Of gambling and taboos

It’s that time of the year, when you get a little down because you have no money to spend on a proper holiday. So a few weeks back, I tried my luck in online bingo and I won myself a few dollars to buy gifts and stuff for friends and family.
And it got me thinking about how much gambling is frowned upon in our societies. I remember, as a teenager, we used to go to a disused stadium in our little town, and play cards for money under the crumbling pavilion. The most popular game was matatu, which I think is played only in Uganda. Recently, someone developed a software and you can play it online via Google, without having to worry that askaris will pounce on you and drag you off to jail. In those days, as the gang gambled away their pennies, a couple of boys would be on the lookout. Being a football stadium, it was easy to see anyone entering from a mile off, and we knew the faces of the askaris from the Municipal Council, so it was easy to see danger long before it arrived, and we would flee to the safety of the surrounding bushes.
Parents used to warn us against cards. They would scream stuff like ‘Don’t play cards or else you will become a muyaye.’ Bayaye are brats, spoilt kids, petty thugs who roam the streets looking for a chance to pickpocket. But I loved the card game, and I especially loved the thrill of making and losing money by chance. I was often lucky, both in cards and other gambling activities. I remember playing the lottery game JADA Scratch for Cash a few times, and I often won something. Sadly, I’ve never hit the jackpot.
Why is it that cards got such a bad image? There were many ways to gamble. We sometimes would use bottle tops (a game called ‘peke’, where you dig a hole in a ground and stood several feet away. The one who threw in the most tops won). The prize would not be money always. Sometimes we gambled for mangoes, or books, or pens. When adults found us playing these other games, they would never yell at us to stop. Today, I see youth gambling through pool, Ludo – both of which have become so popular you find a gang of idle youth playing them on every street – and mweso. No one will frown when they see you playing such games, but the moment you are caught with cards, it’s a police case.
Youth playing pool by the roadside in a Kampala suburb
In Nepal, gambling is deeply ingrained in the culture, and playing cards is so popular that you find a deck in every office, especially those in rural towns. During tea breaks, or when there is no electricity, or at the slightest excuse, they will play a game of cards. It has become something of a religious ritual during the famous festival, Tihar, when families reunite in ancestral homes and when friends gather – it’s like Christmas, only that it is nearly a whole month of Christmas. A whole month of idleness, of festivities, of drinking, and of gambling. It is hard to think of Tihar without cards, just as you cannot separate Carols from Christmas.
They play the game anywhere. In offices, in living rooms, in temples, in dark rooms, on the rooftops, in the balconies. I always thought it made one of my favorite restaurants sexy, almost like a little illegal casino. This was Shalom, in Rato phul (red bridge), Danghadi town. It always had a haze of hookah smoke hanging above the tables like mist in a horror movie scene, and pretty Magar girls walking around like Chinese spies in a James Bond movie.
When the Moaist rebellion cropped up, they assumed the role of moral guardians of the society. They banned gambling, and thus playing cards, among other thing. They once attacked a village of hereditary prostitutes, Munha, and beat up the girls whose only crime was to be born in the caste of entertainers. Badi. Not many Nepalis liked this, for the Maoists were attacking the very foundations of their cultures, beliefs that they had held valuable for centuries.
Kathmandu nightlife. You get a feeling sometimes
that Nepalis aren’t welcome in some places.
Maoists marching against something or the other.
Today, Nepalis are not allowed into Casinos. There are about half a dozen in Kathmandu, mostly based in five star hotels. I visited the Radisson, and was welcomed with pretty girls who made me feel like Sean Connery. I went with a Nepali friend, who loved to gamble, but who was afraid to go into the casinos alone. ‘If I’m with you,’ he told me, ‘they will think I’m a foreigner as well.’ He spoke heavily accented English, the kind Nepalis think are English yet is really Nepali English. So at the entrance, I did all the speaking. They let us in without trouble. However, Nepalis normally wouldn’t find it difficult to enter these casinos, for the casinos have to make money and will look away if a national walks in. But when the police raid the place, which they often do, they pounce on anyone who they think is a national and whisk him away to jail. But this friend knew if he was in the company of a foreigner, the police would not touch him. Indeed, in our night at the Radisson, he told the cops who interrogated him, ‘I’m merely his driver. He invited me in for a drink.’  The cops left him alone, and he won a tidy sum that night. 
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Questions European Children Ask About Africa

 I met a Belgian in Nairobi early in the year, at a filmmaker’s workshop. When he went back to his country, he found a teaching job because, well, film making isn’t as lucrative as our dreams would wish it to be. And since he had been to Africa, he started this project in his school, to teach these children about Africa and African cultures. They are I think in the age group of 10-12. So he asked these sweet angels to send questions to the African friends he met, and below are some of the questions. Some of them made me go ‘wtf!’ and others just made me fall off the floor laughing. (I wonder what the questions would be like if I picked a bunch of African school children and had them ask questions about Europe!)
So here are the innocent questions.
My name is Eira and I’m contacting you as a part of our school project on African cultures. I am going to be a giraffe attacking a person in our performance, so does African giraffes attack people?
I could not help laughing. The poor kid going to be a giraffe! Wow, I would love to be a giraffe as well, but it made me think, why do those teachers make children play out unrealistic roles? Giraffes are the gentlest creatures. They are afraid of people. Only people attack giraffes! And so giraffes are afraid of people. They won’t let you touch them.
I remember in Haler Park, Mombasa, I was feeding one of them. He (or she) ate a whole bag of food off my palms, passed his slimy, rough tongue all over my hand to lick off every bit of the food (whatever it was) and once he had eaten to his fill, I tried to pet him. But he jumped away with a ‘grrpphh!’ sound – it was an angry expulsion of air from his nostrils, as if warning me to keep feeding him but not to get so friendly.

