Monday, November 11, 2013

Hang In there Phil...

Last Saturday night, my friend Phil was on his way back home from Minister's Village in north Kampala, riding on the back of a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) when Roge, the boda driver, swerved to avoid a dog, which sent the bike off the road, throwing Phil off the back. He was then run over by another boda driver. Roge sustained minor injuries, but Phil is in intensive care on a life support system. (Hang in there, mate!)

Phillip Barnard, a soft-spoken, middle-aged Englishman with a full head of grey hair and an engaging smile (looks a bit like comedian Eric Sykes but without the glasses) is an old Africa hand who's been doing various jobs on the continent since the 1970s. Unlike most mzungus (white people) in Uganda, Phil socialises with all races and has many friends, evident in the outpouring of sympathy today on Facebook. He has enriched our lives.

Trouble in Paradise

Last week I was drinking in Corner Bar, a local kafunda (small beer joint) in Minister's Village, when Phil arrived wearing his signature Formula One jacket (in dire need of a dry clean). "All right Greg?" he asked, offering me a cigarette as is cockney custom. He then ordered a round of beers (a half-litre bottle costs $1.40 or 87p) and over the next hour we compared African bush stories and laughed at the anarchic way things are run in deepest darkest. 

One thing Phil and I have always agreed upon was that the anathema of African corruption, lawlessness, and lack of opportunity was simply the flip side to a warm and pleasant land where things are cheap and no one can find us. "It's a low-key, hassle-free existence," said Phil, "accentuated by small pleasures." 

In time we were joined by other friends, Rastafarians from the neighbourhood, and as spliffs began to blaze, the conversation spun off into many new threads, like the flight paths of a swarm of weaver birds.

At sunset, when a warm evening breeze blew through the bar, drunk on cheap liquor and weed (though Phil never touched the stuff), we wallowed in our self-satisfaction but none of us dared face up to the cold truth, the horrible price paid by innocents. Rather we each chose to turn a blind eye to the unpleasantness: the mentally ill roaming the streets of Kampala, hit-and-run drivers never brought to justice, vigilantes setting upon suspected thieves and burning them alive, and hawk-eyed homophobes. 

Like Phil, I live here in exile from a previous life, and I'm struggling to build a new one, putting down new roots. There are real hardships to endure: regular power cuts, poorly maintained roads, and a lack of safe public transport. But even if I did possess a car, the traffic is so dire that I would spend half my time in gridlock. Hence I move around town on the back of motorcycles, write about it in my novels. 

Friends who own cars think I'm insane to do so, and I'm regularly lectured about the dangers. But at rush hour I can shift from my home to my local kafunda in a matter of minutes, and for the price of a beer.

Riding on the back of boda's, drinking in local kafunda's, this is the lifestyle of a 'flip-flop mzungu', two steps down from the 'contract mzungu' who pub-crawls every night of the week, bingeing in one expensive establishment after another before finally going home cockeyed at the wheel a 4x4, and three steps down from the 'cocktail mzungu' who only socialises in Kololo's leafy, palatial residences with corporate types, politicians and diplomats. 

When I first arrived in Uganda, I had the lifestyle of an 'NGO mzungu', living off donor money and travelling everywhere in the staff car. Now I'm soon to become a 'lost mzungu', one who's never seen in public and only drinks at home alone. Staying home is not easy to endure, especially during power cuts. And for all their faults Ugandans are a highly gregarious people, I share their need to connect. Phil's the same. That's why I usually found him at Corner Bar when I dropped in for 'one-one'.

He'd recently pulled himself out of a financial debacle by running events for Formula One motor racing - promotional drinking sessions in swanky Kampala venues that could showcase the races on a bank of widescreen TVs - and chose not to squander his earnings on trying to step back up again in Uganda's mzungu community. Tonight he's paying a heavy price.

Phil's wife and two small children are at his bedside and his only son in the UK has been informed of his accident. The neurosurgeon on duty in the ICU has declared him brain dead with virtually no hope of recovery. But the hospital doesn't want to make that call, and is waiting for two more neurosurgeons to arrive from the city's main hospital this evening. (Hang in there mate!). 

What the fuck?

Earlier this year I lost Alison, another friend, in a boda boda accident. I attended her sombre memorial, a large gathering of stunned friends at Fas Fas bar where they put up some of her paintings and projected slide after slide of a young, happy, gorgeous Mexican woman. "How could the life of such a vibrant person be cut so short?" was the thought on everyone's minds. "It's God's will," said one man. "No it's fucking not," I snapped, "it's the total lack of road safety in this country!" An argument then ensued and I walked away. 

I don't know where I got off being so righteous. It's not as though I stopped riding on the back of boda's after Alison's death. I must be insane. I used to believe the convenience outweighed the danger. Besides, I'll be safe with my regular driver Bozak, who's road-alert, never over speeds, and is a conscientious driver. (He's just heard about the accident, and called to make sure it wasn't me.) Time to make a change.

Living on the edge is one thing, senselessly risking one's life is quite another. There's no safety net in deepest darkest. If you fail, you're on your own. Friends and family in outside countries can only do so much. But like getting caught in a desert sand trap, it's punishing work trying to get out of that hole. One thing I'm learning is to not buck the trends. If there be dragons, take a different route. I'm old enough now to realise that there's no real currency in risky business.

Tonight I'm praying for a miracle, not because I believe it was ever God's will Phil be fighting for his life in a Kampala hospital ICU, but because every one else who knows him is praying. There's comfort in numbers... He's a good man, and the world is a better place for him being alive in it. God's will can only be that such a man survive, recover, live to hug his children again, and share another one-one with me and the Rastas at Corner Bar. 


  1. Phil passed away in the night. May he rest in peace

  2. I'm sorry to read your update Greg. I have no words, my thoughts are with you and Phil's family.

  3. Hi Greg, Just reading this and knowing the young Mexican girl brings back memories of life on the back of a boda in Kampala. To Phil RIP. To his nearest and dearest my deepest condolences.

  4. I loved that scrawny, chain smoking, geezer. I lived with him in Iraq for most of 2004 and he was an oasis of calm when things were going quite badly...

    Miss you old son. Mike Grafton