“I have made the big decision
I'm gonna try to nullify my life”
Maybe the story should have ended at this point, not started here. In terms of narrative arc, maybe it would have been a better, tidier tale if the heart attack had killed me. But you work with what you’ve got, right? More on that later. First, come, we go back a ways.
The time arrived — too soon, as it always does — when my star began fading. It wasn’t that bright a star to begin with, even at its peak, but I was making a living. Then I wasn’t.
Why I love Africa:
When I can’t hear myself laughing, I can hear someone else laughing.
Coming into Africa was, for me, falling into a seduction. And I’m yet to stop falling. Indeed, the longer I’ve been here, the farther I fall. It’s been a decade now — living here.
I first fell in love with the people, was seduced by their warmth, love of talk and laughing, gregariousness, charm, playfulness, creativity.
I then was seduced by the natural world, the flora, the fauna, insects, birds (more species than in all of North America) in my adopted home of Uganda, now also home to my young son Mukisa, and always the home of Mukisa’s mother, Nattabi. The country has a population of more than 40 million — 48 percent below age 15; 50 percent between 15 and 65; a bit more than 2 percent 65 or older.
Nowadays I arrive around midday, not midnight. In 2009 when I first glided down to Entebbe in a jetliner after 20 hours in the air — my first time in Uganda, first time in Africa — the night had been buried long and deep in darkness. I’d done a lot of traveling for years before that, traveled extensively in several developing countries, so I was prepared, I thought. But one can’t really prepare for Africa. Because Africa cannot be adequately imagined, cannot be accurately conjured. The imagination is not immense enough. For one thing we have no clue how big Africa is. We can’t picture it. The pictures we do have are wrong. The maps we’ve seen don’t show it. You can take the continental colossus of Africa, pour in Japan, China, India, Eastern Europe, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, the UK, and the United States, and still have room left over. That’s good, because more than a billion people live here.
That’s what initially hit me driving into Kampala that night: masses of people people people people. People everywhere. It would be true wherever I went, city, town or country, for the entire time I lived in Uganda, and it gets truer whenever I return. At roughly the size of the state of Oregon, Uganda has one of the highest fertility rates in the world. The average woman has six-plus kids.
Ugandans line the roads, cram into the markets and the taxi parks and the loud all-night worship services of the evangelical churches. Upcountry and in the towns, people line up at the water taps, the pumps, the streams and ponds to fill jerrycans and socialize. If there is a more sociable race than the Ugandans, I’ve yet to meet them. Before Uganda I thought Australians were the most gregarious, friendly people on the planet. The Ugandans make them seem shy and withdrawn. Before Uganda I thought the Vietnamese, whose country I’d visited in 1994, were the sweetest, most welcoming folks on earth, now they are in second place. Ugandans are the sweetest.
There is something oddly intoxicating about the ferment of modern Kampala — a madly active place, sweet, sour, hilarious, heartbreaking. (“Welcome to the future,” I tell visiting friends as we first drive into the frantic, potholed Bladerunner-esque megalopolis.) People have lived on this hilly landscape adjacent to the world’s second largest lake for centuries, probably millennia, but historians — being characteristically arbitrary — place the city’s founding in the 18th century. They have a point: the name Kampala came into use about then, with the arrival of the British overlords who went on to rule the country as a protectorate until 1962 (it was never a colony). The “founding” of such a glorious amalgam, however, is a vague concept. What it really means is anyone’s guess in this place where so much history was and is made by the people whose origins are here, yet almost all of it has been recorded and interpreted by foreigners, many of whom never set foot here.
The name Kampala references the native impala that used to ramble and dance in abundance in this place, though no longer. But the people, the clan, who’ve lived here for dozens of centuries remain. They are the Buganda, the largest clan in Uganda, and have, over the years, been joined by many other people from many other clans and countries, so that the city you find now is a vital, surging human ocean of Africans from across and up and down the continent, Europeans, Asians, Middle Easterners, Americans and you name it. In addition to the foreign languages that have floated into Uganda since the 1500s or so, there are 52 clan languages, plus Swahili and any number of strays from nearby countries that comprise the amazing sound casserole that is heard on the streets here everyday.
After I left Kyarumba, the Rwenzori Mountain town in Western Uganda where I’d lived for nearly 3 years, I died — or came damn close. “You had about 45 minutes left,” my cardiologist told me. As it happened, I was visiting the USA at the time of the massive heart attack. If I’d been in Africa I would have had none minutes left. I’d be taking a dirt nap now.
Here’s the essay I wrote afterward, called “My Excellent Heart Attack”:
Interviewer: To what do you attribute your long life?