My name is Fredrik. What are some very famous folk stories from Malawi or Kenya? Thank you for your time, and I hope you have a great day 
My name is Mathieu. What are some traditional dance moves and rhythms in Malawi? How often do you have a traditional dance? Is it somewhat like this one? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5VYBErFOng8
Do you believe in someone different than god?
This one made me frown. He starts out by asking questions about dance, and then all of a sudden, he pops that one about God. Hmmm. Do you believe in someone different than god? Wow. He probably should know that Europeans brought a certain God to Africa, but now the Europeans have largely abandoned this God. They only interact with him in Sunday school. Or they misinterpret his teachings whenever they want to use it to serve their political agendas. So while today this God would be against gay marriage, tomorrow he is the all loving being who promotes homosexuality.
Dear Elijah & Beaty,
My name is Eva and I’m contacting you as a part of our school project on African cultures.
Are you in a band, if so what instrument do you play? I have one more question to ask. Do you think my group and I should wear costumes?

Answer: Yeah, wear animal costumes. I think you will look cute as a Zebra. Oh well, we didn’t really send the kid that answer, it was something much nicer.

Dear Elijah & Beaty 
Why do African dance? when they are happy or sad?

My name is Harper. I’m really glad to get to communicate with you! In our group, we’re doing Waka Waka by Shakira as a comparison from modern African influenced music and music that is straight from Africa. I was wondering if people in Africa think that African influenced modern music is interesting or stupid?

Nice question, Harper J

Modern African dance
My question is about our music. I have the feeling as if my group needs some new African rhythms to really improve and make the project really good. I think we use to much the same rhythm because we don’t have enough variety of rhythms. Therefore, could you please see our video (they sent a link, but sorry, can’t post it here) and say how we could improve and could you send us some more rhythms?
Sure boy. Your rhythms are much the same and no matter how much you try to learn African rhythms, you may never get the moves. Unless you come and live here for many years.
School children perform a dance at the National Theatre, Kampala
Dear Elijah & Beaty. Is the danse and the music the same in all Africa??? What are your beliefs there?? Where do you leve ? What is your hobby? Do you have a wife ? Do you have kids ? What do you do in life???? What food do you eet and who do you eet ??
Thanks for your time,
This is some of what we eat in Africa.
Not what you see below.
Picture stolen from google images. Can’t remember who to credit. It was very offensive to many people as stereotyping Africans. No wonder the poor child comes up with such weird questions.
That last question made me cry. who do you eet ?? I can only think that he wanted to ask, who do you eat with? I remember once meeting a guy from Papua New Guinea, and I asked him if he were a cannibal. Understandably, he never wanted to talk to me again. I guess we have a long way to go before we overcome stereotypes.
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One thing I hate about travelling

