How I abandoned an addictive habit that had kept me company since my Senior 2 at Tororo’s Manjasi High School in 1976
SPECIAL FEATURE | Alfred Geresom Musamali | Flamboyant former Uganda Electricity Generation Company Limited (UEGCL) spokesperson Simon Kasyate was around 2018 taking members of the Public Relations Association of Uganda (PRAU) on a guided tour of the Karuma Hydro-Electric Power Dam under construction. As the PRAU Director for Discipline, I claimed one of the ten seats on the tour van without knowing that an encounter with just a few cats during the escapade would bring to an end my smoking habit. The addictive habit had tightly kept me company since my Senior 2 at Tororo’s Manjasi High School in 1976.
Cynthia Mpanga, the PRAU President of the time, led the delegation that also had her elder sister Yvonne who was to eventually replace me in the discipline docket when my second (and last constitutionally permitted) term ended in 2020. Other persons on the journey included PRAU Past President (PP) Mzee Juma Walusimbi, now chairman of the Electoral Commission supervising the polls under which Yvonne is contending to become Vice-president.
Simon, now the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) spokesperson but also still doing a multitude of other things on television and radio stations, sent the spacious, air-conditioned van to pick us from the PRAU offices in Kisementi, within Kampala’s Kamwokya suburb. We took our time snaking northwards through the early morning traffic jam towards Matugga and Bombo until the congestion lightened around Wobulenzi. The intensity of the mid-morning sunshine caught us up as we entered Luwero town and headed towards the semi-arid Nakasongola where, it is said, there could be more cattle per square kilometre than people.
Simon unsuccessfully cautions us to spare enough space in our stomachs
Then we started slopping towards the Kafu valley, where Buganda ends and Bunyoro starts. At the Kafu Bridge, we made the compulsory stop to taste roast cassava and goat meat – despite an advance warning from Simon that we would need a lot of space in our tummies to accommodate all the foods and drinks he had prepared for us.
Bunyoro is the land of anti-colonialism resistance fighter Chwa II Kabaleega (18th June 1853 to 6th April, 1923).
Bunyoro is the land of the nascent petroleum oil and natural gas. Bunyoro is also the land of Bugoma and Budongo forests as well as the Murchison Falls National Park.
This Bunyoro is as well the land of the less publicised cassava that is roasted using a technology that I am yet to fully establish. And the headquarters for the sale of that delicacy as a snack is at the Kafu bridge, only a hundred or fewer metres after you cross from Buganda. If you are going north, you drive straight ahead after the bridge, towards Kiryandongo, Bweyale and Karuma. But if you are going into the heart of Bunyoro, you turn left where you will find Masindi town forty kilometres ahead then proceed down the Western Rift Valley into the Albertine graben where some of the first oil wells are located. It was at Kafu that I first ignored Simon’s series of caution – by prematurely and unnecessarily exhausting the space in my tummy with roast cassava and goat meat.
From Bweyale to the bridge at Karuma, the national park is on the left side of the road while human settlements are on the right. And at Karuma, the Nile river, into which the Kafu will have poured further upriver, flows westwards in preparation to plunge into Lake Albert in the rift valley then come out to flow along the floor of the valley northwards towards Sudan and Egypt. At this Karuma point, the Nile marks the boundary between the northern and the southern parts of Uganda, the Pearl of Africa.
The hydro-electric power dam was being built underground at the Karuma Falls while above a bubbly river stormed over boulders to create one of the most beautiful sites in the world. The digging of those tunnels underground by the Chinese is what Simon had brought us almost two hundred kilometres to see for ourselves then, as professional communicators, narrate the marvel the best way we could. And, indeed as laypersons in engineering feats, we were impressed – although experts have since condemned several aspects of the project which is yet to generate any electricity.
We were welcomed with a light drink and bite. “Guys,” said Simon, who received us at the site, “this is just something small to give you the energy to tour the kilometres upon kilometres of underground tunnel work. Bigger things await you later.” But I gobbled more food and drink, nevertheless. So by the time we left the underground and came back for lunch, my stomach was still full – requiring a smoke. As every tobacco addict will assure you, a cigarette induces the need to visit the toilet so as to relieve the stomach. But I did not see the space where I could stand and smoke without not only breaking the law but also inconveniencing the company of either such elegant ladies as Cynthia and Yvonne or flamboyant Simon or even our Mzee PP Juma.
