I was a white liberal, decades before that term fell into disrepute. In my defence, I have continued to be white (can't do much about that), liberal with a small l (I'm a lifelong socialist), have had and still have good friends across the racial spectrum and worked as a journalist in race relations for eight years. Which sounds like an application for an MBE.
In fact, it's to put into context my arrival on the dark continent, to use the term of pre-colonial white Europeans to describe the vast interior of Africa that they didn't understand, and not to be confused with how Freud referred to the sexual lives of women.
Uganda in 1963 was in its first year of independence with white professionals still in situ, in law and as civil servants, an administration and business class of Asians, who had been drafted in from the Indian sub continent during the early days of British rule, whilst ordinary Africans were still at the bottom of the pile.
An example of attitudes can be illustrated when, one day, I was walking back from the office on the outskirts of Kampala to the Silver Springs Hotel for lunch, past the abattoir and its attendant vultures. The driver who usually took me had disappeared so rather than wait for a cab I set off to walk which, apparently, was an unusual activity for someone of my colour. A young African university student, who was also staying at the hotel, stopped his bicycle and offered me a lift on the crossbar. He was diffident and unsure but I willingly accepted. Once we arrived, he explained there would be those who would not think kindly, on racial grounds, about us sharing the bicycle, which left me puzzled.
I came across a similar response in 1976 on my first visit to the US. My brother-in-law had many black friends and I was with one of them in a waterfront nightclub in Tacoma in Washington State on the West Coast. We had been talking and laughing for a while, until he lowered his voice to warn me: “There are people here watching, who don't approve of us talking like this.”
On both occasions I hadn't a clue we might be crossing certain taboo lines, while my friends on each occasion, were only too aware.
In Kampala I did have a car for a time, which I bought from a departing journalist, but never confirmed whether I had any insurance so, after a few months, I sold it to yet another journalist. Cabs were more useful, particularly when drinking. For trips to the office and back, a driver in a mini van was my chauffeur. After I sent the paper to bed about 2am, I would find him in the corner where he often slept between jobs, to get him to take me home.
His sleep may have been aided by alcohol or drugs, but he was never a cheery chappy, quite often confused by being disturbed and erratic in his driving. It was just as well it was two in the morning.
On one occasion, he dropped me off and I watched his tail lights disappear before I realised I had left the key to my chalet on my desk at the office. The askari on duty had no access to a phone so I couldn't call a cab so, possibly influenced by the beer I had consumed, I decided to walk the two miles back to the office.
Being cunning, I avoided the possible danger of muggers on the road by cutting through the bush. It must have slipped my mind that only weeks earlier a python – they can grow up to five metres in length – had been found and killed opposite the hotel.
I made it safely without being crushed and swallowed by a snake or bitten by anything other than a mosquito and the journey was worth it simply for the expression on the driver's face when I found him, back in the corner where he was once more asleep. I woke him up and asked him to take me home. This time he was totally confused. Had he taken me before? Was it a dream? Was that the previous night? I provided no explanation but this time I took my key.