Anyone who travels a lot will come across a certain kind of people, who are both a curse and a blessing. They call themselves guides and fixers, and they claim to exist to help tourists and visitors find their ways around a place. Or know more about a site. True, some tourists cannot do without them. But if you are a backpacker, the last thing you want to do is share your little money with a hustler who will give you information that you can anyway get off the internet, or off some guide book.
I know, they are just trying to make ends meet, but because it’s an easy job (you do not need qualifications, nor do you have to invest any money to be a ‘guide’, you only have to idle at a popular tourist spot like a vulture in a death zone), there’s often ten of them for every tourist. That makes them a big pain. They are not the official guides with the registered tour companies, though those can also be so irksome – remember when you switched off your TV because every channel you tuned to had a Coke commercial? Well, these guides are like a million boring commercials waiting for you when you go out to relax, enjoy a photo shoot, admire the ruined architecture, where you go to have fun.
I first encountered one at Bashantapur Durbar Sqaure, inKathmandu. He could not take no for an answer. First, he wanted to sell us pictures of the Kumari, the child goddess who lives in one of the houses in the square. We told him we are Christians, and he retorted with a ‘What are you then doing in a Hindu temple?’
It’s totally free and unrestricted to enter the Kumari’s courtyard, but the first thing this guy tells me is this, ‘Today is a special festival. I can take you in to see her.’ I almost fell for it. Yet, I did not see any police or guard standing at the doorway. So we shrugged him off and went in, where we found a group waiting for the Kumari to show her face. After about thirty minutes, she showed in one of the windows for a few seconds. We could not take photos because it is prohibited. Strangely, there were thousands of her photos being sold all over the square.
Entrance to the Kumari’s courtyard.
The ‘guides’ who will hustle you idle about.
The Kumari’s courtyard
When we got out, the gentleman was waiting for us. We still said no. And the harassment started. He insisted that we use his services, because we were in the square and needed a guide. We just wanted to take photos and we could find our way around. He followed us wherever we went, chanting “I’m a guide I’m really cheap” over and over again like a toy robot. Then, he started to offer us information on whatever we were seeing – “They used to decapitate people on this stone.” – But that is when it turned into an argument. A quarrel. I called him a liar and that made him very angry.
Maybe what he said is true, but there was a guide pamphlet about the square, and I did not remember seeing that kind of information. I know these fellows will cook up anything to get your attention. When we were in Fort Jesus, Mombasa, one scared us into hiring him.
Fort Jesus, Mombasa, with it’s irritating hustlers and guides lurking at the entrance.
We wanted to walk around the Old Town (it was not worth it, it is not even an old town. Do not bother to walk around it. There is no wow factor) but we did not know this. We trusted what the stupid guide books said. So we thought it would be an interesting thing to do. We tried to ask for directions, but even that was for sale. None of them could show you the way to the toilet unless he offered to ‘guide’ you there, for a fee. This guy, he called himself Muhammad Ali, scared us with talk of muggers who would rob us if we had no guide, so we let him ‘guide’ us.
But he was only after the money, and getting over the tour so quickly. He walked at such a fast pace that we fought to keep up with him, and even now I cannot imagine why we did not ditch him immediately. He frequently took us to craft shops which he obviously had connections to, and tried to talk us into buying stuff from there. The walk around Old Town might have been nicer without him. We should have taken a map of some kind with us. It seemed perfectly safe to walk about without a guide.
When we got to Fort Jesus, another hustler tried to take us around. He tried to lead us away from the official ticket booth – I figured they have a scam going, where you can get in without paying the official entry fee, and that is why this guy did not want us to go straight to the ticket office. We ignored him. But once inside, he kept on our tails, very much like the Nepali man in Bashantapur. He was so insistent that he got angry when we ignored him. Only after I used foul language did he bugger off.
The one thing that made Nyali beach not as interesting as it might have been were the beach boys. Like the guides at the historical sites we went to, they try to make a living from the hundreds of visitors who come to have fun by the waterside. But in their quest for money, they turn into a nuisance. Even while we were swimming (or in my case trying to swim) they would walk into the water and try to get us interested in buying their stuff (sea shells, sea foods, etc) or to get us to go snorkeling with them, or to make for us crafts with our names on it. We could hardly enjoy the water in peace. There was one, however, who seemed like a nice fellow. He was called Julius, and I will write about him later.
Julius, the beach boy of Nyali
So when we got to Bofa beach in Kilifi, and found it totally isolated, not a soul in site, we were thrilled. At least we would have some fun. Unfortunately, the tide was so high and the water so rough for amateur swimmers like us to go into it. It would have been nice for surfing though. So we sat on the sand and enjoyed the music of water crashing onto the shore. Just when we thought we would get away with making love there, two young boys appeared. They were about eleven years old. And they were selling shells. I guess someone had spied us coming in and so word went round that there were two visitors down in the beach waiting to be hustled.
The boys of Bofa beach, Kilifi
Still, these little boys were not aggressive like the folk at Nyali beach. They were shy, and gave us privacy when we told them we were not interested in their shells. This surprised me so much that I decided to buy a few shells from them.
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How to enjoy a five day holiday in Mombasa with only $200

This weekend, I returned from Mombasa, where I spent nearly two weeks on holiday with the girlfriend. Ooops – fiancée. We had planned for it for a long time, and she did not know I was planning to pop the question in style during this holiday. Upon returning, a friend called and said I must have spent millions. I laughed, because we each hardly spent 300 dollars for the entire trip! We would have spent less if had avoided first class on the train!

I know, you are skeptical. But let me give you a few tips. You can have a five day holiday in Mombasa for only five hundred thousand shillings. That is the kind of money some Ugandans blow in the fake beaches around Lake Victoria. Some even blow it in bars. But next time you want to take out your girlfriend, try Mombasa. It’s cheap, if you follow these simple tips I’m going to give you.
I like to travel, to see the world, to experience new cultures and new adventures. I’ve thus figured out the cheapest ways to enjoy the most exotic spots in the world as though I’m a rich person.
Needlessly to say, take the bus, not a plane. And certainly avoid first class on the train! The bigger and more comfortable buses no longer make the Kampala-Mombasa trip. They only go up to Nairobi. There is only one company that we found has buses going all the way to the coat. This was Mash Poa, a pretty cool and comfy bus. Still, you’ll have to take a bus to Nairobi, and then change to another one that goes to Mombasa.
Luxury busses like Queens Coach cost about 70,000 (30 USD) and 12-14 hours from Kampala to Nairobi. It was very comfortable. They gave us free snacks. The only problem was there was no toilet break between Busia and Nakuru! You can get to Nairobi for less than 70k, however. Take a taxi to Busia or Malaba, it costs only 15,000. Cross the border. Take a bus from the Kenyan side to Nairobi and you’ll pay between 1,000 KES (about 30,000, or 12 USD) and 1,350 KES (about 40,000, or about 16 USD).
It’s common to see game along the highways of Kenya
 I am not sure about this, but I think there are buses that go from Busia/Malaba to Mombasa for about 1,500-2,000 KES. We saw these buses and those rates while in Mombasa, but we already had other plans for the return trip.
The one advantage travelling by bus has over flying is not just because you save lots of money. The highways pass through game parks, and so instead of paying hundreds of dollars on safaris, just take a bus. Sooner or later, you’ll see game. Lots of game. Zebras. Giraffes. Buffalos. Elephants – Reiza was so thrilled to see the red elephants of Tsavo that she squealed and screamed at me to take the photos – The experience was better on the train.
Do not spend the night or a lot of time in Nairobi. It will only eat into your budget. There are many buses that go to Mombasa and it is possible to get one every hour. The cheapest will cost you only 1,000 KES (about 30,000, or 12 USD). It takes about seven hours. But be sure to time your trip so you do not arrive in Mombasa during the evening rush hour. It was the worst jam I ever experienced. We were stuck in it for about two hours. And it was made much worse because we had been traveling for nearly 24hours, we had not had a toilet break in nearly 3hours and my bladder was bursting.
The train leaves Nairobi for Mombasa on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. You can take this as well, and if you avoid first class and take economy class, which goes for only about 600 KES (about 18,000 Ugandan, or about 11 USD), you’ll see that you save almost 20,000. And you’ll see more animals because the train passes deeper into the parks than the buses do.
Once in Mombasa, you will worry about where to sleep. You of course do not want to go to a hotel or guest house where you will be robbed. The seedy kind that adulterers prefer. But good accommodation can be very expensive. And those closes to the beaches are beyond your reach. Unless you find a backpacker’s place. You can stay right on the beach, in a dorm, for as little as 800 KES a night. (That’s about 10 US dollars or 25,000 UGX). 
A resident of Backpacker’s Nirvana

