It was a glorious equatorial African evening, just before dusk, that beautiful red and orange sky just prior to the sun setting, minutes before it becomes pitch black at a stroke. I was running along main street (I say ‘main street’ – we just had the one street) joyously driving a bicycle wheel rim with a stick, lost in the child’s world. I’d just passed Mugumulema, the town ‘idiot’ and beggar. The poor fellow suffered from crippling elephantitis. One of his legs resembled an elephant’s foot. Kids taunted him constantly.

So there I was, driving my wheel when I noticed a convoy of cars approach. The first car slowed down stopping near me. The cars were amazing. They were like the American cars we saw in the movies – long, sleek, lots of chrome and with tail fins.

The driver, a blond white man said:  “Which way to Kampala?”  A white woman in a torn dress sat alongside and there were 2 young children in the back seat.

I pointed towards the road they had to take. 

As they U-turned and sped off in a cloud of dust I ran alongside, futilely trying to race with them. People stood on the roadside waving to them, some ululating . I recall a couple of ragged African children running too on the other side of the road, shouting, waving and cheering.

We rarely saw white people and when we did they were always self-possessed, aloof and unapproachable. They were, after all, in charge. We were raised to be in awe of them. This group of whites though, were dirty, disheveled and looked terrified- the first time I had seen them as fragile, frightened human beings. Their amazing cars were dented and dirty. They spoke a strange English with an accent I did not recognize. The scene was extraordinary, if bizarre.

When I got home Mummy said: “Where have you been, baba?! Dinner’s ready. Wash up and join Daddy at the table.”

“I was near the post office. Did you see those amazing huge cars? Who were those muzungus (whites)? They asked me the way to Kampala.”

Dad said: “Really? Sameo mentioned the cars. They must be Belgians fleeing from the Congo. There’s a war going on. Let’s turn on the news.”

Dad listened to the  news on the radio, the BBC World service. The newsreader, in that authoritative plummy BBC voice, spoke of the savagery of the fighting, of the thousands of refugees, of the spread of the dreaded Communism.

On the 30th of June, 1960, when I was 7, a nationalist freedom movement in the Belgian  Congo got the independence they had been demanding of their colonial Belgian rulers. The colonial presence for almost a hundred years brutalized and ravaged the Congo, the scars still showing today. In 1867, King Leopold II, not wanting to be outdone by other European powers, sought to exercise Belgium power in Africa and when he did not get the support of his people, struck out on his own. He eventually conquered what came to be called the Belgium Congo, a particularly difficult terrain to overcome as it was crossed by many enormous, roaring, unmapped rivers, lethal tropical diseases  and dense, impenetrable jungle. He treated it as his personal fiefdom and it is claimed that the managers of his estate slaughtered millions of Africans with impunity. The count is unclear and unverified but it was genocide whichever way you look at it.  Their savagery is explored in Josef Conrad’s ironically titled ‘Heart of Darkness’ which, in turn, inspired Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’.

The transition to African rule was managed poorly and within days of independence power struggles commenced. Preparations for issues of federalism and ethnicity were unresolved. Within a week of independence violence broke out between black and white civilians, parts of the army mutinied and Belgium troops were flown in to protect and evacuate fleeing whites. Names like Patrice Lumumba , Josef Kasa-Vubu and Antoine Gizenga could be heard on the radio  daily. The superpowers of the day where the puppeteers. A country so rich in diamonds, incalculable mineral wealth and the rubber tree was doomed to  bloodshed. The whites in Katanga and South Kasai would have had to travel a long uncertain, dangerous journey to get to the West coast of Africa and probably decided it was safer to head East.

These Belgians I saw  that evening had sought refuge in Uganda, possibly driving through Burundi , Rwanda  and then through the south West of Uganda, finding themselves in Bombo – my town – with nothing but their lives, their  flash cars and the torn clothes on their backs. Kampala lay just 21 miles ahead of them. After that there must have been hot showers, food and then a flight back to the safety of Belgium to start life afresh.

This incident had receded into the depths of my memory until decades later when in London, where I ran a wholefood store, a chance meeting with a Fr O’Malley…Patrick O’Malley, occurred. In early 1991 the Irish Catholic priest in the parish of Brockley, Lewisham, had developed health issues and turned to alternative complimentary approaches when conventional medicine was not helping. This brought him to my store.

On one occasion we got chatting and he asked me where I was from and when I said I was born in Uganda his face lit up and he said:  “I was in Africa when I was a young man, you know?”

I generally do not get too excited at such declarations as they are often followed by some random query as to whether I knew a Mr Patel (I’m Indian, you see) in Lagos or some such place.  People seem ignorant of how huge Africa is or, indeed, of how many millions of Patels inhabit the planet.

