British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Kuldip Rai Moman
 25 Years in Slumber
Soroti Railway Station
The bags on his back and a cloth round his chin,
And tucked in his waistbelt, the Post Office Bill,
Despatched on this date, as received by the rail.
Per runner, two bags of the Overland Mail.

Rudyard Kipling

When the flight of fancy reverts, my dreams travel to places where I served and lived in East Africa. Then a picture emerges of Soroti. I ponder about its distance, remoteness and aloofness. I visualise the flapping, flitting and droning of butterflies in the warm Teso air and try to inhale the fragrance of wild flowers. I realise the short span of human life and how the days glide swiftly. I feel homesick.

After my vacation leave in 1958, I was posted to Soroti. The Postmaster C S Patel and myself were both clerks grade one, although Mr Patel was considerably senior to me in service and age. After drifting of all these years, I must say, he was a noble man and it was a pleasure to work with him.

Primarily I was supposed to take care of the sorting office, ie dealing with the inward and outward mails including sorting of letters in the Post Office boxes. I had a small cubicle with a little window where I would sit on a tall stool and do my work. The rays of the piercing, scorching sun would enter my cabin and literally burn my whole system. The intense heat would go to my head and I would curse the gods of Soroti. The authorities in those days had not thought of a fan to stir the atmosphere. For a clerk like me, there was nothing I could do but to be contented with my fate.

After a year, when Mr Patel proceeded on overseas leave, I took over the office. As my nature was, I began rearranging, reorganising and changing everything. This specifically related to various articles of furniture. During this switch, there was a paper sorting rack which stood against the wall and needed a few persons to shift it. It was about seven feet high, four feet wide and four feet in depth. It had 20 large pigeon holes, each about a foot square. At the base there was space like a trough where you placed newspapers, magazines and letter bundles for sorting.

 25 Years in Slumber
Soroti Postmark
When the sorter throws or rather sorts a heavy item, it goes with force and a thud. Thus with the knocks and wallops for years, the back of two of the pigeon holes had partly opened and formed a gap of half an inch. In this crevice, a number of postal items had accumulated. I found three small letter bundles and some loose stuff for addresses to various towns and locations.

Postmasters and sorters had come and gone, but the sorting rack had stood there like sphinx. The date-stamp impressions indicated the material found dated back to different months and years and had been lying there undisturbed, in deep slumber, some of it for quarter of a century. My heart jumped up and I felt excited. Such finds are very rare and could only take place in fantasy. It took some time for my flurry to calm down.

I compiled a list of all the items, furnishing the date and place of posting (from the date stamp impressions) name and address of the addressees and the circumstances as to how they were found and sent it to the Divisional Controlling Postmaster for further action. They were eventually forwarded to the addressees with an explanatory note about the delay in delivery! What happened to the addressees during this period is a matter for conjecture. Some had gone away from their address while some had migrated to a different planet.

In October 1998 my wife and myself visited Uganda and travelled extensively by car. This was our second trip together since leaving there, although I was in East Africa a third time. Nowadays, the Post Office has its own conveyance called "Post Bus" which delivers the mail bags to all the Post Offices throughout the country. These buses generally carry 25 passengers. The fares are reasonable. I "post-bussed" to Soroti. My wife did not accompany me saying the ride could be strenuous for her. It was a delight to be in the old surroundings.

25 Years in Slumber
Soroti Rock
In the good old days, there used to be government Rest Houses in Uganda. There was exceptionally a cosy and comfortable one in Soroti. But the rest houses are a story for another day. I stayed at the Soroti Hotel at thirty thousand shillings a night. An English pound is equivalent to two thousand one hundred shillings. Being an ex-postal staff, the Post Bus driver was courteous enough to give me a lift to the hotel which is two miles from the Post Office.

I was at Soroti to wander in its streets and neighbourhood. It was a captivating morning. To have a feel of the rocky environs, I took an almost abandoned, untrodden, deserted, twisted, lonely path to walk from the hotel to the Post Office. My trek was more charming for me than the end of my hike. I knew I shall not tread the track again. There was a bounce in my steps.

My Post Office was still alive. As always, there is bonhomie among the staff. The Postmaster greeted me warmly and showed me around. I said to him, I had left a particle of my heart there.

25 Years in Slumber
Soroti Town
During my time, there were 20 members of the staff which consisted of telegraphists, telephonists, counter and sorting office personnel, telegraph messengers, office boys and the Postmaster. I recollect Okado, Okudu, Ukudu, Olum and Okunya. In addition there was the engineering staff. If I recall correctly, the Engineer in Charge was an Englishman, Mr Singer. There were two hundred Asian traders. They have departed. The folk I knew in various government departments have disappeared. None of them I shall ever meet. I heard whispers from the past. Half forgotten faces came back to me.

I had a hankering to go to some other areas in the region viz: Katakwi, Kaberamaido and Moroto. I particularly pined to see Bugondo, a small, forlorn, forsaken, silent, sleepy village on the lake shore. You feel you are in a trance while there. My yearnings did not materialise.

Uganda Long Ago
Sipi Falls at Mbale
However, there is Sipi Falls where during my time at Soroti, on occasional weekends, I would go for a picnic with my family. This time I was able to spend a few nights at the Falls Rest Camp which is like a Five Star Hotel. It was originally constructed as Governor's retreat on a cliff directly overlooking the falls and the Karamojong plains. Now in Bwana Governor's hideaway, the holidaymakers, with a glass of White Cap beer in hand, gaze at the immortal Sipi which continues its safari, with its fall and flow, for ever. It is the most beautiful and romantic waterfall in the whole of Uganda according to "Lonely Planet Guide".

While trudging towards my old government habitation, I thought I was going home after my office hours. Long years had fleeted away but it seemed it was only yesterday. I felt melancholy and bleak. At my dwelling, I could hear the patter of tiny footsteps of my children on the floor. I sat down on a stretch of lush green grass which I knew and recognised, in the front compound. I looked at the face of the grey sky. I felt I had never left Soroti. The birds were in song. There was a swish in the trees. The time was tripping fast.

And I would lie down again
in this familiar portion of Earth
A guest among the trees
And dream each night of coming back
Michael Waters.

Colonial Map
1963 Map of Uganda
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 79
May 2000
Other articles by Author
Season of Green Leaves
Train to Iganga


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