We stayed at Backpackers Nirvana, which is right on Nyali beach, and it was worth the price because we were allowed to cook food for ourselves. If you are a budget traveler, then cooking facilities come in very handy because you won’t have to spend a lot of money eating in restaurants. At Backpackers Nirvana, you can get a private room for about 3,000 KES a night. These rooms can host up to three people because the beds are really huge, so if you are traveling in a group and do not want to share a dorm with strangers, this might be the cheap option.

Even cheaper and free, is Couch surfing. There is this website http://www.couchsurfing.org/  where you can find someone to host you for free in Mombasa. We put out a request and we got a lot of people offering us free accommodation in their homes. But we chose to stay at Nirvana because of it’s proximity to the beach. We wanted to be able to go to the ocean at any time of the day. It was worth it. We spent a few dawns taking a swim in the ocean as the sun rose out of the waters. Absolutely marvelous!

 Now, if you make the calculations, you realize you need about 180,000 UGX (70 USD) for transport alone, and about 125,000 for bedding (50 USD). That leaves you with 195,000 (80 USD) for food, entry tickets to the popular tourist sites and fun. I’d suggest you avoid the tourist sites that are not unique to Mombasa – that you can find elsewhere, even here in Uganda. The entry fees are very expensive and will eat deep into your pocket. The only two places I would recommend are Fort Jesus, and the Marine park where you can snorkel and see the bottom of the sea. Do not go to Haller park – though it is a nice place and offers a very exciting and fulfilling experience. It is a very expensive zoo in a reclaimed quarry, and yet it doesn’t even have that many animals. You can always see those same animals along the highways.
Fort Jesus charges foreigners an entry fee of 800 KES (about 10 USD), and 400 KES for Kenyans. I paid the Kenyan rate, because I speak fluent Swahili. They do not ask for IDs, so as long as you know Kiswahili, you’ll get away with the deception. And when you go to the Marine Park, you’ll see how much you can save if you passed off as a Kenyan. Foreigners pay 1,300 (about 15 US dollars) while Kenyans pay on 100 KES! It makes me wonder if foreigners are supposed to have bigger eyes than Kenyans and so have to pay more for seeing the same crappy animals that the Kenyans will see. For the marine park, you’ll need to cough about 1,000 KES for a boat to sail in. The rate is the same, whether you want the boat for the whole day, or for just a few minutes. There are two kinds of boats, the glass boat with engines, and the angalawa (sic), which I preferred for it is indigenous and gives you a more exotic and romantic experience, especially if you take Wagna’s boat. You can find him through Backpacker’s Nirvana. I thought the boat was called a dhow, but Wagna said it is called angalawa, I hope that is the correct spelling. It sounded like that.

So if I am limiting you to only Fort Jesus (one day) and the Marine Park plus snorkeling (one day) what will you do for the other three days? Seeing that you have only slightly over 100,000 left for you to spend? Go to the beach!

 There’s lots of fun you can have at the beach. Play soccer. Swim. Float. Just ogle. If you are the clubbing and partying type, go to Mtwapa, the sin city of Kenya, and you could dance right by the water’s edge. Or you could easily pick a girl – or a man – for the night!
Mombasa has many beaches that you can play in all day. There’s Nyali beach, which is closest to Backpackers Nirvana, and probably the best of those near Mombasa. But there are also beaches in Mtwapa and in Kilifi. I especially loved Bofa beach in Kilifi because we had it all to ourselves. It was so isolated that it gave me enough courage to perform a little “Will you marry me” drama right by the seaside without onlookers spoiling it with their bewildered eyes.
Kilifi is about an hour away from Mombasa by matatu, which cost us about 150 KES. While in Mombasa on a budget, avoid the tuktuks and the taxis. They will drain your pocket. Mombasa’s matatu service is very friendly, and it’s easy to get to wherever you want to go because all matatus are labeled with their routes. In our hotel, there were two girls who stayed in the dorm, paying only 10 USD for accommodation. But they were spending about 40 USD daily on tuktuks and taxis. It did not make sense to me. They might have spent less than 5 US dollars daily if they learned how to use the matutus, or walked.
Captain Wagna leads a client to his boat
Then, you need to eat sea foods. Avoid the restaurants. They will overcharge you. I was surprised, for I thought that being by the ocean, sea foods would be a lot cheaper in Mombasa. But the prices were murder. We thought we would not taste anything until one of these beach boys, Julius, promised to get us anything we wanted. He got us all kinds of fish and crab and lobster, at give away prices, for he knew some fishermen, and we cooked it ourselves and enjoyed the meals for a tenth of the prices we would have paid in Golden Sticks. We later realized we might have gone to one of the fish markets and bought the sea foods ourselves.

