- Revealed. Robert (Bob) Astles arrived in Uganda in 1949 as an unimportant colonial soldier but dramatically climbed the power ladder to assume an outsized role in the post-independence era by retailing his loyalty to the Kabaka and presidents Milton Obote and Idi Amin. In Part IV of our serialisation of his memoir, Forty Tribes: A life in Uganda, Astles details the havoc floods wreaked in independent Uganda and date with snakes at River Kafu.
“It took a few days after the noise and jubilation of the independence celebrations throughout Uganda for the country to settle down. The sun still rose and the sun still set; it was not the end of the world. We woke up in the morning to find on our door steps the same old fashioned milk bottle filled by the same colonial dairyman and his maid.
Their Jersey cows never increased in number but did that matter? They had always found that the simplest way of bridging the gap between supply and demand was to add a little more swamp water (boiled) and milk powder, purchased cheaply for the calves, knowing fully well that their boy was going to add water from the nearest swamp (un-boiled), as he cycled around with the delivery.
Never let it be said that milk boys in Africa are without a business brain. They were the best of the mission trained and were taught according to the doctrine: ‘Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friend’ and the friends also needed milk.
Independence had come but the same white shopkeeper was selling ‘Boys’ clothing at the far end of the main road and the jolly Asian butcher close to Nakivubu Stadium was hacking away at bullock meat and lean porkers with his usual two lines of shoppers, one under the sign ‘Whites Only’ and the other ‘Boys and Dog’s Meat’.
The ‘Whites Only’ sign meant something to the dignified African who now could join that queue and he was the first to lash out at the ‘Boys’ (servants) who tried to cross to that privileged position, but really the old Ugandan spirit was such that few had cared about such issues. It was known as the country of ‘the three Bs’; Bibi (lady), Bananas and Bicycles, all of which were available to anyone and that is saying something for the Africa of the time. Independence had come but the same great white chiefs were directing their offices and drinking gallons of tea, their behaviour as baffling as ever to the Africans around them. They seemed to bark at their white juniors as much as at the Africans and in turn were barked at by formidable wives who would appear from time to time in the offices dressed in white muslin and wearing enormous hats covered in concoctions of artificial fruit or flowers.
But then, when it came to the office parties, these Olympian chiefs were the first to belly wobble in the exciting African dances while their wives tackled a bottle of gin. If we, the young ones, were really lucky, we would even see the great white chief belly wobbling with his wife’s hat jammed down on his head. There was never a dull moment in the old Uganda.
Independence had come and the white clad missionaries were to be seen everywhere as usual, thumping along on their old 1928 motorcycles energetically pushing oil into the cylinders with a quaint hand operated pump.
For a time, I thought it would be worthwhile being a missionary just for the thrill of bouncing along on one of those motorcycles. Poor missionaries: one could see the sadness in them after independence before some of the changes were apparent elsewhere.
They had worked so very hard to bring order into Uganda. One hundred French missionaries alone had died in 14 years from disease and pestilence. No wonder they had always set out for Uganda to the departure hymn: We meet again one day in Heaven’s land of blessing, Farewell brothers, farewell. Independence had come.
Yes it had finally come on October 9, 1962. What was in store? Already we were seeing it was not like that of the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). There it had come in 1960, bringing crisis after crisis and had finally erupted into chaos. The chaos was still there in the Congo as we nursed monumental hangovers after two days of celebrations for Uganda’s freedom. The future looked secure, very secure indeed. Had we not all learnt the first verse of the new national anthem:
Oh Uganda! May God uphold thee. We lay our future in thy hand. United free for liberty. Together we’ll always stand.
United! That was it. United we would stand: the 40 [now 65] tribes.
Well, Uganda had placed its future in God’s hands and He, the divine judge of all things, must have decided to give the country a good clean start. It rained and rained and rained. Never in human memory had such a deluge come down, most of it falling before the actual day of independence.
Millions upon millions of tonnes of water were held up in the mountains, hills and swamps, searching for an outlet into the lake and away down to Alexandria (city) in Egypt. It came when there was an earthquake in the Rwenzoris (the Mountains of the Moon) and a few swamps parted. The waters flooded down stopping for nothing and took away a section of all Uganda’s main roads.
I was given the task of getting the roads open again and this was one of the happy times in my life. Four years earlier, the colonial government and the Crown Agent advisers had had the foresight to give me the equipment and bridge reserves for which I had been pressing for a long time and the government had allowed me to set up a school to train a substantial number of Ugandans to erect any span of Bailey Bridge.
This was the same bridge type that had contributed to winning World War II. Those men and their foremen were perhaps the first after independence to show what they could do for the country without the overt interference of colonial administrators. The first week I sent off three separate crews; one to the Dura river, [in western] Uganda, another to Greek river in the east and the third to tackle a major problem on the Kafu river that leads into the Nile, close to the town of Masindi.
I stayed behind, camped on a very high hill suitable for radio communication, in my battered old converted Volkswagen ambulance with its enormous dentist’s chair, which was my pride and joy.
My first alarm came from the Kafu area, but although I could hear that the team was blocked, it was impossible to make anything of the explanation. All I could hear through the radio static was CAKES.
“C...A for Arua, K for Kabaka ...E for Egypt ...S for sugar” the static radio seemed to say...”Cakes cakes cakes...... she is full of cakes” was all that I could make out.
Were my men refusing to work before they had eaten and were asking for bread? What was it? We knew by then that the floods around the Kafu Bridge were serious. The police Auster aircraft had dropped me a message to that effect and all progress seemed to be held up because the men wanted cakes.
Not much more could be learnt from the temperamental radio of those days which I was pushing rather hard at over 100 miles range through a series of tropical storms. I contacted my superiors who advised me to get out there through the night with several sacks of bread and cakes which I did after waking up a very disgruntled Greek baker.
