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Following the diplomatic reception at State House on my first day in my new job, I didn't see Amin for some time. Whenever I approached Wasswa, the Minister, about being presented to him, I was fobbed off. As his physician, I thought that I should (at the very least) make a preliminary examination. It would only be right and proper. Otherwise, what was the point of me? But Amin was too busy, apparently. Not doing anything important, if the manner in which I was finally to see him was anything to go by.
It was about a month after the reception. I had gone up to the pool at one of the city's big hotels. As a nonresident, you could use it by paying a daily fee. I changed in the little concrete room. One side of it was full of chugging machinery--for cleaning or pumping out the pool, I supposed--with dials and a couple of green-handled levers sticking out of it. On the other was a steel door with a rubber seal, padlocked and marked private in red letters.
I put my stuff in a locker and went out. There were lots of people out there, mostly whites, lying on sun-loungers like Romans at a feast, sipping their Cokes and Fantas and reading paperback books as the waiters moved stealthily among them.
One of them, I realized, was Marina Perkins, the Ambassador's wife. She was wearing sunglasses. I toyed with the idea of going up to her but was embarrassed to do so in my swimming trunks. So I dropped my towel by the side and dived right in. I did some lengths, enjoying the feeling of it after so much time in the heat, and then hauled myself out next to where I'd left my towel.
With the water on me, and the towel in my hands, I felt bold enough to go up to Marina Perkins.
"Hello," I said. My eyes were stinging from the chlorine.
Hers were obscured by the dark glasses. She pushed them up. "Doctor Garrigan. I didn't count you as a swimmer."
"I do try to keep in shape." I was conscious, however, of a certain nervousness about the disposition of my body as I said this. I moved gawkily, fiddling with a corner of the towel.
"Come and talk to me," she said. "I'm tired of sitting around in the sun doing nothing."
I laid the towel out.
"It won't be comfy on the ground. Why don't you get one of those?" She pointed at one of the loungers.
I dragged one over as she suggested, its plastic feet scraping the concrete, and then lay down beside her. Well, a few feet away. I still felt a bit embarrassed. Talking to an attractive woman on a neighboring sun-lounger is more difficult a matter than one might think--especially if she is someone else's wife. I found it hard not to let my gaze wander over the sideways-falling cup of her blue bikini. And so on, awkward cur that I was.
"So why did you leave Mbarara, really?" she asked. "It must have been quite exciting out there. An old-fashioned adventure."
Feeling the heat from the plastic lounger, an inauspicious augury coming up through the cushions and my damp towel, I decided not to tell her about Sara.
"Not really," I said. "Everything just becomes a job after a while. The problem was, I got tired of treating people with shoddy equipment and time-expired medicines. It became hardly worth it."
"It must always have been worth it, surely, to help people?"
"Up to a point. But a lot of the time, they were cases we just couldn't cope with. And anyway, it wasn't the most exciting life after work. I'm not cut out for endless dinner parties with the same people."
"Well, don't think it will be any different in Kampala. You'll find it gets the same here too. The list of things to do comes round again sooner than you think. There's hardly anything I haven't done: game park, Rwanda gorillas, Murchison Falls. The only one I haven't done is taking a boat out on Lake Vic. They say you can catch really big fish. I keep asking Robert, but he never has the time nowadays, after all that Asian stuff. He doesn't like water much anyway."
"I do," I said, and then suddenly felt gauche that I had shown interest where her husband had failed.
"I . . . used to go fishing a lot when I was a kid," I explained quickly. "With my father."
"Oh," she said.
I tried to change the subject. "You can't be that bored, though?"
"I am. It's all right for you. You've got an interesting job. You've got a use in the world. I'm just expected to hang around. I always feel as if I'm waiting for something."
I nodded, and looked down at my toes on the end of the sun-lounger.
"When you're a diplomat's wife, you've got to be like a diplomat. It's like you're under contract. I mean, I shouldn't really be talking to you like this. Not done--you know."
She pulled her dark glasses back down, like a spy in a comic. A Mata Hari.
"Don't worry," I said, jovially, "I won't tell anyone."
We chatted a bit about the political situation. She said that the same British journalists who had applauded Amin's coup were now writing critical articles, and that this was causing trouble for her husband. As she spoke, I noticed that one of the pool attendants was taking a keen interest in our conversation. I gave him a hard look. It was fruitless, and he continued to hang around while we were talking.