Well, so there it is. Your five day holiday in Mombasa for only five hundred thousand shillings. It’s doable. Better start saving. The best way to have fun is not by buying stupidly expensive tickets to watch drunk musicians in Lugogo. Nor is it by going to Kabira country club or to Steak Out and getting drunk. Jump on the bus, leave the country and you’ll discover a whole new world that you hitherto thought was reserved for the rich!

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I have no words. I once read this story in the New Vision, and I heard a call to make a social action documentary, about how the government of Uganda ignores certain diseases, and focuses on diseases that donors say it should focus on. They pour money into TB, AIDS, Malaria, and now on maternal health – and yet being pregnant is not even a disease! It’s 100% natural, but (okay, that’s for another story) – there are sicknesses that are killing Ugandans, and no one is doing anything about it. Like DMD, duchenne muscular dystrophy, a terrible killer.

It’s sad to see a young life wasted,
reduced to waiting for the grim reaper.

I visited this family in Wakiso district, and spent a day with them. I am hoping to convince a physiotherapist to visit the family and train them on how to care for their sick children, but this case makes me speechless. I do not know if I have the heart to make this film.

Three children have already died in the family. One boy is suffering from advanced stages of the disease. He may go any time soon. The other three boys are still young, but already showing signs of the killer.

What does the future hold for me? Julius seems to ask.

It is a very depressing story. Of little boys waiting to day. Of a family living in abject poverty. Of disease and hopelessness. Of a family that has been abandoned by neighbours, relatives and friends because they are thought to be carrying a curse.

I feel helpless.

And I feel gagged.

It doesn’t look good at all, Julius seems to say.

There is a very bad attitude going round in the media. It has corrupted artists, writers and film makers. They say you should avoid the kind of stories that BBC and CNN tell about Africa. Stories that stereotype Africa as a place of wars, poverty and disease. The Caine Prize was once heavily criticized for picking stories that some say depict Africa in a ‘negative’ way. Some call it ‘poverty porn’. It bowed to that pressure. Sadly.

But it makes me angry. And I want to ask these stupid people who want us not to tell stories of people like Paul Kayonga and is unfortunate family. I want to ask them one question; If we all keep silent, if we only write about the partying in Kampala, and crazy sex in night clubs like in Viva Riva, and how Africa has a lifestyle and atmosphere that is similar to the good life in Europe and America and Asia — if we do not speak about the poverty, the wars, the diseases like duchenne muscular dystrophy that attacks unfortunately families and pushes them deeper into poverty, is that not escapism?

Who will speak for such people? Who will tell the stories to inspire social action? Shall we not end up like the USA, a capitalist hell where only the rich have a voice? Where only those who have means can be heard?

I think those who do not want to ‘stereotype’ Africa, and want to only tell stories of the ‘good’ side of Africa, have lived in Europe and America, or grown up in cities, and are out of touch with reality.

I want to tell this story. I think that portraying people in a positive light does not mean avoiding ‘poverty porn’. Instead, it involves painting a picture of how brave such families are. Of how surviving against all odds.

I hope I will be able to tell this story. Please God, give me the strength to tell it.

All smiles upon getting beans from a good neighbour. Now supper is assured.
Mother and her children prepare beans for supper.
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Of Dreams and Nightmares

This post is an example of why some people should not be allowed to write blogs without supervision….. 

Photo pirated from facebook, don’t know who to credit

So I’m sitting here, looking at this blank page, and wondering what I can write to make you, my dear Chewy, laugh. Maybe I should put some of the pictures I saw on facebook last week, like the one with the tattoo. But that picture gave me nightmares, so I wonder if you should really see it. I dreamt that I was in China, and this woman with a magic pen was writing on my back. When she finished, I started to grow feathers, and then wings sprouted out of my back, and I turned into a giant cock —

Ah. Not the cock of porn films. But a real rooster, and every time I tried to speak, the only sounds I could make was something like coo-ko-lilo-koko! And then there was this Chinese girl laughing at me, and telling her friends, “Hey. When did you ever see a village rooster crowing in a town?” That is supposed to be a Swahili proverb. I was so pissed with her for speaking Swahili in Chinese – whatever that means, in the dream, it was so real – that I turned my rear end on her and let out a bucket of diarrhoea right onto her face!

 Recommended Video: 6.5 million views on YouTube.
What Happened in Room 13. 

Stupid dream. But it isn’t as stupid as the one you had, of a Japanese ghost. The geisha in a blue dress. I think she came into my dreams too. She was rowing a boat made out of feather — what are feather doing in my dreams! – and she had a face as white as cassava flour. I was sitting with you on the beach, watching the sunset, and at first we thought she was a swan swimming through the lake at sunset. But when she got close enough, we saw what she was. And she leapt off the boat and flew at us —

And we ran further down the beach until we found a group of people dancing naked around a fire, in the beams of the full moon, we stripped and joined them and we danced to the music of a guitar. Only that it turned out they were all dead people —

I think you can guess how bored I am right now. That I’m suffering from what some fools call a writer’s block —  I don’t think it’s that at all. I’m just tired. Tired of making applications. Been making them all week long. Whew, let me go cook some chicken then I’ll see how to make this a blog post worth reading. 

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Love and prejudice

Memories of Rain

“I love the sound of rain.” So goes the first line in the lyrics of a song Reiza is writing. “I forgot the sound of rain,” is my response to it. There’s something about rain and romance. Rain and poetry. Rain and love. And as I sit here with the darkness growing around the room – I’m too lazy to turn on the lights! – I hear the rain falling outside. I see the droplets sliding on the window pane like lazy dancers and it stirs memories of rain. Hmmm, that sounds like a cute title for a story. Memories of Rain.