John Huston: Surgery.
I walked in the back door and kept walking, right out the front door. Susie was sleeping on the couch in the living-room. As I passed her I said, “Susie, I'm having a heart attack.” I walked across the driveway and got in her car. She threw on some clothes and came running out. We live in a remote location that emergency services might have a hard time finding, so she wisely drove me to the fire station two miles away. It felt like 200 miles. The two EMT's there – Matt and Will – put me on oxygen and called the ambulance that was at another firehouse. Dave and Rachel arrived in the ambulance. I was loaded in. I looked at Susie standing at the back as they began to close the doors, and I thought of doors, and then I thought of that line from “When the Music's Over,” the old Doors song: “Cancel my subscription to the resurrection.”
We drove back country roads to the hospital – painfully swinging and swaying, tires screaming on the corners. In the towns, Dave flipped on the siren. Rachel gave me morphine and talked to me and was terrific in every way; she kept sending information to the hospital so they knew what was about to descend on them. Dave drove like Mario Andretti. When the crimson vehicle's back doors reopened at the hospital, there were 12 or 15 people waiting for me – the cardiac catheterization team. A young man who looked to be about 18 walked up to me: My cardiologist. He very clearly and concisely explained what was happening and what he planned to do. I was in the OR within five minutes of arriving at the hospital. I was given a sedative. They took my clothes off – cut the shirt off – put a gown on me. A long white mitten that stretched to my shoulder was slipped onto my right arm. A small hole was cut in the mitten near my palm. The doctor gave me a couple of injections of anesthetic in the right wrist. That was the most painful part of the procedure. And then he began running the angioplasty balloon and stents all the way up the arm and into the two arteries on either side of my heart – the left coronary artery and the right coronary artery. Four stents in all.
One artery had three blockages. Two spots had 99 percent blockage; another had 85 percent blockage. The other artery had about 85 percent blockage in one location. The procedure took about 90 minutes or two hours, the doctor later told me. I was awake the entire time, but the sedative spaced me out, helped me lose track of how long it was taking. Once I'd had the anesthetic in my arm, there was no further pain.
Now, nearly two weeks later, the doctor tells me that the damage to the heart was not too bad and that I'm making a good recovery. There were some complications from the drugs I must take, but they've rejiggered my cocktail and those problems seem to have been resolved. Indeed, if you must have a heart attack – and I strongly counsel you not to – I hope you have one like mine. It was a perfect storm of everyone who helped me doing the right things and doing them quickly, competently, coolly. I was lucky to be near one of the best cardiac catheterization clinics in the country, and also very fortunate to have a cardiologist who, youthful appearance notwithstanding, is enormously capable, kind and good humored.
Many people have said to me, “That must have been so scary.” Actually, no, it wasn't at all. It never occurred to me to be scared or that I might be moments from dying. The whole episode appeared before me like a great To Do list: Don't pass out; Get clothes on; Don't slip on steps exiting cottage; Tell Susie what's happening; Get in car; and so on.
I've always felt very lucky to have the life I'm living. And I still do.
I had to stay in the US longer than I’d planned after the heart surgery; doctor didn’t want me flying right away. And when I was finally able to return to Uganda, my desire for future visits to the US diminished considerably. I did go back a few times but my connection to the place faded and many friendships there also faded. Now, 6 years later, I’m in touch with only a very few US friends on a regular basis.
On the other hand, being back in Uganda was downright incandescent. It was authentically thrilling and, hyperbole aside, it as the beginning of the rest of my life, a very unexpected third act. Everything was heightened and sweeter — colors, tastes, smell, touch, sounds… Africa is dramatically beautiful to begin with. Now it was more so. The people are sweet and gregarious. Now they were more so. It was life tuned up to 11. My creative ambitions, always strong, became even stronger, more focused.
As I write this in late 2019, I’ve been here a bit more than a decade. I’m married to a Ugandan woman and we have a 3 year old son, Mukisa. The name mens “blessing” in Luganda the language most widely spoken here, though there are 52 indignous languages.
At 3, Mukisa already speaks English, Luganda and Swahili. At 65 I still struggle with English and can understand smidgins of Luganda, Swahili and Lukonzo, the language spoken in the Rwenzori Mountains region where I first lived when I came to Uganda.
