AS WE PREPARE TO ENJOY THE HOLIDAY I’VE DECIDED TO SHARE A FRAGMENT FROM A MEMOIR OF MY TRAVELS IN THE 1960s ON THE AFRICAN CONTINENT WITH MY FRIEND NOREEN, A TEACHER I MET IN ENGLAND A YEAR EARLIER. IT WAS A MEMORABLE CHRISTMAS SPENT IN UGANDA AND I SHARE IT BELOW AS MY GIFT TO YOU IN THE HOPE THAT YOU WILL HAVE A UNIQUE AND JOYOUS SEASON.
After the brief stay in Zanzibar, Noreen and I returned to spend Christmas with her friends in Tanganyika. Like the couple in Uganda, they too were about to return to England. The country had celebrated its independence a couple of weeks before we arrived and the British were pulling out, leaving the area in the hands of people who, during the transition, had been carefully trained to take up their new positions. The husband of this pair held a fairly high post in the government and I could see that he and his wife had acclimatized to the country and were sorry to leave.
For my part, I thought they had acclimatized a little too much as they seemed indifferent to the numerous flies already buzzing about the Christmas table. I do understand that there are some people who shudder at modern conveniences, air conditioning in particular. But in my opinion, the Nobel Prize should have been awarded to its inventor. Of course in the 1960s it would unreasonable to expect air conditioning in every home in the hot and humid climate of eastern African, but surely one might expect screens at the windows. Yet, never in my travels on the African continent did I see such a convenience. In an area that abounded with mosquitoes and snakes and spiders the size of one’s face, no one gave the slightest thought to the miracle that could have been wrought by a stout screen.
Feeling hot and churlish, I made the observation that, just once, it would be lovely to sit down to a meal without spending the time swatting at flies. My words, sounding like an accusation, were ill placed and I would have eaten them if I could. Certainly Noreen was embarrassed. She sat with her soup spoon suspended in mid air not daring to look at me. But if I expected my remark to be met with hostility, I was to be disappointed. The hostess smiled with her eyebrows lifted. “That’s what these creatures are for,” she said, a finger thrusted toward the ceiling.
My eyes drifted to where she pointed and there I saw a number of small lizards with pointy faces and long tails. What made them remarkable were their transparent bodies revealing the blue blur of their internal organs, replete with a beating heart. “EEUUU!” was my well turn of phrase.
If I had been a barbarian seated at dinner and shoveling my food into my mouth with my bare hands, my hostess could not have treated me with a greater condescension. “They catch the insects, you see and they’re quite effective. When you get used to them, you’ll find they are charming creatures.” Then, she paused as if attempting to read my mind. “You needn’t worry about one of them crashing down on you. They never lose their grip, or almost never.” That said, the woman returned to her soup, confident that with my new understanding I had been cured of my addiction to air conditioning and screens.
She couldn’t have been more wrong. Instead, she’d given me a new worry. The words “almost never,” kept reverberating in my head. What was the mathematical permutation for “almost never?” Would the sheer force of my glance cause a distraction? What about noise? Should we be speaking in whispers? In sum, what seismic phenomena might cause one of these lizards to come unglued from the ceiling?
To my amazement, Noreen went on eating, taking no notice of the mating dance being performed above her head. How could this be? I thought. She was so adaptive while I… I saw myself as the ugly American who refused to experience a country without insisting upon modern conveniences. Still, I was not ready to give up my defense of screens. “With screens,” I persisted, “you could eliminate the lizards They aren’t all that efficient, anyway. Look at these flies. They outnumber the lizards by far.”
“And are almost as big,” laughed our host taking pity on me.