A watery view of the world. Camera art, pure and simple. 

The first time I experienced rain falling for five days non-stop was in Nepal. And they thought it was very good weather. Mostly because it cooled down the heat. But the people in places like Surkhet live in fear of rain, for mudslides happen every monsoon, and those in the plains live in fear of floods. But unlike in Uganda where a slight drizzle can bring the whole world to a stand still, in Nepal, people simply pulled out their umbrellas and life went on as though there was no rain!

Women shop in Birendranagar, a city in Western Nepal, in spite of the drizzle.
A girl helps her brother go to school through the rain.
Kampala is at its worst after a rain. The floods. The jam. The mud. Oh boy – the mud! One day last year, lured by the promises of basking in the sun on fake beaches with real books, I decided to take Reiza to Ssese Islands. We did not know it had rained in the night until we reached the Old Taxi Park, where we were to get a taxi to Entebbe.
It was wet. The mud squelched under our feet. Reiza had never walked over so much mud. She was so afraid of the mud that she tried to walk on air. The expression on her face gave me an idea of what someone would look like if she were walking on worms. She provided great entertainment to the taxi park fellas, the drivers and conductors and hawkers and idlers, who stopped whatever they were doing and watched in excitement. Some started to bet on whether she would fall, or on whether she would get mud on her feet. One yelled at me, “omwana wo’muzungu musitule” (carry the daughter of a muzungu). The others provided a sound track. They sang in unison to her footfalls, imitating the squelching sound that her feet made as they touched the mud – yshhk yshhk yshhk yshhk – it seemed like the whole taxi park was cheering her as she tiptoed to the Entebbe taxi.
Hold me tight and keep me warm.
Many years back, I was in my final year at Makerere University. I had an umbrella, unlike most students, especially girls who thought it was not cool to carry around a bulky thing like an umbrella. So one day, at the roundabout near Nkrumah (is it a roundabout or just a junction?), anyway on that steep road from Nkrumah to the Main Library, I was rushing to lectures. It was drizzling. I did not realize a girl had joined me until she had her arms around me. We walked in silence, up the steep hill, listening to the sound of the rain falling on the umbrella, and to our breathing as we panted. I felt hot, my pants swell. I knew we would end up in bed, though she was a stranger.
But once we reached the top of the hill, she turned to me with a smile (what a pretty cute thing she was) and off she ran towards the faculty of science. Leaving me stunned. It was as if she had kissed me. But I did not catch her name, or where she was residing – I visited that road at the same hour and day over the next several weeks, hoping I would catch her going to some lecture, but wapi. All I was left with was that smile. Sadly, the years have erased her face and that smile from my memory. All I have is that that silent walk in the rain with a strange girl.
I don’t remember whether it was before this, or after, but I had another encounter with a girl in the rain. I think I was from lectures, because I was walking away from the faculty of Social Sciences, past MDD, towards Nkrumah and kikumi-kikumi, when I met them. A girl and a dog.
They were both wet from the drizzle. At first, I did not notice that there was trouble. The girl was clad in a skimpy dress that exposed much of her flesh. She was not too fat, but had a lot of flesh on her behinds. The dog was a big brute, clearly a wild creature. It looked very hungry.
I then realized that the girl was scared. I don’t know what the dog was up to, but he looked like he was searching for food. He kept running around the girl, panting, baring his big teeth at her, saliva drooling, his starved eyes fixed on the girl’s beefy buttocks – every movement of her made them shake like two slabs of meat.
The girl could not shake the dog off her. When she moved, it moved. When she stopped, it stopped. It didn’t bark. It just kept running around her, panting hungrily, staring at her with bloodthirsty teeth.
Then the girl saw me. And she saw her savior. . Before I realized what was happening, the girl quickly ran and joined me under my umbrella, squeezing her wet body against mine.
At first, the dog seemed to be afraid of me. I walked away and it did not follow us. I could hear the girl’s breathing grow calm. But just when I thought everything was going to be fine, the girl shrieked. She had felt its tail on her legs. The dog had joined us under the umbrella.
In a sudden burst of terror, I ran. I fled from the girl and the dog. But the girl did not let go of my arms. She ran with me, screaming. And the dog chased.
I slipped and fell into a puddle. The girl fell in with me. And the dog barked happily, dancing around us. For a brief moment, I feared it would join us in the pool, and I’m sure it would have if the old, obese woman had not come to our rescue.
She ran out of her car brandishing a big umbrella. “Shoo! Shoo!” she barked at the dog, beating it with the umbrella. “Shoo!” And the dog ran away.
“It’s gone,” the old woman said to us with a big, crocodile smile.  
We scrambled out of the pool. The girl ran away from me. She did not stop to thank the old woman, or me, she just jumped out of the pothole and fled. Leaving me all soaked up in muddy water, my books ruined, and the obese old woman grinning at me and saying something I could not understand.

Creatures from the Other World

It’s a sunny Sunday. I’ve just had a very productive weekend. Started and finished a short film. It’s a story that has been running in my head for nearly two years now. Maybe more. I’m glad I got it out. Maybe now I will have some sleep and peace, for the characters wanted their story told. They kept bothering me, yelling at me, screaming at me, distracting me whenever I was thinking about something else. A little girl and her paralyzed older brother.

A question every writer confronts at some point or the other is “Where did you get that story?” I always wonder where I get my stories. Stephen King, in his book On Writing, suggested that writers are like archaeologists. That stories exist somewhere, and a writer’s job is not to ‘create’ them, but to dig and discover them, and share them with the public.

