The Pearl of Africa
Thursday 16th February, 2012
It was 3.45 p.m. I was in the lounge of Gate 4, at the Jomo Kenyatta Airport, Nairobi, waiting to board the 540 flight for Entebbe, Uganda. My husband was in Kampala since seven months now. He had come to Nairobi for a couple of days in December. This week-end was the 'mid-term' holiday at the secondary school in which I was working. My elder sister had really encouraged me to visit Kampala as she understood how lonely I felt. My son and daughter, both grown-ups now, were so busy working for their careers and jobs.
Even when the kids were small, their Dad had to travel and stay for months in other towns of Kenya, like Voi, Mombasa, Embu, Meru, Kakamega, Kisumu and Machakos, as he had a site manager's job in a road construction company and he had to supervise the building of some roads in those areas. It seemed all my life I had always been waiting for him.
Now, he had ventured into business with his long time friend who was in Sialkot, Pakistan. He was sending goods from there for a Sports shop that they had set up in Kampala. My husband looked after the shop and lived in a house shared by the owner's son-in-law.
This morning had been hectic. I was in school, on duty as the half- term exams were on. I left at 1.15 p.m and drove to 'Sweety Sweets', Highridge to buy some 'mithai' for Kampala. As I was coming out of the shop, I got hit by the metal lever in the parking barricade. It just came down suddenly and grazed my fore head and lip. Damn these new parking booths! I didn't have time to feel the pain or see the bruise. I had to speed home, the traffic was hectic and when I reached home, Baji was already there. She was dropping me at the Airport.
It was really hot; I gulped some milk-shake, freshened up and soon we were on the road. After leaving me at the International Terminal, Baji drove back. I checked in, passed the immigration and the security checks. It was a long walk to Gate 4 and then I sat to wait to be called on board.
The last time that I had gone to Uganda was in 1971. When we were children, our Mum and Dad made sure to take us for Christmas holidays either to Mombasa or Kampala. Dad took us by car, a Volkswagon - it was amazing how we all fitted in it! Mum and me in the front seat with Dad driving and our aunt at the back with my four siblings. When we reached Tororo, the border town, Dad realised that the log book of the car was at home and crossing the border without that was impossible. It was a dilemma - either we all went back and ruined our holiday or one of us returned to get the documents. Of course Dad decided that he would take a bus and bring the log-book while we all stayed in the car, the whole night in the compound of the immigration office on the Kenyan side. Oh my God! We had enough food with lots of mangoes and we were quite secure. But there was no place that we could call a 'toilet'. We all joked that if in the future we ever came back here, we would surely see a big mango tree growing here! Our Dad came back in the morning, we crossed the border and finally did reach Kampala to have a fantastic time.
We were called to board the plane at 4 p.m. Surprisingly it was a Kenya Airways small plane with not so many passengers. I got a seat near the window in the 'business class' and finally we took off at 4.30 p.m. As I prayed for a safe flight, I thanked God with every breath for all his blessings.
Within 15 minutes, we were served with light refreshments of juice and sandwiches that I did not feel like eating. In half an hour we were flying over the historical Lake Victoria with its convoluted water edge, match-box houses and thread-like roads visible from almost 3,000 ft above - just like a map in an atlas.
At 5.15 p.m. we touched land at the Entebbee International Airport. The hot, humid air hit me as I came down the stairs to sit in the bus for the terminal. I phoned my husband and to my surprise 'Airtel' was working here, too. As I talked to him, I felt excited, just like a teenager going for the first date! I had to fill in the immigration forms, give finger-prints, go through security, collect my suitcase and then lo and behold - I was out with Khara, who had come with a driver in an old but working blue 'Merc'.
As we drove on, the lake side became visible - it was indeed beautiful. The wind was blowing although it was quite hot. I video-ed the view outside as we sped on the main road to Kampala. We neared the town, where the traffic increased tremendously. A lot of palm trees and banana plants were growing at the edge of the road. People were busy carrying wood or boarding 'boda-bodas', the motor-bikes that had become a fast mode of travel.
In an hour, we reached the main Kampala Road, where the 'Super Sports' shop was. The driver parked the car just opposite and Khara took me into the shop. He introduced me to two people looking after it. They were handsome, young boys from Gilgit, Pakistan. The shop seemed clean and well organised. Although it was 7 p.m. now, the sun had not set. Khara asked the driver to take us o the majestic 'Nakumatt' Mall which had been opened here recently. All sorts of shops, food courts and super markets were in the mall. Khara shopped a bit. He said they usually did not cook in the house as they got the food from the restaurant that Suhail was managing. He was the son-in-law of Khara's friend. His wife and kids were in Pakistan. He was sharing the house with Khara.
