The word surreal is overused. But let me run this scenario past you, and I wonder if you – like me – would feel your brain split down the middle.
There’s no way around it, Friday was an intense day.
It started off well – we had a plan. The plan was that we would put the finishing touches to a donor report, due in the next day. This report is to an important donor, the final one for the project. There was a hell of a lot of work to report on, stretching back 18 months.
Did we need a 7 hour power cut?
However, we were both focused. UCF is a very small organisation; four of us work here full-time and Trustees, Directors and others all contribute on a voluntary basis, with very busy lives of their own. Pulling a report like this together can be a challenge, because we all have shifting priorities, and are spread across three time zones: Uganda, UK and the US. At the last minute, two key contributors had been reassigned to work on other projects. Our boss had to jump on a plane to see his girlfriend in hospital, and we were left to make some last minute decisions about things that we didn’t really feel qualified to answer.
It took Patrick hours to reach the office: he’d had to take a massive detour to avoid the trouble hotspots, which were multiplying by the minute.
Kampala was in a state of high alert. We were in the middle of the Opposition’s ‘Walk to work’ campaign, which started off as a protest about the increases in fuel prices and cost of living. The protest quickly led to riots across the capital. The state’s heavy response has further aggravated and politicised the populace.
But none of this affected our quiet little house here in Namuwongo.
Throughout the day I received SMS from the VSO emergency number and the British High Commission, telling me which areas of the city to avoid. The information was good, but the situation kept changing. People came and went from the office with reports about which areas of town were no-go areas. Eva told us of people being taken to hospital, and people being injured. Some of it was true, some of it wasn’t. It was weird to know all this trouble was only a few kilometres away, while we were totally unaffected by it.
The government had ordered television stations not to broadcast live footage of the demonstrations. We therefore relied more than ever on the radio, SMS and eyewitness accounts from friends. One of our volunteer friends was barricaded in her office, close to Mulago hospital, an inner city area which is often a scene for disruption. This time was more intense, there were battles on the streets and burning tyres.
As Chair for the VSO volunteers in Kampala, I needed to make sure I kept up to speed with the security situation. I called the VSO Programme Office and we agreed to watch the situation. Would we need to issue further security guidance to volunteers? At what point would we need to consider evacuating the volunteers? We agreed things would probably calm down over the weekend and that we’d review security first thing on Monday morning.
With serious security SMS to read, digest and share, while pushing hard to meet a crucial report deadline, the muzungu was stressing about something altogether less serious: I wanted to finish early to watch Great Britain’s Royal Wedding.
During the build-up to the wedding, I began to feel homesick.
I remember what a great day Charles and Diana’s wedding was, and always swore I would attend the next one, and take my place in the Mall. I also longed for a long week-end with my family.
As noon approached, I received another SMS from VSO: no non-essential travel allowed. How essential was it for me to go and watch the wedding? And what would Daniel say if he heard the Cluster Chair had ignored the advice? I’d planned to go to Bubbles (an ex-pat bar) to watch it but resigned myself to staying in the house, determined not to work through the wedding.
At five minutes to one, I shut down my laptop. “I’m not here,” I told the others. I have a TV but the others were still working (two of us work in my living room), preparing to email the report to the donor, and I wanted to be on my own.
I went into my bedroom, climbed under the mosquito net, put on my headphones and tuned into the World Service. I felt surprisingly emotional – the classical music stirred me.
I couldn’t see Pippa’s bottom, I didn’t see Beatrice’s awful hat and I didn’t follow the whole service; it was enough to just connect with home for a few minutes, especially after all the stress and madness going on around us.