agitated; he was yelling that there is something in his room. I had warned him earlier that in case of an emergency, to just run for the car. The keys were in the ignition, but that he should come and get me first! But that did not happen. I grabbed my pants and slid them over my shorts, slipped on my shoes and rushed to his room. I switched on the light and lo and behold, there was a bird fluttering around the overhead light. We both laughed about it. I opened the window gently let the bird out, and eventually we went back to sleep.
The next morning, after finishing off the remaining bread and butter, I couldn’t help bantering with Tony and asked him about his fear of a little bird. He told me he had a nightmare! As it happened, at that time Beirut was engulfed in a civil war--Christians vs. Muslims--and everybody carried a gun. Food was very scarce and any flying creature was a potential meal, with the result such things were a rarity, which is why a little bird scared Tony so much. I realized Tony was paying a price from the childhood trauma of growing up in a war zone - a nightmare from which he had still not recovered.
The next morning, we drove back to Kampala but this time, decided to take another route back because of the road conditions. We took the road via Mbarara and Masaka. At about 2:30 p.m. we stopped by a duka (shop) run by an Indian to get some pop, bread and something to nibble on. As I glanced around, I spotted a crucifix hanging on a wall. I asked the shopkeeper if he was a Goan.
“Yes.” he said.
“So am I,” I responded. That got us both an invitation to lunch cooked by his wife, Soledad! They were very happy to see one of their own in their God-forsaken outpost. They talked nostalgically about one day returning to Goa and drinking Feni again. Out came the inevitable whiskey bottle, and soon it became obvious (even to us) we were not sober enough to drive! So we were invited to use a spare bed to spend the night.
After a delicious breakfast of chapattis, kalchi kori , and a milky tea, we were on our way, and made it safely to Kampala.
As I write now, I realize how lucky I was to get these opportunities to hone my technical skills. More important, it has been such a rich experience to work with a range of people of diverse ethnic backgrounds and religions, cultures and traditions. I now feel the first gust of a chilly autumn breeze that heralds our harsh Canadian winter. Perhaps I won’t say no to a visit to Africa or Goa.
Please reply, if you wish you read more of my work experiences in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania. And the UK.