Just the latest postcard from Africa

It’s fairly typical of the last month that this postcard comes from two sofa cushions propped up outside the volunteer house.  The sun’s set.  At least it’s dropped below the hedge around the garden.  Birds darting between the bushes in the flower patch skirting the veranda.  When I’m lying here listening to the ipod with eyes half open, five or six birds dive in, perch, skip around no more than a metre from me.  A score more are settling into the hedge.  A metallic sheen on the wing, or sometimes a startling red, reminds you you’re in Africa.  Just above the spiky fronds of a palm next door that’s still catching the evening light, single, white, oddly rectangular birds, fly past.  Then larger formations of black-topped, light-bellied ones.  And swallows high up, gliding and swooping between each burst of rapid thrashing of the wings.  Even some kind of hawk is hovering with its two curled coiled-spring claws tucked up and its head down.  During the day, oversized, immobile stalks add an extra gargoyle-like few feet to telegraph poles and street lights around the city.

Because of the red roofs, visible on a patch of hill from the house, the mosques, and then at night the pavement bars which we race between until the early hours on the back of mopeds, and I suppose the freshness that the arrival of the rainy season has brought, the city has an air of the Mediterranean.  Which is appropriate; it’s been a Mediterranean kind of existence.  I’ve been doing a lot of reading, learning French (perhaps in anticipation of West Africa) and writing my report with cups of coffee on our sun-drenched front step.  Last Friday I was eating steak and chips and a vinaigrette dressed side salad on a red checked tablecloth looking out from the side of the road.  On one side minibuses and lorries were chugging up the hill, on the other mopeds free-wheeling down to save petrol.  Like the coffee table photo books on Africa, or Edwardian England, a child actually ran past downhill with a hoop and stick.  Two boys cross the road in long white Islamic shirts.  There’s a man with a crackling radio.  (Which technology has really had a mass impact on Africa?  The radio, the bicycle, the mobile phone, the matatu minibus, the bodaboda moped, soon the hundred dollar laptop?)  A man in khaki trousers and a Ferrari polo shirt sidled up to me, glancing over my shoulder wary of the management, and asked me for a job.  The colour of my skin, the shape of my nose, marks me out as a piece of the culture and affluence of the West.  I am invested with that aspirational possibility that MTV and the beer and mobile phone billboards here give a glimpse of.    On my way to raft the Nile, a man shouted at me, ‘Hey muzungu, how is America?’

I dislocated my shoulder on the Nile.  Clutching at our turned-over raft just as a wave snatched it away.  The guide and a doctor in our party snapped it back in and in the bus on the way to get an antique X-ray, sipping a Nile Beer, I felt as contented as I have on this continent.  It must have been washing day because faded charity distributed clothes lay drying all along our route, often sagging between kasava mounds.  Huge-horned cattle, dangling a rope from a hind leg, wandered amongst them.  Romantically, anthropologically probably, with western sentimental speculation certainly, these cattle mark out the modern day Ugandans on the shores of Lake Victoria and the Nile as the ancestors of the people Henry Stanley encountered and described in ‘Through the Dark Continent’, after he’d found Livingstone and returned to Africa.  (He was to go on to do King Leopold’s dirty work in the Congo, prompting Conrad to write ‘Heart of Darkness’.)  If I’d hurt my shoulder a week earlier I could have got cured by Pastor Benny Hinn.  The New Vision proclaimed miracles.   ‘The lame walked, the blind had their eyes opened, the deaf heard and the sick recovered at the first ever Pastor Benny Hinn crusade in Uganda’.  It was held at the Mandela National Stadium and the place was packed; roads were closed all weekend.

I won’t be watching the birds here much longer.  I’m on my way to Zimbabwe via Kenya, and anyway this evening Moses our guard is out with a car inner tube catapult shooting them.  He got a couple of big ones yesterday which he ate, but so far today they’re all too small so he’ll sell them to the boys next door.


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