"I don't think it'll come to much," Marina said, when I asked her about the Economic War that Amin had announced. "There won't be a purge. Robert says it's just the aftermath of the Asian thing. It won't affect you or me."
Looking back, it seems crazy. All the time, in spite of myself, I was searching like a rubbish-picker among her words as they came out, poking about for an intimation that she found me attractive. None came. I must have been mad--what on earth did I expect?
"I suppose I ought to get back," she said, eventually. "We've got dinner with the East German Ambassador."
She gathered up her bag and towel and I watched her walk, little feet on the concrete, up towards the changing rooms.
I lay in the sun a bit more and then went for another swim. Pushing the water: forty lengths, changing my stroke every ten. Breast, back, side and a final burn of crawl. I can't do butterfly, it doesn't seem natural.
It was when I got out, as I was drying myself, that it happened. I had noticed several Ugandans, including a couple of soldiers, come into the pool area while I was swimming, and now they were sitting on the loungers, some fully dressed, some in trunks. One soldier was on mine but I didn't have the courage to challenge him.
On another lounger, over the other side, sat Wasswa. He beckoned to me, shouting across the water.
"Come and sit next to me, Doctor Garrigan. I have something to show you."
I went over and sat down on the cushioned plastic next to him.
"What is it?"
"You will see. It is very special."
He was wearing a pair of very skimpy trunks, I noticed--and then there was a kind of roaring sound from the center of the pool. A column of water, five or six feet high, rose up like a fountain. I spotted something dark underneath it. The roaring gave way to a mechanical grinding, and the Ugandans began to clap and cheer. A head came out as the plume cascaded down--oversized, like a bust of some great hero of the past--then broad shoulders, a stout belly in shorts, thighs, two doughty knees (one scarred) and finally a pair of surprisingly delicate ankles.
Amin waved at the jubilant bunch of flunkies and soldiers and dived off the platform. I could see the black X of him swimming underwater towards where Wasswa and I were sitting.
"It is a special machine His Excellency had put in," Wasswa said, pointing at the pillar in the centre of the pool. "It brings him up from underneath."
And then Amin's smiling face was breaking the surface in front of us, his eyes red and blinking. He pulled himself up, water falling off him on to the curblike edge. As if he had forgotten himself, Wasswa hurriedly got up and draped a towel around the President's shoulders. I stood up too.
Amin, at his full height, looked down at me closely. He wasn't smiling anymore.
"So . . . my personal physician. Why are you wasting your time around the swimming pool? You should be out healing the people of Uganda!"
"Uh-m," I said, bewildered, "I have been very busy, Your Excellency. I have been catching up on research. Anyway, in case you drowned . . ."
He stared like a bullfrog for a second, and then burst out laughing, pounding me on the back with his wet hand.
"Ah, Doctor Nicholas, you are a funny man. I was only joking. How is it going with you in Uganda? Do you like your new job?"
"Yes, but I really need to get the chance to check you over."
"Of course, of course. If I am sick. Now I am healthy."
He patted his stomach. "Very very healthy. Come, enjoy yourself at our pool."
He turned away but paused then, and spun back round. Involuntarily, I took a step back.
"No!" he said. "I want show you my secret weapon. Follow me."
He led me over towards the changing room, the retinue following too, whispering like naughty schoolchildren behind us. We went inside the room, past the bank of machinery. On the door marked private, the padlock was hanging off its clasp. Amin pulled one of the levers and a noise came from inside. The pillar coming down, I guessed, from the wet suck of hydraulic air.
"This is very significant advance, this very important in our technology in Uganda," said Amin. "The Israeli people made it for me."
He turned to me, jabbing the air with his finger.
"Good engineers, bad politicians in Tel Aviv. Now, you look inside." He opened the door.
I did as he said. There was a dark little cubicle there, with a metal floor and walls, all dripping with water.
Suddenly I felt a hand in the small of my back pushing me in, and a deep laugh as the door closed behind. Complete darkness. The mechanical noise again. And then a wall of water coming down on me. The force of it almost knocked me over. The roof had opened and I thought was going to drown--except that, at the same time, the floor of the cubicle was rising and there were powerful jets of air coming up all around. I could see light above me through the falling water.
