Sunday, August 19, 2012

My Continuing Journey into the Belly of Africa

It’s 5 a.m. I’ve been awakened by an avian chorus outside my window. Resistance is futile, even in darkness. In no time I’m wide awake, back on expedition, climbing mount improbable. There’s no stopping this forward march.

I hesitate before getting up. Kigongo is asleep next to me but she doesn’t stir. It’s not her I’m concerned about. Four keen-eared creatures are curled up on our living room couch, eagerly awaiting the first waking footfall. But I must have coffee - Ugandan coffee.

I rise, wrap myself in a turquoise kanga, slip into a pair of flip-flops, and slowly open my bedroom door. So far so good. But I am given up by the compound cock. The ensuing canine assault brings all four dogs lapping at my heels in a blur of white fur.

It's both suffocating and irresistible. Each one vies for my attention with a display of dancing skills, as though auditioning for the circus. Amadeus, a Schnoodle (Schnauzer-Poodle mix) with a sweet disposition but absolutely no manners, bounces repeatedly as he tries to lick my face. He’s the unlikely leader of the pack.

Cleopatra, his mate, a silky white Yorkie, stands on her hind legs, clawing frenetically at an imaginary door. Her bitch puppies, Aldebran and Biafra, are a confusion of youth and breed, with none of her finesse. All together they make up the Schnorkydoodle Gang.

The moment my cup of Joe is brewed I retreat with it to my bedroom, shutting the door quietly behind me. Cleo’s the only one allowed in here, as she tends to conduct herself in a lady-like fashion, and always hunts for mice.

My computer boots up automatically at six every morning, but there are some minutes to go, so I turn to my iPad. It does everything the Mac mini does but in a fraction of the time. I launch BBC World Service radio, and listen for news that may impact my work, either as inspiration, research or a travel advisory.

At the moment I am struggling between careers in wildlife conservation and publishing, having abandoned the former too soon. Consequently, the first thing I do every morning is try to think up new ways to earn a living.

My changeover career as a safari guide has been disastrous. I can't imagine a more gratifying job but I’ve yet to attract enough patrons or profits to earn a living out of it. Some clients don’t pay on time, others demand refunds, and the company remains perpetually in the red. Truth be told, I don't have an entrepreneurial bone in my body.

Thankfully, a new career in publishing looms, though it has yet to materialise. It’s now a year and a half since I completed my manuscript for Gorillaland, but I still haven’t earned a penny from it. Who knows if or when copies will sell. Nevertheless, I must triumph, as anyone trying to cross a deadly wasteland must. Surrender’s not an option.

I switch from the Beeb to vintage radio, replacing ethnically-diverse broadcasters with hardboiled private dicks. Listening to Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett convey a mood, in just a few choice words, spoken through characters like Philip Marlow or Sam Spade, is a lesson in clarity.

Detective series are followed by darker mysteries: "tales well calculated to keep you in… suspense." Two vintage radio shows that really know how to work frightening twists into their half-hour episodes are "The Whistler" and "Suspense." After a double-header of each I'm inspired, and ready to start writing.

We live in the Najera district of Kampala. The satellite image on Google Earth looks like a picture of an alcoholic's dissected liver. Giving directions can be a chore. "After Zanzi pork joint, take a series of left turns, signposted by obvious landmarks: a mango tree, some chickens... You'll find it." 

By now Kigongo is awake, seated on the bed with her back against the wall, tapping away on her Blackberry. I watch her elegant fingers roll nimbly across the tiny black keyboard. She deserves better than this, and its for her that I keep going. Kigongo is my muse, the love of my life, and finest woman I’ve ever known.

The well-being of our Schnorkydoodles is another motivating factor. I can picture them on the Swahili Coast, chasing seabirds and crabs on the fine white sand. We'll own our own beach house. I'll write for a living, Kigongo will enjoy the fruits of my labours, and the dogs will be free. Free, I tell you, free!

Kigongo has transferred to the kitchen where she's preparing my breakfast - something I would gladly prepare myself if I knew what to do with the strange ingredients in there. For the rest of the day I'm happy with what's put in front of me. But local morning dishes are just too stodgy for my tastes. Consequently, a great deal of effort goes into finding me a palatable "muzungu breakfast."

Morning ablutions are fun. Before I can bathe, the water must first be heated on a charcoal stove which takes a couple of hours. Entire forests get felled to provide me with my daily wash. When it’s ready I enter a shower room and, after filling a basin with a mix cold and piping hot water, use a plastic cup to pour the contents over my body.

