Notes from Africa: We live happily without many of the trappings of Western ‘civilisation’

David Vost

Picture: Chiranjibi Rijal

Much as we enjoy visits from friends, family and colleagues to our Ugandan home, those not used to living in the bush have to be pre-warned about our level of civilisation.

The nearby village of Atiak, three miles from us, may be on the highway between Kampala and the South Sudan’s capital, Juba, but it has no bank or ATMs, no petrol station, not a supermarket within 50 miles, no mains water and only a tenuous connection with electricity. How do we survive without these essentials? Quite happily, thank you.

If you need petrol, there are usually two young men under a leafy mango tree with plastic bottles of gasoline to ensure you reach the next petrol pump – just check your car does not have white exhaust smoke after you drive off, a sign of benzene and water adulteration. The varied home-grown produce found in local open-air markets are a lot healthier for humanity than the packaged plethora of consumables lining the shelves of their city cousins – and actually have a taste. Water is from boreholes while large raised tanks ensure rainwater is never wasted. Anything electrical is charged by solar panels covering a wide span of power.

Another unsettling sight for urban visitors from Africa or Europe is the complete absence at night of the flickering lights of television sets in houses as you speed by. The soap operas, global ‘breaking news’ and political discussions pale beside the reality of the daily ongoing dramas in our own and others’ extended families.

Fast food outlets? We order from several sources in the village, including the fresh chapati maker, the nephew who grills meat over his charcoal fire, and the lady cooking her range of vegetable stews. The preliminary phone order specifies the amount, whether medium or well-done, which spices and any accompaniments; you bring your own containers. There are rarely delays – time is money, after all, and if you delay unreasonably, your order will have gone to the next in line.

Private motor cars are not common out here, outnumbered heavily by huge trucks and petrol tankers from different parts of East Africa, plus the enormous colourful long-distance buses linking the region’s capitals. The various NGOs speed past without pause in their obscenely expensive 4x4s, aliens from a far-off culture. Currently, once or twice daily, a convoy of government vehicles, headlights on, speeds south en route to the isolation buildings at Entebbe; their passengers are disgruntled lorry drivers found to be covid positive as they tried to cross the border from South Sudan.
Shopping online? Not a problem. Two sons of our neighbours run bodabodas and will take your shopping list, returning within an hour. These bikers have hitherto been reluctant to bring back eggs to customers, several unfortunate accidents on the muddy, pot-holed track leading to friction and non-payment, but with the new road to the West Nile about to be tarred, hostilities should cease.

Rubbish and plastic bags? Seldom seen, other than fruit skins or gnawed maize (sweetcorn) cobs. Plastics are recycled into floor mats, key ring holders, baskets and ropes.

Several entrepreneurs share a small shop in the village where men can sit and be shaved, hair trimmed, ears dewaxed and nails debrided and cut; cell phones and digital watches may or may not be successfully repaired; clothing will be patched, although perhaps not in the colour or material you desire; broken tools and utensils are soldered.

Civilisation – “various stages of human social development’’ being one definition – for many of us means having the means to support our families and the community around us with freedom to enjoy and develop interests and relationships. That being so, it is ironic that studies of the now-extinct Bushmen of the Kalahari and of many Aborigine groups in Australia strongly suggest they had this balance, including a strong culture of spiritual beliefs and a significant chunk of quality time. Ironic that we ignorant savages from the North paid our fellows no heed in times past and may share their fate in a not-so-distant future.

Dr David Vost studied medicine at Glasgow University and is currently working at a hospital in Swaziland. He and his family live on a small farm in Northern Uganda near the Albert Nile. davidvostsz@gmail.com

First published: The Herald, read original article.

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