But I think that stories are experiences in a parallel world. Do you believe in other worlds? Christians and many religions think in terms of Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, Paradise. Hindus believe in reincarnations. Phillip Pullman thinks there are other worlds that exist in the same space as ours. Time travelers think our histories (or is it futures?) are stored in black holes. Sci-fi nerds think of life flourishing in other planets. There is the world of ghosts and spirits. One or more of these beliefs is true. And from one or more of these worlds, stories trick into ours, through storytellers, who are like mediums.

We do not create. We only have the powers to peek into strange worlds. Like that boy in The Sixth Sense. Like Whoopi in Ghost. Like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. And when people in those imaginary worlds discover that you can communicate with them, they start coming to you. And bothering you. Until you cannot find sleep. Or peace.

I remember on morning when, the story of a rebel radio DJ, who is stuck on a wheelchair after an accident, came to me. I woke up and it was so clear in my head as if I’d were seeing a movie (well, I’d just seen two movies, murderball and Talk Radio the previous night). First, the wheelchair DJ came. Then his fan followed. For about an hour, I entertained them, poking at them to tell me their story. I wanted it to be a story about two people only, the wheelchair DJ and his only fan. But then, her husband popped up, and so did the wheelchair guy’s ex-girlfriend. I was so furious. I screamed at them; “I don’t want four of you! I only want two of you!” But well, the two late comers refused to go away, and so I’ve never gotten round to writing this story. They however are not giving me peace. They buzz in my ears, like mosquitoes all night.

Often, these strange fellows from those other worlds are shapeless and faceless — and they remain so until I experience something in this world that gives them shape, and faces.

Like this girl and her paralyzed brother.

At first I thought she was a teenage boy, and his little brother was paralyzed. But while in Nepal, Reiza suggested we visit a home where they look after children with severe disabilities. We spent a whole day there. I saw many children with various kinds of disabilities. The visit touched my heart in ways I cannot tell. I’ve posted here some of the photos I took that day.

Angels in a window are all he’s got to play with.
Poor baby stuck in a chair, with an angel who committed suicide.

It did not strike me at once, but after a long time, I discovered the teenage boy was actually a 10-year old girl. And her paralyzed brother was older, 20 years. And she had to help him.

Let’s play. But only indoors. No way out.

She visited me several times in the course of the last year, telling me a single sentence over and over again, urging me to write her story. But she never told me anything more than that single sentence, which went something like this, “I’m a little girl who challenges my parents and bring happiness to the life of my paralyzed brother, and to our home.”

Very vague sentence. It’s not until I sat down to write the story, on Saturday, that she told me more about herself. She sat on my shoulders, and whispered things into my ears. And when I stopped writing after only an hour, she threw tantrums. She pestered me the whole of Friday night. I had to wake up at 5am to complete her story. Only then did I discover she did not have a father, and that she was such a liar.

I finished the story late yesterday afternoon. But wow, you would think she would retreat into her world and leave me alone. But she keeps on bothering me, for she does not want me to tell her story in the form of a film. She wants me to write a folk story, something that will begin like this; “Once upon a time, a little boy lived in a dark room. He had no one to play with apart from the angels who floated into his room on sunbeams that fell in from the tiny window.”

Whew. And someone says I’m blessed. Man, this is a curse. To hear voices. To see little girls. To have no peace until a story is told — a curse 🙁

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Piracy, Markets and Love

Something bad happened to me today. Something that made me think about pirates. Not those in the Indian Ocean, and certainly not the kind Johnny Depp has made popular — though they are my favorites! But well, I feel so bad. I want to strangle someone. You know that feeling? You have a lot of money in your pocket but when you walk into a shop, they say you cannot buy anything there because — well, maybe because you are wearing a blue shirt and they only allow people with red shirts into this shop.

The kind of situation that makes you look for a pirate to hack into the shop and get you what you want at almost no cost. After spending years using pirated software, I think my company is growing, and so I want to go legit and buy the real stuff. But they won’t sell it to me. Because I don’t have a credit card from their stupid country. I call a friend who does, and we try to use her card, but still they won’t sell it to us because the license won’t be used outside their stupid country.

And I got so mad — and I started to wonder why the heck the process of buying and selling goods is becoming so (unsocial? mechanical? unreal? virtual?) — trading is supposed to be the heart of humanity. Whether you go to the neighbors to exchange your bar of soap for a pinch of salt, or to the market to buy a little sugar and bread for the kids — trading is supposed to be a socializing experience.

But it’s becoming impersonal. You have to buy stuff online. Using plastic cards. And when you get mad like I did today, you can’t scream at the pretty cashier who gave your a bouquet of flowers when you asked for flour.

Oh well, they do have ‘help lines’. They say, “Call this number if you are having trouble purchasing our products.” And when you call, what happens, you talk to a stupid robot that pretends it has a voice like Dolly Parton — for a few seconds you do think you are speaking to a pretty girl; you start to ask her out and then — cliche joke.

I love the color in the markets of Uganda.
The smells as well, and the noise of traders hawking their goods amidst the traffic.

But I was saying that trading is losing it’s humanity. We have kafundas, and market stalls around every corner, and hawkers with wheelbarrows full of vegetables. But the way society changing, all these nice things might vanish. Every shop is turning into a supermarket. And the employ girls who aren’t as nice as the women you talk to when you visit the market. These girls have plastic smiles, and wear uniforms like school kids, and are often too tired to flirt with customers — or cannot because the Indian supervisor is watching them on the CCTV.