I had not eaten since the previous night, so I had a sandwich and juice. Khara enjoyed the 'dokra' and 'mithaai' that I had brought from Nairobi. We had met after more than two months - he was fine and happy to see me.
Around 9 p.m. some food was delivered from the restaurant - chicken and 'naans'. We had our dinner downstairs in the dining place. There was a lounge area, a large store, bathroom and a rather small kitchen on this floor. Upstairs, there were three bedrooms and two bathrooms. The place was spacious but needed a lot of repairs, paint and maintenance.
Khara put on a movie, 'Body Guard' on his lap-top in the bedroom. It was hot but not humid and before I knew, I was fast asleep after a hectic day.
Friday 17th February, 2012
I sat upstairs and sent messages to my children and sisters. It had been my brother's birthday yesterday, so I sent him best wishes. I rang my aunt and cousin in Stockton, U.K. Many child-hood memories came back. We used to come for holidays to Uganda and visit Jinja, Kampala, Entebbee, Masaba and Murchison Falls with family friend Mr Azim and his children. Baji rang me and we shared the nostalgia together. So many years had gone by and so many things had changed....
At 5 p.m. I was still waiting for Khara. There was no electricity. I was having a snack when suddenly it became dusky and started drizzling. I said my prayers - I had put on my alarm on my mobile phone for all the five prayers and was trying to perform them diligently. I heard the gate banging and got a call from Khara - he was outside and did not have the keys of the gate. I unlocked the kitchen door and in the drizzle, went to open the gate. He had come early because of the rain - he said!
Just then the electricity came back and Khara settled in front of the huge T.V. in the dining place. We had some juice together as he watched 'cricket' his favourite sport. At 7 p.m. Suhail came with a box of 'chicken wings', chinese style, made in his restaurant. The were really yummy. He went back and sent us a dinner of naans, meat masala and bhajia. We enjoyed the food together. I cleared the table, gave Khara some tablets for his head ache and then watched 'Hazbe Haal' on Duniya T.V. There was a cable connection here and hundreds of channels were available.
The night was warm with lots of mosquitoes 'beeping' around.
Saturday, 18th February, 2012
At 9 a.m. the men were still asleep. Sharon and the driver had still not come. We were to do some site-seeing today. The weather was warm but pleasant with no humidity. From the window, I could see the old 'limbri' tree which must have been planted by the Asian Hindus living here before the infamous 'coup'.
Soon Khara got up. I made breakfast for him - toasted baguette with butter, boiled eggs, bhajia and tea. He went off to work at 11 a.m. He said he would come back around 4 when we would go out for some time.
Sharon cleaned up the kitchen and dusted the rooms. Suhail made his own special milky tea when he got up as he did not like the normal tea. He tried to load some credit into my mobile phone but the scratch card did not work. He went off to his restaurant at 1 p.m and Sharon also left soon after he had gone.
I wished I could stay with Khara permanently. We could buy a flat here and I could find a job in a school. I had heard of 'Lohana School/College' on the Kampala F.M. Radio. There were also other International Schools where I could try. But what about our children - how would they manage? I just prayed for the right decisions to be made.
Today I wanted to check out the Forex, A.A.R, Bata and Mr.Price to buy some presents to take back. The 'arvi' and 'mefu' from here are relished in Nairobi. I had asked Khara to let me drive the Merc lying idle there. I had my driving licence but he was scared of the miscellaneous traffic of cars, carts, boda-bodas, scooters, matatus and bicycles on the congested roads. I felt I could manage - I had been driving whole of my life in Nairobi and this car was 'automatic' - it would not be hard... but I did not know the routes!
As children, when we used to visit Kampala we used to stay with Uncle Azim and Khalla Sardar. I still remember their big house, some where in Old Kampala. As you entered the compound, you saw a few red coloured steps to the main, huge door that opened into a long corridor. There were rooms on either side of the corridor that ended in big verandah that had a kitchen and store on one side and a large dining table on the other side.
In the store, Khalla Sardar used to keep a lot of 'mefus' (small sweet bananas) that were grown in the 'shamba' of their back yard. I can still feel the sweet smell of the ripened, some times over-ripened bananas.
