"Ex Africa semper aliquid novi", quoth Pliny the Elder. There is some debate about what he really meant, but most likely he meant trouble. In this sense has the phrase been used most often since but I hope to reverse the trend and on these pages bring you the exciting, novel and curious out of Africa.

And wherever I am I hope to remain,
Ex Africa Semper Yours,

Monday, 22 November 2010

The chase continues. Idd Adhuha. Chewing Khat (don’t judge me, it's legal here)

Acting on the foolishly made bet of the night before, I woke up after four hours sleep to head to Entebbe to catch up with the President. As I was convinced that I need to be there by 7.30am at the latest, I rushed out of my tent at 6am just as the first light was breaking, packed hastily, hailed a matatu and headed to town centre to catch a boda-boda to take me to Entebbe, some 40 km away.
Mornings in Uganda are surprisingly chilly and riding a motorbike without any gear does not make you warmer: during the 40min ride I was freezing. To optimise my route and time on the camping site I decided to complete my ablutions en route to the exit, which meant that although I did not have anything warm to wear I had my toothbrush and towel. After careful consideration I concluded that the toothbrush will not be very handy on the motorbike, but the towel will. I wrapped myself tightly and pondered if it is really a good idea to be chasing phantom Presidents at daybreak with items of bathroom furnishing flapping madly around me.

It turned out not to be such a good idea. As the guards at the Entebbe State House, informed me the President left for Gulu already the previous day. Only slightly disappointed, I chatted with the guards about the right procedure to follow, knowing full well that the right procedure would not get me anywhere anyway. It was not even eight o’clock and Entebbe was still dosing. I decided to make the best of my stay there and see Lake Victoria, of which I only caught a glimpse on the way. A friendly boda-boda driver, after a ten minute discussion about the price of horned beasts (small cow c. 500.000 USh) and inflation, pointed me in the right direction.

I still had a slight hang-over and was dying for a cup of tea. The god of hang-overs must have been also having a sleepless morning that day, for he heard my prayers and put in my way a rather grand, colonial style hotel. Exactly what I was looking for – a view of the famed lake and a possibility of a warm cuppa. I strolled onto the grounds, which were full of birds and monkeys but no other living soul. Finally, I found a sweeper. (A small digression here: sweeping is East African obsession. A noble one for sure, not the less perplexing nevertheless, as very often they seem to be sweeping from one pile onto the other just half a meter away. The gamut of brooms is also impressive, from mass-produced Chinese ones, through primitive bundles of twigs, to ornate carved ones. Although, my favourite sweeper was one who just used a miniature birch tree turned upside down).

To get back to our story and cut it short, there I was finally, seated with a well-deserved cup of tea in lush hotel gardens on the shores of the shiny Lake Victoria, in the cool serenity of the early morning broken only, although frequently, but the shrieks of the vervet monkeys, songs of Ibises and the sudden flap of wings of huge storks. Felt divine. I went back to town, walked about a little and decided to head back to Kampala to see if I can get the accreditation from the President’s Parliament Office.

Yet, that was not meant to be. As I was chilling in the lounge of the Backpackers I was approached by Faizel, a Ugandan musician currently living in Namibia whom we co-opted the night before to go to the jam with us. His family lives in Kampala and he was going to visit them that day to celebrate Idd Adhuha, a Muslim holiday which commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice Isaak, or Ishmael, to God. He suggested I come along. Without a moment’s hesitation, I agreed.

We got on the boda-boda and drove to a rather dodgy part of town in which his family house was. On the way, he was couching me in the dos and don’t of this Christmas-like holiday. It’s basically about eating and talking in the extended family setting. I can do that, I thought.

Faizel’s family was most welcoming. Two of his three mothers live together, his father having passed away. The house was grand in comparison to the ones surrounding it, i.e. it was made of brick, not mud and corrugated iron, and had a first floor. There family had two rooms and a balcony, the toilet was shared with other 5 families. The focal point of the flat, like in any other abode in the civilised world, was the TV; the opposite wall was decorated with a faded picture of the Masjid al-Haram, the holy place which Faizel’s father and his three wives visited in 1987.

After an hour everyone who should be there seemed to be present, mostly ladies and children. The conversation was held in a curious mix of English, Kiswahili and Ugandan, of which I could understand very little. When the food was served the men sat on the balcony, the ladies in the main room, the children absolutely everywhere. The food was served on the mats on the floor and it was greeted with enthusiasm but also surprise that I chose to sit with them on the floor rather than on the chair and eat with my hand rather than spoon, which was especially sought out for me. Rice with beef (the staple pilau), chicken stew, the very popular in the area ginger-spiced tomato salad, pancakes, and rice noodles all were in abundance and were very tasty. During the meal we talked little, instead we listened to the Koran recitations from a DVD (with French subtitles).

The whole proceedings took some four hours and then it was time to say goodbyes. Faizel, now obviously the big-man in the family, went around and handed money to each and every member present. I felt a little embarrassed at not having anything to reciprocate with, but Faizel assured me that hospitality especially on a day like this is a duty and pleasure to the hosts. We headed out finally and together with four of his friends headed for the second, this time informal, part of the celebration.

As it was already getting darkish, I was a little uneasy to be heading into what Faizel termed ‘the ghetto’, that is Kampala’s slum area. But I had trust in my guide and besides I was quite thrilled at the prospect of trying Khat, the region’s preferred stimulant.
Khat, Qat, or as it is called here Miraa, is a mild narcotic. It is grown in Kenya and exported by planeloads to chewers everywhere. It is most popular in Somalia, where chewing is a pastime almost as popular as piracy or feuding. The trade in it funds the warlords and to some extent may be said to keep the war going.

It is chewed, like Betel in Asia, but it’s much less offensive to the palate and does not colour your lips and gums. It can be taken in a variety of different ways. The guys in Lamu with whom I sat in the evenings preferred to chew the stems, keeping the little twigs in their mouth and making slightly disgusting munching noises. These, as Faizel informed me, were profis who are able to just keep it in their mouth without making it watery too soon. He and his friends prefer to chew the leaves, which are less bitter, mixed with tiny bits of chewing gum (the Big G) for added consistency and sweetness. Some prefer peanuts to gum, but I’m not quite sure how that works. Every now and again, you sip water or tea as Khat makes your mouth dry a little. The sensation is supposed to be one of enhancing your natural disposition, whatever it may be: if you are talkative you will talk more, if you are lazy, you will want to sleep, if you are quarrelsome you might fight. It also makes you feel slightly hot. Other than that it’s harmless and not very addictive. It is banned in a number of African countries, apparently because it’s one harmful effect is that it makes men even less productive – they just sit, chew and talk instead.

And that’s what we did for the next three hours in a tiny room hidden in the maze of Kampala slum. Nothing much happened, physically or psychically. When I got a little too hot I went outside to get some air. I sat on a wall which had a fantastic view of the night Kampala and enjoyed the moment. Two boys approached me, we chatted a little and then they asked for my watch. Khat must also have had some relaxing properties for I did not panic but told them I can give them my handshake instead. They laughed and it was all good, but I decided to head back to the room after all. Thanked Faizel and his friends for a lovely day, got a motorbike and headed back to the Backpackers for a well deserved coca-cola baridi sana. Happy Idd Adhuha!

p.s. Pics on this page are not mine, apart from the slum one, as I have forgotten to take the camera in the mad rush to catch the President.

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