Since leaving the Rwenzoris, I’ve lived in Kampala, a city of 1.6 million with 50 million potholes. Our home is in the Kisaasi neighborhood, which looks and feels like a small town. There are many large trees, often filled with monkeys and exotic looking birds. Mukisa is especially fond of the noisiest one, the iridescent green ibis. There are more species of birds in Uganda (a country the size of Oregon) than in all of North America — Canada, USA, Mexico. They are extravagantly beautiful and some are passing strange in behavior and appearance — such as the immense shoebill stork. Indeed, there is a very sociable shoebill at the Entebbe Zoo. Given half a chance he’ll be happy to jump onto your shoulder. He is the size of a large eagle and has the unlikely name of Sushi.
The interaction of humans and fauna in Africa is problematic. There are the charismatic mega-fauna — elephants, hippos, gorillas, giraffes, etc. — with a clear tourism appeal; it costs $600 to spend an hour in the presence of a gorilla. Then there are the domestic animals — cattle, goats, sheep, which are treated poorly often brutally. Poverty drives both behaviors, and of course poaching is also a result of severe economic hardship. A single rhino horn fetches $75,000 n the black market. However, what few in the West understand is that there is a vast and growing middle class in much of Africa. And many African societies are significantly improving for many citizens. The changes are generational and substantial. Women, for example, are seen more and more in leadership roles in business and politics, and great emphasis is put on education for the “girl child.” Even up country women are beginning to get their due as there is a considerable push to put property in both the husband’s and wife's names.
According to Harper’s Index, African immigrants have the highest educational accomplishment of any foreigners relocating to the USA. This is good and bad. Good for a growing high quality workforce in the US; bad for Africa, which needs its skilled professionals to stay on the continent and contribute to its development.
In Uganda, though there is much still to be done, infrastructure development in recent years has been extensive. Just in the decade I’ve lived here power outages have reduced dramatically, and major upcountry highways are the equal of those anywhere in the world, and tourism facilities are world class. What’s more even affordable hotels are clean, safe and comfortable.
The greatest, most dramatic change in my life in the last decade was not moving from urban California to a small village in Africa (though it certainly had its surprises), but having my first child, a son, at 62. Mukisa, “blessing” in the Luganda language is, all bias aside, the most charming, funny, handsome, intelligent boy I’ve ever known. He comes up with the most surprising remarks. Driving through town the other day he reassured me that “If there’s a fish in the road, I’ll push it out of the way.” What a comfort! And the other morning as I was leaving he advised me, “Daddy, if you're around crocodiles, be careful.” Noted. At 3, he speaks three languages — Luganda, English and Swahili — though I don’t believe he knows they are distinct languages. Once, he came running to me: "Daddy, Sunny pushed me!" "Did you push him first?" "No, I bit him first."5 demerits for bad behavior; 5 credits for honesty.
He is the light of my life, His sweet voice calling me “Daddy” or “Papa” is intoxicating, and when he climbs into bed with me at night and says, “Snuggle me,” I’m transported. He already knows he is special by virtue of being an African, or as we call him, “a Halfrican.” He deeply identifies with animals. When I tell him he’s a good boy, he says, “I’m not a boy I’m a crocodile, or a kangaroo, or a monkey. I love it. He recently informed me that lions eat snakes. He’s really into snakes. He has a very active imagination and is always telling us fantastic things. This morning he said that cape buffalo use big pencils and when they run they hold the pencils in their mouths, which is dangerous. A school warning no doubt but with the addition of wildlife. Then, as we were walking outside today looking at the monks in the trees, he was worried that the monkeys were going to eat us. He said if they tried to eat us he’d save me. “Thanks,” I replied. “You're welcome,” he said.
I was never a stickler for manners, and I’m still not, but I do like that Mukisa regularly says please, thank you, and you’re welcome. And when he wants to get by and my chair is blocking him, he says, “Please, may I pass.” He’s a classy little guy.
The other day a muzungu guy walked by and Muki said, “There’s my father.” “Then who am I?” I said. “You’re my daddy,” he replied. Then he pointed to a Ugandan man and yelled, “Uncle!” and ran over and hugged him. The man was totally charmed.
I have two meditation periods each day — the morning one accompanied by sweet tea; and the evening one with a generous helping of Bond 7 whisky, from Mumbai. I think about the past and the future; cogitate on what will become of Mukisa and the Africa he will inhabit in the decades to come, and what will become of me and his mother. I’m now 65 and wonder how much of Muki’s life I will get to see. It’s conceivable I could live another 30 years or so, though maybe not likely. Typically, my people live into their 80s at best. My father passed away at 84; my mother at the age of 69 after her second heart attack. I’ve already had one. Gulp. The answer is to savor every moment with Muki, spend as much time with him as possible — laugh, play, eat, ramble, go to the jungle and the savanna as often as we can.