We used to play 'school-school' with the children - Rani, Bilo, Shooki and Majid. They used to make me the teacher and call me Ms. Chatrut. We all sang songs and Majid used to record them. They had a video recorder, too. Picnics were the order of the day and the whole 'regiment' was taken to exotic sites packed in numerous cars.
One memorable incident happened at Murchison Falls. Every body was out admiring the fantastic view while Baji and I stayed in the car. Baji took out something to eat and suddenly scores of monkeys appeared from nowhere and landed on the car, trying to get in for the food. We started screaming with shock and every body rushed to help us close the windows of the car. We had never seen so many monkeys in our lives!
Another time in Jinja, near the Owen Falls Dam, my baby brother about 3 years old, tried to throw a stone into the lake but it landed on my sister's head. We had never seen such a big bump on the head and our Dad's 'wrath' was even bigger!
It started drizzling as we drove to the Nakumatt Mall. Khara bought some sweets and biscuits for his friend's children as we were dining with them all at Suhail's restaurant later at night. I walked around the busy mall that had all sorts of shops, pharmacies and food courts. The prices of items were all in thousands of Kampala shillings and the final bill was in millions! It was quite intimidating at first and I felt so confused that I asked the teller lady to take the required amount from my wallet herself!
We went to Kampala Road to the Super Sports shop where Khara had some work while I stayed in the car. It started raining cats and dogs, which is not so usual here. The rain made the roads even more congested. People were running around for shelter and the cars seemed on top of each other. It became pitch dark - the street lights came and went sporadically.
It had become very pleasant as the rain had stopped now. We sat outside in the cool atmosphere. Our 'hosts' arrived at 8.30 p.m. They were Suhail's relatives, including a sweet lady, Arshad, and her four kids. There were three little boys and a lovely girl called Esha. We sat at one table while the men settled at another corner.
Suhail and Chirag got busy to seeing to our comfort and bringing in the food. The starters were chicken wings, 'tikkas' with soft drinks and the main course had naan, chicken curry and masala mutton. There were also potato chips for the children who really enjoyed them. The had recently returned from a trip to Pakistan and they had a lot of things to talk about. They bonded well with me and told me stories about their school here. Their Mum, Arshad showed me her ankle that had got burnt with boiling water in Pakistan. It looked bad but was healing. She was finding it difficult to move a lot as it was still painful. The children were quite tired and sleepy so we said good-bye to them all at 10 p.m.
The driver was still waiting for us. The way back did not take so long and we were at home in 20 minutes. Khara reminded me to take my usual medication before I slept. The night was cooler than before
Sunday, 19th February, 2012
While I was changing, Khara had gone to the shops and brought a typical Pakistani breakfast for us. Suhail also came down and we enjoyed the 'halva', 'puree', 'nehaari', 'chanay' 'naan' and tea while watching a cricket match going on.
The driver, Daniel, came at 1 p.m. when I had just finished my prayers. We were supposed to go shopping. We had to jump into the car as the rain was pouring down again. Even though it was Sunday, the raods were packed with traffic. From the Kwacha area, we went through Mulago and Gadaafi Road. We passed the Aga Khan School and the Kampala University.
When we reached the entrance of 'Tuskys' it was still storming with rain. The watchman had to bring an umbrella so that we could step out of the car and run in. The shop was not as big as the ones in Nairobi and there was not much variety but I managed to get some T-shirts, bags, story books for my niece and some sweets. I wanted some typical Ugandan curios but I did not see any. It was still raining very hard. We had to cover our heads with plastic bags and run twards the car.
Lush vegetation of bananas and avocadoes was all around. There were new buildings being constructed just along the road. On the pavement were little 'kiosks' and shacks put up by the common poor people, some begging and some hawking sugar-cane or passion fruit. One person was ling in a puddle oblivious of the garbage heap near him - drunk, I supposed. I saw a few women with children asking for alms.
There were so many 'boda-bodas' around and I was surprised to see some women driving them. Most women I saw around were quite thin, unlike stories I had heard that Ugandans are huge and fat. I think this generation is more conscious of their health and figures especially after the recent "A.I.D.S" scare.
It started drizzling so we walked back to the car.