“When I was ordained in Dublin in 1960,” he went on, “my Bishop asked me what I wanted to do with my life and, with naive youthful enthusiasm, I said I wanted to serve Jesus in some remote part of the world. Oh yes?! he said, and then proceeded to send me to a small village – a clearing really – in the jungles of Eastern Congo.”

“Ah, the Congo!” I said. I then narrated my brief encounter with the fleeing Belgians.

“Really!?! What was the name of that town you lived in?”

“Bombo,” I said.

“You’re kidding me! I drove through that town when I fled too! After Kampala, I spent a fortnight at a St Mary’s High School, Kisubi with some French Canadian Christian brothers before I flew back to Dublin.”

“No way, Father! That was my school!” I said, astonished at life’s serendipity.

About Des

Being on the wrong side of 60, I've recently become more conscious than ever that I'm closer to the end than the beginning. I don't mean this in a macabre way. Our presence here, as far as I can discern, is transient, ephemeral - as fleeting like a passing cloud. It occurs to me too that we each have a unique take on our time on the planet and it would be a shame not to put it down for posterity. When I try to think about what my grand parents, leave alone my great-grand parents, did, what their aspirations, fears, joys, loves etc were, I have no answer. It's a blank. Call it vain-glory, if you like, but driven by this thought I feel I should put something down on paper so that should my grand children ever ask, "I wonder what Grandpa did in the olden days of the 20th and 21st centuries?" some record of it exists. Memoir seems the way to do it.
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  1. freckles says:

    Opps sorry I replied to the wrong post LOL…Kids clambering all over me.

    What a memoir you have. And doesn’t life have a funny way of surprising you. I look forward to hearing more of your memoirs.

    • says:

      No worries, Helen. Hope you didn’t feel obliged to read my memoir snippet after your error 🙂

      • says:

        ….also, any suggestions on how I might improve the writing?

        • freckles says:

          You’re asking me 🙂 I am far from being a perfect writer, although I’m striving to be good 🙂 My pitfalls are grammar and punctuation. I have a friend who helps me with this 🙂

          What draws me in as a reader is ‘showing’ instead of telling. Describing the smells, sounds, sights all around you. For me at first it was hard. I had no problem writing words down, yet they didn’t evoke enough. As a reader, we need to be drawn into the story/memoir. We have to ‘feel’ what you/protagonist feels 🙂 The more your write, the more it will flow 🙂

      • freckles says:

        Actually. I love to read everyone’s memoirs. Yours spoke to me in the way of history. I love history and what we can learn from it and yours opened my eyes to Africa’s history.

  2. Jude says:

    Your early sentences set a vivid scene for the reader especially as in my case I have no prior knowledge of an African village. This was an enjoyable read as you added the historical context which makes it very interesting. I am looking forward to other stories about your childhood. It was a great start.

  3. Memoir Writer says:

    Beautifully done–so well written! Made me go back and re-read Nancy’s comments in Lesson 4 on show and tell, elements you combine superbly:

    “In a scene, you SHOW an event instead of just TELLING about it. Scenes give readers the sense that they are watching things happen in “real time,” as if they’re actually there. A scene normally occurs in a specific place and contains action and/or dialogue, which the reader gets to watch and hear as it plays out. Some descriptive details — how things look, sound, smell, or feel — help to make the scene more vivid if they’re woven into it.”

    Thanks for the great read.

    • says:

      Thanks for your encouraging remarks Beach Author, Jude and Freckles.

      I’m conscious that I’ve got a long way to go but I’ve made a start. I’ve been aware of ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ for a while but internalising it so that it becomes second nature is a different matter, isn’t it? I remind myself of what it means by demanding that the characters, for example, do, say and think things that reflect their personalities, leaving it to the reader to imagine this person rather than my saying: this character is a nasty piece of work.

      I’m currently reading Chris Stewart’s 1999 best selling offering, “Driving Over Lemons – An Optimist in Andalucia”. It’s a delightful read, beautifully observed and his turn of phrase and understated humour fills me with a delicious joy. He certainly knows how to ‘show, don’t tell’. I hope I can come some way towards emulating him while cultivating my own style.

      Reading suggestions, anyone?

  4. Hana says:

    This was a terrific read. I was engrossed in your story. I really liked the sense of history you provided in what you wrote because it is a time and place that I’m unfamiliar with. I thought that was exceptionally well done. I also really liked the way you brought the story back to you personally at the end. I’ve been reading memoirs too – High Tide in Tucson by B. Kingsolver is a collection of essays written for a periodical that were later published as a book. Some are thought provoking, others an easier read. Also, our instructor Nancy gives a pretty long reading list in the class’s workbook….

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