I emerged spluttering, crouched on the platform as it rose above the surface of the pool. The Ugandans, who had presumably rushed back outside, and the few Europeans who hadn't slunk off when Amin appeared, were gathered there--cheering me now.
Trying not to look cross, I slid into the water. Amin himself pulled me out at the edge. He hurt my arm, and he was laughing like a drain.
"Oh doctor, doctor. I am sorry. But it is good that you learn to swim in a proper manner. I myself have been swimming in more rough water. You should be better. One day you may be in a war situation, doctoring for the Uganda Army."
He gave me his towel, which was large, and decorated with the crested-crane symbol.
"You frightened me," I said, drying myself slightly queasily.
"Do not be frightened. It is foolish to be frightened. Come, sit down. Eh, you!"
He beckoned at one of his retinue. "Order sandwiches. And fried chicken. And Coca-Cola also."
The man rushed off: his immediate, mute response was something I'd get used to seeing around Amin. I sat down on one of the loungers, rather shaken.
"No, doctor, you must not be frightened. To be afraid is a coward, and I do not think my own doctor can be a coward. Not possible. All of you, listen to me!"
Amin dived into the pool. With powerful strokes, he swam across to the pillar, which was still elevated from my own adventure. He clambered on to the platform and clapped his hands.
"All of you people. Listen to me. I want to talk to about afraidness and cowardice in Uganda."
He smoothed the front of his wet trunks. "The truth is, afraidness is bad. I was not afraid to take the presidency from Obote or to send the Kabaka to England. It was the best thing for my country. I think God will not punish me for it."
There were murmurs of assent from the retinue. Beside me, Wasswa was nodding his head eagerly.
"It is true, I like to be head man. I do not like to be told, 'Amin, carry this gun,' or, 'Amin, dig latrine here.' " He pretended to dig on the platform, and then continued: "I like this not at all, it is not right for my people for the white man to come and tell him this thing, that thing. But I do like it after, when the officer in the army before say, 'Well done Amin.' Just like when the Queen of England go and tell Scottish people, make planting here, build wall there. To keep antelope. The Scots eat antelope daily. Look how strong they are."
He pointed at me. Everyone looked, nodding at me, smiling at me.
"And myself, you know. You know in my heart, as I have said before, I am the king. That is why I like these machines. Machines are the things for kings."
He stamped on the metal, the funereal sound ringing out across the pool. I thought of my father and his Bell's, and then of that old Jacobite toast: "To the king over the water . . ."
"For it is true, also, out of my nature, I love to rule! No claim is first but mine. But the peoples of Uganda are good and therefore they deserve to have a good leader like me. If they were bad, they would deserve a bad leader. It is an obvious thing. It is logical. God would send this bad man to plague them. It would be horrible for them indeed."
Amin paused then and coughed, as if the water had got into his lungs.
"This man, yes, he would chase people and not be good, and he would take women from, ah, all over the place--black women and white women also. He could not make friends with any man who was a good man and he could not see a woman he did not want to make pregnant. He would say, this thing happen and then . . . this thing happen! Just because of his cleverness. And so he would slip here and run down there, thinking he is being very clever following his own plan. Eh, you, bring me some foods!"
A waiter from the hotel had brought the ordered refreshments out on a tray. He looked around nervously when Amin addressed him.
"Go, go," said Wasswa urgently. "Take it inside."
The waiter looked aghast.
"Take the tray into the pool."
The waiter walked round to the steps and gingerly went down into the water. Holding the tray above him he walked as far as he could up the shallow end, the water steadily soaking his white coat--until, forced to swim, he struggled to reach the platform. At one point the bottles of Coke and the plates nearly slid off the tray, and there was a palpable gasp around the pool. Eventually he got there. Amin squatted down and took the tray off him.
"Well, I am very glad you are not a diver in my navy, Mr. Waiter. You should get some training in swimming and sub-aqua."
He laughed at himself, and the whole gathering laughed, as the waiter swam back sheepishly in his heavy clothes. His white coat had ballooned up: I couldn't help thinking of the inflated corpse in the Rwizi, the sickening way it had moved up and down in the current.
"Anyway," said Amin, with his mouth full of chicken. "This bad chief, my friends. He thinks, what he is doing, that it is his plan not the plan of God. But it is in fact God's will what he is doing all the time. So he appears a very great man because of this. He believes in taking every chance and there is nothing he does not dare do. He never says--simama, finish, he is even like a brave man going on until the last minute when he is taken down. Then, too, he cannot realize his true situation. He just will not see it."
