I write from the sky south of Iceland, aboard an aircraft flying us to Toronto. We have been travelling for a while since we left Entebbe at 4.20pm on Sunday. After a five-hour flight to Dubai, followed by a five-hour wait for our flight to Toronto, we have been up here for almost nine hours. We still have another four hours to go before we land in my home away from home at 9.30am on Monday morning, which will be 4.30pm in Entebbe.
This 24-hour long and tiring journey always reminds me of how far from home one spends the better part of the year. Toronto is 11,733km from Entebbe as the crow flies, a full seven hours behind Kampala. Needless to say, there is a merciless jetlag awaiting us upon arrival. But that is not as bad as the food choices that await me.
I am already dreading the limited food choices in Canada compared to the very rich variety that we have enjoyed in Uganda and Kenya for more than a month. Don’t get me wrong. There is an abundance of food in Toronto. My problem is a palate that has completely refused to find happiness with the foods in these parts. Do you realise how lucky you are, Tingasiga, to have such rich and healthy food available to you and to most citizens, even those with limited finances?
A daily breakfast of succulent and juicy pineapples, papaws, watermelon and passion fruit, followed by hot millet porridge, then a choice of great coffee from Kigyezi, Bugisu and Rwanda is something we can only dream about in our home in Toronto. A lunch of mashed matooke (bananas), white sweet potatoes, groundnut sauce and a variety of green vegetables is a dream for one who must make do with a cheese sandwich or such tummy-fillers for which one pays a good chunk of money in Toronto. Dinners of these and other foods, including oburo (millet bread) and eshabwe, cap one’s days with a grateful palate that many of you in East Africa probably take for granted.
Indeed, some of you prefer European foods like sausages and French fries (chips) and other offerings from popular hangouts for the middleclass elite. I chuckle with pain when some tell me that we who live in distant lands are “enjoying sausages.”
When we visited one of our nieces and her husband in Kampala, she offered us enturire, a sweet sorghum drink to which honey had been added. This non-alcoholic variety had been chilled in the fridge before
I gulped down a couple of glasses whose memory lingers weeks later. If I lived in Uganda, a chilled glass of enturire would be part of my daily diet. One wonders how many middle-class Ugandans at home consume their traditional drinks as a matter of routine. Our elders say that it is those without teeth who get the meat.
The enturire that I enjoyed should not be confused with the alcoholic variety which is known to trigger a wobbly gait, a slurring of the tongue and some serious singing of the blues. The effects of this alcoholic enturire, like those of Omuramba, rwarwa, tonto and waragi, are among the depressing situations I, once again, witnessed in my home area with sadness and worry. Even in the midmornings, one encountered able-bodied men (and a few women) struggling to persuade their bodies to stay upright and to get their feet to keep an orderly alternation that God ordained as the best means of human locomotion.
By mid-afternoon, the roads in Kigyezi would become theatres of wobbly men and women, fully regressed to toddlerhood, with some abandoning the struggle and taking horizontal refuge by the roadside. Driving from Gisoro to Kabaare at night, we encountered several men who were zigzagging in the middle of the road, presumably hoping to deliver themselves to their homes unharmed. One wondered how many in a similar state had had unintended collisions with motor vehicles, especially the boda bodas, whose operators seemed incapable of slowing down.
Excessive alcohol consumption is not new, of course. However, it seems to me that the number of irresponsible consumers has exponentially increased over the last 30 years or so. To be sure, the abundance of drinking joints in every town and hamlet is alarming. During my childhood and early youth, there were only three bars in my entire muruka (parish) of Mparo, Rukiga. We knew the owners – Mr Mashurubu, Mr Basheka and a lady called Siriiza Muhara wa Keisaasa. They were respected members of the business community and had limited hours during which they sold their liquids.
I recall the alarm with which our parents and other elders received the news that a new bar had opened near the school stadium, strategically placed between the Anglican and Catholic schools. That bar attracted middle aged women, and soon acquired the nickname “Aha kikaikuru” (place for old women). We knew the names of the drunks in our community, some of whom were regular belters of the most beautiful blues as they harmlessly staggered their way home without bothering anyone.
Today, there are numerous bars everywhere, literally all along the roads, with some hamlets being a series of drinking joints to which men and women gravitate during working hours. In many places, the inebriated take over the roads and paths, increasing the risk of accidental injuries that might trigger retaliation against the driver. Many accost the innocent passerby, demanding some cash to feed their habit, and threatening not to vote for me at the next elections if I don’t give them ekya bitaano (five hundred shillings). My assurances that I have plans to seek elected in office in 2021 are usually ignored as they press their demands.
I do not blame the victims of alcohol abuse. Instead I would like to understand the situation-specific social and economic origins of this pandemic. That’s been on my mind as I fly to Toronto. We must turn our serious collective attention to this problem and find practical solutions. It does not affect the boozers and their families alone. We all pay a heavy price for it.