Simon again cautioned us not to stray from our hotel
I hardly ate a lunch at all but took a few glasses of red wine, during which time the contractors said a few niceties about the relations between Uganda and China. Then we set off for Pakuba Lodge in the national park where Simon had booked each of us into a luxurious bed and breakfast room such as I may never sleep in again. Speed limits along the drive ensured that we did not maim or kill any snakes, snails, antelopes, giraffes or elephants along the way. We frequently demanded to make stops, though, to admire and shoot photographs of the wildlife – much to the chagrin of Simon.
“Please, do not get out of your van,” cautioned Simon, in what we thought was an over patronisation of fellow adults. I still came out, anyway, and paused for a shot in front of some giraffes. “How could a circumcised Mugisu fear such a harmless animal as a giraffe?” I consoled myself, failing the discipline standard for a director in charge of the very discipline of the group.
Simon’s explanation was that while we could see the harmless giraffes grazing around, we could not sight the hungry lions, leopards and other cats hiding in the jungle and waiting to pounce. In the absence of an armed guard, so he said, there was no guarantee that anybody could protect us if the cats found human beings easier target than their fellow animal prey.
In due course, we arrived by sunset at the lodge on the eastern banks of the Nile, were allocated our rooms and given a few minutes to settle in before a banquet in our honour could start. That gave me opportunity to smoke. Incidentally, the law says you cannot smoke in any hotelroom. But neither does the law permit any smoking in the national parks, anyway. Ignoring the law, I walked into the reception areas, crossed back to the parking yard that faced away from the river, fished my Sportsman cigarettes out of the trousers’ right pocket where I always kept them, got a lighter from the shirt pocket where I also always carried it, lit the stick, drew in the fire, tilted my head slightly into the air, haphazardly blew out rings of smoke and felt bowels loosen. I quickly got back into the room to do my toilet business and felt great indeed. Within about thirty minutes I was ready for the banquet – but, first, I needed to light up again so I went into the parking yard, repeated the process and felt great again.
A race with the cats
At the banquet, every type of exotic and local food was on offer. So were several types of wines, beers, gins and whiskeys. But because I had learnt my lessons earlier in the day, I ate sparingly while I drank my favourite Uganda Waragi which I was confident would keep clearing the stomach as it also charged the head. Speeches went on endlessly, though. There were separate presentations on the aims and objectives, the design, the timelines and the costs of the Karuma project – all stuff that I would have been interested in a decade earlier when I was still a practicing journalist. But as for now, I just wished to eat, drink, dance and go to roll up in the mazongoto bed. Thus, feeling bored by the speeches, I stepped out to smoke and feel great for a third time.
I went through the usual rituals, fishing from the trousers right pocket the cigarette, getting from the shirt pocket the lighter, holding on the lips the stick, lighting the fire, drawing in, tilting the head, blowing out and feeling great. Except that this time round my journey to greatness was interrupted by a suspicion that some cat was walking nearby.
I could sense the soft sound of the paws as they lightly touched the ground, occasionally breaking some twigs as they brushed against or stepped on them pya, pya, pya. I turned round to see what was happening. Too late. Some cat was charging towards me. Not one, it turned out, but two or three swooping in my direction in the dimness of the disappearing sun. My heart pumped hard. The Uganda Waragi disappeared from my head very fast. There was no time for extinguishing the cigarette either, no sense to cry out for help except in mother tongue Lumasaaba which I rarely speak, actually even no need for decorum.
I skipped, fell, got up, fell again on the stairs towards the reception, bruising myself on the leg in the process.
Then I got up only to realise that the cats had not been after me, anyway. They had chased each other across the parking yard and disappeared into the jungle over there. Were they domestic animals, or leopards or lions or other cats? Were they young or old? To date I do not know.
Now officially opening the dance with some booming popular musical, Simon, Cynthia, Yvonne, PP Mzee Juma and other colleagues at the banquet had not even noticed the pandemonium outside. Neither did the overnight receptionist who had temporarily absented herself from the desk – probably to go and pick the leavings off our bites. For a week thereafter, I pretended to remain man enough to continue smoking. But after giving the habit thorough thought, I threw the last sticks in some pit latrine and marked the end of slightly over forty years of my love relationship with tobacco – courtesy of an encounter with just a few, probably harmless cats.
The author is Founding Director of Vicnam International Communications Ltd, a private firm of communications, public relations and information management consultants. He specialises in the Proofreading and General Editing (PAGE) of documents and can be contacted by Tel: (+256)752-649519 and by Email: email@example.com.