After my bath I dress, splash on some cologne and drag a brush through my unruly mane. Shaving is a challenge. I find it best to use my electric razor for as many days as possible, and only a straight razor when it's absolutely necessary. In this way, I make myself presentable for the African day, come what may.

I'm writing like a whirling dervish now, but the prospect of having a drink with my mates keeps invading my trains of thought like a gang of football hooligans. I'm not one to suffer writer's block, and can keep working as long as time and concentration allow. But writing is a lonely game, and before long I'm craving company.

Kigongo’s in the next room with her BFF, Fatuma, and they're ripping each other up in Luganda. Those two are inseparable, and have been since they were young teenagers. It’s an unlikely relationship. Kigongo’s a converted Catholic, Fatuma a Muslim. Kigongo's heritage is Bugandan and English, and she comes from a middle-class family. Fatuma’s heritage is Somali and Swahili Coast, and she comes from a refugee family. Kigongo possesses an energetic intellect, and can hold her own in a heated political discussion. Fatuma is just energetic, and can hold her own arm-wrestling soldiers.
Fatuma and Kigongo on Eid

I could listen to their wicked laughter for hours but I decide to go out. Having saved my work to iCloud where it will forever be, I slip the iPad into my leather satchel. A backup wireless keyboard is already packed in there, as well as an Apple power cord. Ostensibly I magic my entire office into a small leather bag, which I then sling over my shoulder as I say goodbye to Kigongo and Fatuma.

On my way through the living room, I spot Amadeus gnawing on a plastic bag. When I try to take it away from him, he snarls at me, for which I buffet him soundly on his nose. He runs off with his tail between his legs and hides under a bed. But this is a dog who truly understands the game, always giving back enough love and gratitude to get what he wants: food, attention and forgiveness. He can never be in trouble for too long. And I can’t leave without bigging up my boy.

At dusk, I’m Billy No-mates, seated at the bar in Iguana, a second-storey establishment in Kampala’s Kamwokya district. I’ve spent the last hour watching a new mall get built across the road. The DJ’s playing a string of 80s hits to an empty dance floor. The entire venue is empty, which suits me. It will soon fill up.

With its steep thatched roof suspended by blackened eucalyptus beams, the place has the look of a safari lodge, if not the ambiance of one. I feel at home here. But it’s crunch time. After dark, transport to Najera is difficult to find and more expensive. I must decide: should I stay or should I go. Kigongo and Fatuma are at a wedding reception at the Sheraton. So, there’s no one at home to keep the Schnorkydoodles company.

Everywhere are posters encouraging me to stay: “Happy Hour From 6 till 8 pm. Buy 2 Beers Get 1 Free,” “Party Till You’re Homeless!” There's a speedy wireless connection, and I remember it’s been months since I last backed up my device to iCloud. I order another Club beer, plug into a socket at the bar, and start working.

How quickly the light of the day gets replaced by the light of my screen. And after several bottles of beer the alcohol has ultimately drowned my inventiveness. Accordingly I put away my gear, secure my satchel, sit up and adjust to the vibe in the room. It’s close to midnight and the Iguana is heaving.

There is a gaggle of malayas by the door, grinding up against each other to a throbbing Swahili hip-hop beat. An outlier decides to get in on the act, and sort of dance-walks with her drink in her hand to join the party and grind with the others. The DJ never lets up.

Predictably, as a muzungu seated by himself at the bar, I get approached by a girl half my age. “How old are you?” she asks.

“Much too old for you,” I laugh.

“No. Tell me how old you are?”

“Fifty,” I say.

“Really? I thought you were older." I smile. "Listen," she continues, "my father-in-law is coming from Britain next week, and he’s sixty two. Maybe you could show him around.”

Half an hour later she’s French-kissing the Frenchman she only just met. Shortly thereafter he’s taking her home. It doesn’t matter that she's collapsed on the floor, he knows a good thing when he sees it. I wanted to intervene on her behalf but I don’t think I could have done much good for that girl. She was determined to go home with someone.

Home-ways is best-ways for me too now. But getting there is going to be tough. Alas, I’m pleasantly surprised to find a boda who knows where Najera is, parked right outside Iguana. The price is right so I hop on the back, spark up, and don my pimpin’ white Marshall headphones. “We go?” he asks. I nod, and we’re off.

With the wind in my hair, Nas’s “You Wouldn’t Understand” in my ears, and feeling every pothole where it counts, I am contented. That was a day well spent. With any luck tomorrow will be a day well earned.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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