He waved the chicken leg in the air. You could see the joint move as he gesticulated. The loose, greasy skin was red from piri-piri. He took another bite, then dropped it on the platform by his side.
"So, things would be bad in that country until then. Every morning, when the sun shine, there is a new widow crying in her hut and a baby there chewing on her breast like a dry maize cob. And every day this bad chief is spitting at God in the sky. He puts a finger up at the moon, he does not know when is an equal measure of mealies flour in any thing. For he always goes too much in every area . . .
"Yes, for with his evil ways, he is like Shaitan and his country the whole of it will be his tomb. For him and many people otherwise. Even he, the top man, he asks himself, 'Is this Uganda? Or is Uganda hell?' For no kind of life is as wretched as this fellow's--he is afraid from leopard dreams, false spirits which do come to him in the night--and when he dies he will die a cruel and an extraordinary death."
He swigged from a bottle of Coke, and then held his hand against his chest.
"For this is the truths. He goes steps up and it is too much good: his belly is fat and he empties his loins often. But there is a rope around his neck and when he reaches the highest step, God--He pulls this fellow into the fire by the end of the rope! Because he has now done His work for Him already, the will of God goes straight towards taking him, and when He does take him it is one for one, special parcel both ways."
With that he put down the bottle, clipped his palms together and dived into the pool smartly. We were still applauding when he came up.
"Well," said Amin, as one of the retinue dried his back with the crested-crane towel, "that is my story for you today, my friends. And now, now we will have a swimming competition--so we are fit on Lake Victoria in case of invasion."
And so they did, though I noticed that in all the races in which Amin took part the other participants allowed him to win. I crept off after watching it for a while. I felt, in one way and another, that I had done my bit. That no more would be expected of me for the time being. . . .
I woke up with the familiar surroundings of my bungalow at State House around me. I lay in bed, running the story of the night over in my head, and then got up and showered. While I was eating my breakfast, I received a phone call (the first of many, as it happened).
"Hello, hello, doctor. President Amin here. Come now to my house. My son is very, very sick. Come immediately."
"I'll be five minutes," I said.
"How can you be five minutes? Are you a giant to make big steps or are you a fool?"
I didn't know what to say. "I don't know what you mean, sir."
"I am not in State House, doctor! On working days I am not in Entebbe. I am in the Command Post at Prince Charles Drive. You must motor here at once."
"But, I don't have a car," I mumbled. "It's quite a way."
"Ah. Then you must tell the soldiers at the gate to bring you. At once!"
He rang off, leaving me holding the receiver, bewildered. I looked down at the earpiece, and saw that it was glistening with sweat.
I gathered up my things and went outside to organize a driver. This took some time, but eventually I set off, in the passenger seat of an army jeep. Worried about being late, I tried to take my mind off it by looking at the brightly painted signs as we passed through Nateete and Ndeeba, the townships and light-industrial areas on the outskirts of Kampala: "Muggaga Auto Menders" (muggaga means witch doctor); "Cold Joint Meats"; "Volcano Dry Cleaners Is the Answer"; "Desire Agencies--Unisex Barber and Dying Salon"; "Bell Lager--Great Night, Good Morning"; "Super Fast-Acting Doom."
The most common advertisement was for Sportsman, a popular brand of cigarette. Red and yellow, the posters showed a picture of a slightly tawny English jockey, circa 1950, and carried the slogan, "Yee ssebo!"
"What's that mean?" I asked the driver as we passed a shop emblazoned with it.
His beret skew-whiff, he looked at me as if I were mad.
"No, but what does it mean?" I spoke slowly, thinking that he hadn't understood me.
"It means, yes, sir! Like, very good."
"Oh, I see," I replied, embarrassed.
We carried on into the city, past a coffin maker with his wares stacked up outside the shop, past the Hindu temple--deserted since the Asians had gone, it looked like a large, crumbling wedding cake, full of peaks and crenellations--Nakasero Soap Works and the market near Burton Street, finally going up Sturrock Road and into Prince Charles Drive.