Markets are a place where boys meet girls.

If the world all turns into supermarkets and virtual shops and plastic cards, how will some people get married?

I know a girl who married the cake delivery boy. Well, he wasn’t really a cake deliverer, but the baker himself. Because he was a small fish in the pond, like me and my company, he could not afford to pay a delivery boy. He had to do the legwork himself. So he goes to this girl’s offices — let’s call her Pauline — and Pauline is in one room, busy typing away at her computer when the smell of cakes hits her nose. She leaves her desk, sniffing, sniffing, feeling something strange turning in her heart — “It’s just a cake Pauline!” — but she moves from room to room, sniffing, until she finds the cake.

And the baker.

He is on his way out. It’s love at first sight (though I think it was love at first smell). And she says; “I have a birthday next week. Can you make me a cake?” It’s a lie, of course. There’s no birthday next week. She just wants an excuse to get his number, and make a move.

They are now married. They have two children. And he still bakes cakes. But understandably, she doesn’t let him do deliveries anymore, for she is afraid another girl will fall in love with the smell of his cakes…..

Girl’s love birthday cakes. I think it’s the key to their hearts.

Ah — what was I talking about when I dragged up this cake memory? Yes, supermarkets, online shops, all those kinds of new trading that is killing societies. Including things like facebook. I feel inspired to start a movement to take humanity back to the stone ages, when everything was so simple. When you walked into a shop and either bought bread or it was out of stock. When young girls used shopping as an excuse to meet their boyfriends — noticed how they take baths and tune themselves up as though they are going for a party and not to buy tomatoes? — When you could smell of the mud, the fresh vegetables, the fish, the fruits, the sweat, and feel the noise of a busy and dusty market as you looked for a supper. Hmmm I should do that more often, while it lasts.

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The Aphrodisiac Restaurant

It is hard to forget a date in an aphrodisiac restaurant.

Mochitos. Photo courtesy of www.or2k.org

I remember the day. 29th May 2011. A beautiful evening in Kathmandu. The threat of a strike lingered in the air, the Maoists promising bloodshed and chaos over the new constitution, their threats keeping people indoors and cars off the street. But Thamel was bustling with life, as usual, for the worst of the threat was over. I do not remember well, but the banda was supposed to (but largely didn’t) happen on the 28th — the day she came into Kathmandu. And so on the 29th I took her out to OR2K. Wow. I’ve never been to a place like that!

Magnificent chandeliers hang in the ceilings, like clusters of stars in a romance novel. The large windows let in a gentle breeze, that made the candles dance like fairies to the allure of traditional Nepali music, the sweet and soothing whispers from a sarangi, the gentle dum-dum-dum of the madal – the flutes that hooted like birds calling their lovers — the cigarette smoke hanging in the air — the scent of opium wafting in from the dark streets outside the restaurant, mixing in with the aroma of the food on the table, next to two mojitos whose straws touched each other — and her smell! The floor was wooden. We sat on rugs, the food on low tables. Her face looked like a full moon in the low lights. Her voice whispered into my ears as though she was providing lyrics to the jazz music of the live band.

Enjoying a meal at OR2K restaurant, Kathmandu

I’m trying to paint a picture with words, to make you feel what it was like in OR2K, and I’ve tried to put here pictures that would make you see the place — but nothing I say, no pictures I put here, will ever make you feel the place. Unless you go there.

Still, I can sum it all up with one word: aphrodisiac — the atmosphere, the food, the music, the lights, the beautiful girl sitting next to you, sipping a green drink called mojito, all combine in a mystic way to give a taste of wicked romance.

The paintings in OR2K give it a mystic feel.

I’ve never experienced another restaurant the way I experienced OR2K. The food in GAIA was great, as it was in Lamas, Mike’s Breakfast, Bhumis, Royal Thandoori, The Lunch Box — but nothing beats OR2K in atmosphere.

Dining in OR2K is ideal for groups, or just two lovers.

Since I came back to Uganda, I have tried to look for an OR2K equivalent in Kampala, but the eating places in Kampala are woefully lacking. They do try to create atmosphere with live band music — most of whose music are not captivating, and most of who mime rather than play actual music — and they try to make it romantic with dim lights from hurricane lamps and paraffin candles. Jazzville in Bugolobi did try to compete with OR2K, but the big open space in the hut makes it rather impersonal. You feel like you are in a stadium watching a concert. In OR2K, you feel like you are in a private party in someone’s living room. Lotus Mexicana also did try to impress me, but I did not like the music, which were mostly poorly done renditions of American music (can someone please tell these musicians that there’s more joy in listening to traditional African jazz?) and the toilet put me off completely. The sink was blocked and overflowing — don’t even want to think about it!

Khana Khazana on acacia avenue offered us an okayish atmosphere as well. I liked the fake waterfalls in the middle of the dining area, and the waiters who wore costumes as they served great food. But it was painful that the waiters had no idea what food they were serving — had probably never tasted half of the dishes on the menu. The food was marvelous, though. Sadly, the atmosphere fell short of being aphrodisiac.

And so I’m still searching for an equivalent to OR2K in Kampala. Somewhere I can go and enjoy good food, good music, great atmosphere, with the prettiest girl around — somewhere a doctor can order you to go instead of prescribing Viagra, or ginseng :-))

She’s looking bored at Jazzville, Bugolobi, in Kampala
Looking through the Menu of Lotus Mexicana restuarant.
The atmosphere aint so grand in Lotus Mexicana.
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