Khara's friend Gulam Nabi lived in the area so we visited them. We had to wait a few minutes outside their gate as the had gone shopping. Arshad, the wife and the children were so happy to see us. I helped Arshad to fry some kebabs. Her injured ankle was still giving her a nagging pain. We had tea and then said goodbye. They were good people - I hoped to see them again.
Within ten minutes, we reached home. Khara settled downstairs to watch cricket and I went upstairs to do my prayers and meditation. It had been a good trip, a big change - I had hardly done any work, I had rested a lot.
I wished I could always stay with Khara.
At dinner time we had delicious samosas, daal and chawal which Suhail had sent for us. We watched Geo T.V. for some time. I was to go back to Nairobi the next day so I went to bed early.
Monday, 20th February,2012
Sharon came late as she had some exams for her 3rd year medical studies that she was pursuing. Khara went to work and said he would come back around 4 p.m. so that we could leave for the Airport at 5 p.m. My flight was at 9.30 p.m. but it is better to start going early because of the traffic and the rain. The driver, Daniel would be coming to drive us there.
I got ready and packed my suit-case. Sharon brought me a cup of tea and cake. I gave her some Uganda money as a present and thanked her for looking after me. Suhail had also gone to his restaurant. Sharon finished the work and went off.
As I sat in the sitting room, I could hear the pidgeons 'gooter-goo-ing' outside and a lot of banging and whirring because of the construction of a high-rise apartment building outside.
I sent Baji a message to send her driver to pick me from the Nairobi Airport at night. After the mid day prayers, I had some juice with a boiled egg and toast. I watched some T.V. but couldn't concenrate. I was remembering my life with Khara and the struggles we had gone through together. It had been tough but our love had always seen us through. I still love him and will continue loving him even after death, if that is possible!
At 4 p.m. the driver came with Suhail. I packed the T-shirts that Khara was sending the children and was ready to go. Khara also came so I said 'bye to Suhail and we started the drive to the Airport.
I bought a few souvenirs and at 6.15 p.m. Khara said good bye to me as there was bound to be a lot of traffic on the way back to Kampala.
Sitting near the restaurant, I started writing my diary. Through the glass doors, I could see it was cloud outside.I was supposed to check in at 7 and then wait inside the lounge for the flight 540 which was to take off at 9.50 and land in Nairobi at 10.50 p.m. Baji had confirmed that her driver would pick me from JKIA.
Even if Uganda is next door to Kenya, all the immigration formalities had to be done. At 7.15 I went to the Check-in place but the 540 stand had still not opened. I sat to wait in the hall. The cleaners were washing the roof [long over-due], and this reminded me of the "Safaa-Marwaa" Sayee place where the hall was cleaned by huge vacuum cleaners every few minutes.
'They will call you!' she thundered.
I walked to the 'Duty Free' area and bought some Toblerone, M and Ms, a Uganda souvenir book and a small T-shirt for Shahzeb. It had Nile, Uganda written on the light green back ground. I went to the wash-room and then waited in the lounge to be called for the flight. Now it was 8.45 p.m. Just then it was announced that the flight had been delayed an hour. Khara had been ringing every half an hour so I told him to ring the driver to tell him that I would be late. The children also had to be informed.
This Airport was quite small compared to Nairobi's JKIA but the Dubai Airport was colossal. Things were expensive everywhere.
After what seemed like ages, we were called for more security checks. Even the shoes were examined and then we were asked to sit in a special waiting room. Finally we boarded the 540 plane which was a small jet compared to the Kenya Airways plane. I sat on the front seat - there was no one on the side. I asked for some water and had my medi. The plane took off at 11 p.m.
At 12.30 a.m. it was announced that we were about to land. I looked at the site outside the window - it was like a dream - I had never seen the aerial view of Nairobi at night. It seemed a blanket of stars was blinking in the dark night - Nairobi, our beloved City looked so big and beautiful!
Surprisingly for a small plane, the landing was very smooth. I sailed through the immigration and there I saw my sweet son waiting for me. He had been there since 10.30 p.m. - luckily he had brought a book to read! The driver, Omar, was ready with the car and we sped towards home. The roads looked forlorn at this time of the night, without much traffic. It was 1.30 a.m. when we reached home. Baji rang - she was also up waiting for the driver to come back.
I rang Khara to tell him that I had reached safely - I was going to miss him even more now- but this is life... I had to think about our children first...
Finally I lay on my bed, exhausted and before I knew the alarm rang for 6 a.m. and I had to get up - another rough day had started!