It wasn't quite what I expected, the "Command Post": just a pleasant suburban house of the type many expatriate executives lived in, only a bit larger. You wouldn't have known it was any different except for a tall radio aerial on the tiled roof and the machine-gun emplacement at the gate. It was surrounded by spruce trees and bougainvillea, with a high bank leading up to the front door.
I was ushered in by the guards. One of Amin's wives--I supposed--greeted me at the door, wearing a blue cardigan, some kids pushing at her legs from behind.
"I am sorry, doctor. The President is now gone away on urgent government business. My name is Kay, it is my son who is ill."
I followed her in. The living room had a brown suite, a television and a drinks cabinet. Plastic toys were scattered over the carpet. There were dinosaurs painted in lurid green and red, and two big yellow Tonka trucks. And a couple of Action Man dolls in uniform, their limbs splayed at odd angles. A faint smell of cooking emerged from the kitchen. It was all quite normal.
"Through here," said Kay Amin. As I followed her, three or four children were shouting and running around us with the strange, pointless energy of the young. She gave one of them a slap.
I put my bag down. The boy--about ten years old, he reminded me very much of Gugu--was lying on the bed, curled up like a fetus, and wheezing. I turned him over. There was blood running from one nostril. I took his face in my hands and looked at him closely.
"Is it bad, doctor?" asked his mother, fiddling with the edge of her cardigan.
"Oh no," I said. I could see at once what the problem was. There was a slight swelling on the side of his nose. I pressed it gently, and the boy let out a yell. I crouched down to check with my penlight.
Definitely, I thought. "Don't worry, laddie," I said. "Now, you've put something up your nose, haven't you?"
The boy looked a little guilty as Kay Amin questioned him in Luganda, and then wailed when I took a pair of tweezers out of my instrument case. He leapt up off the bed. There was a little tussle before she could grab him and hold him down. I slowly inserted the tweezers--quite difficult since he was squirming around--and delved around. I hit a solid obstruction, and after a few attempts extracted a bloody something.
"What is it, in God's name?" cried Mrs. Amin.
I held the tweezers up to the light: between the pincers was a small piece of green Lego, dabbed with red.
"Tcha," she exclaimed. "Campbell, you are a very bad boy."
I swabbed the blood away from the boy's nose and aspersed the nostril with an antiseptic spray. As I pressed the plunger, I had a sudden vision of my father spraying the weeds along the fence of the paddock in Fossiemuir. He'd borrowed a spray canister from one of the farmers nearby. You wore it like a rucksack, waving the piped wand in front of you. It had leaked when he did it, burning his back with insecticide. I remember my mother leaning over his bare back in the kitchen, pressing cold towels against the weals . . .
"He'll be fine," I said, patting the boy's head. "Just tell him to watch where he tries to build his castles. They're more fun outside your head than in, Campbell."
She walked me to the door. "Thank you very much, doctor. The President will be very pleased you have cured his son so successfully."
And so he was. One morning the following week, I went out to find a Toyota van parked outside the door of the bungalow. On the side was the legend "Khan Fashion Emporium" and below, in smaller letters, "Latest styles direct Milan London Bombay tel. Kampala 663." There was an envelope tucked underneath the wiper.
Inside, on official government paper with the crested-crane device, was a message. "Well done! The President has insisted you have this van as reward for expert treatment of his son. The keys are under the driver-side mat. I am sorry it is secondhand, but if you bring it to Cooper Motors they will remove the sign on the govt. account. Give my name. Wasswa, Minister of Health."
I was delighted, and my life in the city began to open up after that. For a start, I could go out at night. I had Cooper's respray the panel and valet the innards with hot steam.
Copyright (c) 1998 by Giles Foden. All rights reserved.
Posted August 7, 2011
The subject is interesting to say the least - Idi Amin was one of the scariest people to become famous in the 70s, when I was a young child. I remember seeing him on TV once and asking my mother who he was; and to give her credit, she told me about the rumors of cannibalism that were going around. But my mom and I share the same weird interest in things that are, well, weird.
The main character of the book, Nicholas Garrigan, was a disappointment. For a person who got through med school, he doesn't seem to be that smart. Maybe he's one of those math and science hotshots who's clueless about human relations. His interactions with women and the ease with which he gets sucked into Amin's radius seem to indicate this. The book is interesting; if I had liked and respected Garrigan more, I would have given it 4 stars instead of just 3.
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