When I close my eyes and think of Kampala, I see green everywhere.
Green, rolling hills, green banana trees overflowing with huge bunches of matoke, lush grass in the gardens, mango trees, and flame trees everywhere. “The city on seven hills,” Kampala was cool and calm compared to Nairobi’s hustle and bustle.
After Mum married, she would go to Kampala during the school holidays in April, August, and December. Her brother Suleyman insisted on sending train tickets for all of us. We would take the overnight train from Nairobi, the biggest adventure. Little did we know that our time in Uganda was running out, and one day we would be banished from Eden.
In August 1967, when I was five, we all went to Kampala. The five of us were in a double sleeper cabin, and the door between the two cabins was always kept open. There were two narrow bunk beds in each cabin and a metal basin in the corner that could be covered to make a small table. The conductor brought sheets, pillows, and blankets to make up the bunk beds at six. At night, he hooked up a strap on the top bunk that helped sleeping passengers avoid injury.
From the window in our cabin, I watched the African countryside going by. Savannah gave way to forests and eventually the magnificent, blue expanse of Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake. I saw herds of zebras and antelopes, a few of them looked up from the grass they were eating but most of them were used to the noise of the train and couldn’t be bothered. Sometimes there were giraffes. Little African children in the villages ran to the tracks and waved, and I always waved back.
At seven, we joined the other passengers in the dining car for a proper English dinner. I looked outside but by now, it was dark. There were tomato soup and roast beef and vegetables. Everything was served on white monogrammed railway china with elegant silver by solemn waiters dressed in green uniforms.
“Oh yummy, trifle,” I said when the puddings were served in crystal bowls. Tara sat on Mum’s lap and exuberantly made a mess, getting custard all over her face.
Later we changed into pajamas and brushed our teeth. “I want to sleep on the top bunk,” I shouted.
“No, I do, I do,” Raheel cried.
“Stop shouting, children! You can both share it, one at the head and one at the foot, but be careful not to fall out,” my father said as he anchored Tara’s cot below us. Mum pulled down the heavy canvas shades in the cabin that blocked the light. We fell asleep to the clickety-clack, clickety-clack of the train rolling on. The Uganda border police boarded the train to check Mum and Dad’s passports at four in the morning. They interrogated my father asking a lot of questions about why we visited Uganda so often before finally stamping the passports. Even as children, we knew the harassment was because we were Indian. Then it was breakfast in the dining car and a few more hours to Kampala. At last, the train pulled into the station. We had arrived!
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