That journey in the darkness with every road through the swamps lapped by water was unforgettable. Most animals had the sense to see that the safest place at night was on the raised road surface and there they stood until the Volkswagen ambulance was upon them.
Floods take away all fear of humans from animals and reptiles alike. In fact animals such as baboons and reptiles like the fearless green and black mamba snakes think nothing of climbing out of the wet and into vehicles or under sleeping bags as I discovered many years later when stepping into a writhing mass of snakes seeking sanctuary in my boat.
I arrived at the long causeway leading to the Kafu Bridge at dawn. It was one of those glorious Ugandan dawns when the hills in the distance are first black, then grey, then come to life with all the colours of Africa as the sun rises. This day-break was made even more beautiful with the enormous stretch of flood waters extending into the bush on either side of the road, reflecting the fiery red of the morning sun.
In the far distance was the bridge, one of the emergency Thames spans built close to Waterloo Bridge during the 1939/45 war and removed after the end of hostilities. The bridge looked safe. However, I had given instructions for my flood emergency team to blow up part of the road causeway to let through the flood waters and stop them pushing all their pent-up might against the bridge seatings.
This clearly had not been done and the road embankment was acting as an enormous dam. My men and about 20 vehicles carrying emergency bridging equipment were camped on some high ground and a pretty wet group they looked with the flood waters rising by the hour.
The officer-in-charge of the party, who had first come to me as a runaway schoolboy in 1953, had proved himself a hard worker over the years and had never let me down before.
Today, as I write, he is one of Uganda’s leading television producers but then he was a foreman of bridge construction.
He came towards the ambulance with some of his crew, waist deep in water, looking at me all the time with the fury of a black rhinoceros and with just as many snorts. “Kana!” I shouted at him, “What the hell has your crew been up to? You have not breached the causeway! Why have you gone on strike for cakes?”
“Sir!” he replied. “We have not gone on strike. She will not let us work” and he pointed to the bridge whose noble structure was becoming clearer through the dawn mists. “What do you mean, ‘she’?”
“That she” he shouted and pointed again at the bridge where for the first time as the mists cleared I could see a small Volkswagen car positioned of necessity on the bridge as the only dry surface in its vicinity.
“What on earth is that car doing there? It’s going to be washed away in the flood!” I shouted.
“That’s our trouble, sir. All the snakes are on the bridge and she is sitting there with a gun and will not move or let us lay our explosives.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about all this on the radio, Kana, instead of asking for all this bread and cake?” I asked, pointing to all the sacks inside the ambulance.
“I did tell you on the radio” poor Kana protested. “I kept repeating we have the lady who catches snakes: she has all the snakes on the bridge and refuses to move, yet the water is rising.”
That was enough! I got out of my ambulance knee deep in water and walked along the 114 mile incline of the causeway to the bridge. There in her Volkswagen in a vile temper I found the wife of the Senior Fisheries Officer surrounded by hundreds of snakes, tortoises, rats and other creatures of the wild who had sought the safety of the bridge.
She just sat there in her car, nursing a huge shot gun, prepared to blast at any of my men who were foolhardy enough to attempt to breach the causeway to release the flood waters. Nothing, it seemed, was going to move her and certainly no command from the newly-independent Ugandans.
I knew her well enough to know she would die for what she believed in; the rights of animals and reptiles over men.
What a sight she looked; cold and angry and, no doubt, hungry. She had been there for over 24 hours and in great danger of being swept away with the bridge into the roaring flooded Kafu and onwards into the Nile.
“Bob! Thank God you have come!” she shouted above the din of the rushing waters. “Look at all this!” and she flung her arm out of the car window. “They are all terrified and we have got to get them off into safety.”
I knew that she and a few other colonial women in Uganda put animals even before their husbands and that she really meant what she said. Those snakes had to go or we could not blast out the causeway. Or, if we did blast it, she would stay just where she was clutching the several young pythons she already had in her car.
I went back to my men who, typically for Ugandans, always react sympathetically to a problem if you explain it, especially over sacks of delicious cakes. They had been with me for years and knew enough about my own attitude towards snakes and animals to volunteer to make a catching team.
It did not take long to construct a score of lassoes on the end of poles, back a high-sided tipper lorry onto the bridge and then spend several exciting hours flicking snakes, all comatosed somewhat by shock, off the girders into the lorry.
It amazed me to see their saviour plucking them off by hand and throwing them into the lorry. She told me it was her happiest day saving their lives. For myself, I wondered just how many snakes there were still left in Uganda.
Usually one sees only two or three a year yet here we were rescuing hundreds that had been washed against the bridge’s lower structure and had climbed up to safety. We only just made it in time; her car was already floating as the tipper lorry pulled it through the flood waters and off the bridge.
We were now too late to blow up a section of the causeway, but the bridge survived. It is still there today with a concrete plinth at the west entrance, erected by Algy Melhuish who was an engineer with the interests of Uganda at heart.
He always left a record of any unusual phenomenon on the site of engineering structures for the benefit of future generations, something Noah unfortunately failed to do when he launched his Ark. The plinth showed for all time the height the water reached when God in his wisdom decided to baptise the re-born Uganda.”
About author. Bob Astles, born March 23, 1924, was a British soldier and colonial officer who lived in Uganda and became an associate of presidents Milton Obote and Idi Amin. Astles joined the British Indian Army as a teenager and then the Royal Engineers, reaching the rank of Lieutenant. Of his war service, he recalled: “I enjoyed being with other nationalities and their fights for world recognition during World War II.” He was 21 when he left the United Kingdom for Africa.
Extracted by Sarah Aanyu