Most mornings I wake up before the monkeys, struggle to find the opening in the mosquito net, wander out to the front balcony and read the news or reply to emails as the sky lights up. By 7:00, the sun is peeking through the palms and the mango trees, and Honesty and Basharat are opening their small shops across the road. The packed matatus are bouncing down the road toward downtown, taking people to work; the boda-bodas are revving their engines and hustling suicidal rides through the rush hour traffic to everyone who walks by; some brave souls accept their offer, pay for the privilege even. Then Mukisa toddles out, settles in my lap, helps me eat my eggs, yells at the chickens three floors below us. And the monkeys show up to entertain their biggest fan.
We live in Kisaasi, a country-town-like neighborhood of Kampala, Uganda. It is lush with trees and domestic and wild animals. The bird life is especially rich and loud. The ibises, for example, don't seem to be able to fly without squawking loudly; they wait until they're cruising past about 5 feet away from us then let out an ear-splitting, guttural shriek that makes Muki jump about 6 inches and nearly gives me a second heart attack. Then there are the turacos which come in an elegant palette that ranges from warm grey to royal blue to deep black with red highlights. They are exquisite and have one of the odder calls, sort of a low gurgle that morphs into a deep bass coo.
Mukisa climbs on and off the stool next to me 5 or 6 times -- it's his most recently acquired talent -- falling only three or four times. I catch him most of those times, but he invariably knocks his curly-haired head at least once on the hard tile and we have a good cry. I hold him and comfort him and he then penguin walks back into the house to wake up mama. We try to tell him "No" as little as possible. He can touch most everything in the house, carry it around, try to make it work. The only restrictions are those things that might hurt him. Inconveniencing me is not his problem; he is not in my hurry; figuring out how and why the world works is his job. Mine is to make sure his discoveries happen in safety, and without destroying (or dropping from our third story balcony) expensive electronic devices that me and his mother must stare into throughout the day -- to service our addictions.
Once Mama Ruth wakes up, there is an hour or so of play and silliness. She can get Mukisa laughing harder than anyone can. He finds her to be very, very funny. So do I. They are still lounging in bed, Muki nursing, while I cook myself breakfast. There is some very good bread here -- whole wheat, crusty, and slathered with seeds. We eat a couple of loaves a week. I always cook breakfast for myself, Mama, Muki and nanny Sophie. First I melt a big chunk of margarine in the skillet, then I put in two slices of the luscious bread, which I've torn holes in. I break an egg into each hole, add pepper and salt.
I then shave, shower, put myself together and go off to Cafeserrie to work, drink coffee and observe the wildlife, especially the old white guys with the hot young black women, an abundant pairing here. As a member of that demographic -- the white geezer component -- I find those couples fascinating. There are a good number of them in Kampala (and in other African cities, no doubt), and most people's prevailing assumption is that the men are in it for sex and the young women are in it for money. That was my initial assumption too, but then I started closely observing these relationships, got to know some of the couples, and became involved in such a love affair myself. They are not what they seem. The initial attraction may be centered around sex and money, but as time passes and the two become real, fully dimensional people to each other -- vulnerable, fun, loving, lonely, giving, taking -- they connect on a sweet and deep level. They talk, get to know and appreciate one another. They fall in love, and in like (the more important of the two in my opinion). In many cases, after a time, you see them with children, babies.
There is one guy, an American, I see at Cafeserrie regularly. He is maybe 10 years older than I am. He comes in with a mixed race boy of 5 or 6 years old. They have lunch, laugh, talk. Sometimes they are joined by the boy's mother. She's very dark-skinned, must be from Northern Uganda or Sudan. The three are happy together, relaxed, caring. The man -- who I've chatted with a little, showed him photos of my son -- is helping the young woman finish university and raise her son. He is a retired construction company owner. He told me he and his wife never had children. After she died 4 years ago, he decided to come to Africa. He'd never been here before and, like me, was immediately smitten with the place and the people. He returned home long enough to sell all his belongings. He came back here and has never returned to the U.S. It's is a plotline that you come across often here. I'm living it.
I feel fortunate that I'm at a point in life where I can spend so much time with my boy. And Nattabi is similarly fortunate: We spend many hours everyday with Mukisa, take him most everywhere with us (he's very social, at ease around people, charming, curious). He is especially fond of men and we have several friends who have had close friendships with him since he was an infant. One of our best friends, Rashid, comes by about once a week to take Muki out for 6-7 hours. He takes him to the mall, to antique car shows, out to eat with his friends. Muki adores him and Rashid dotes on Muki; it's a rich association for both of them.
We are so lucky that we all stumbled into each other -- Nattabi in the middle of her life, me in the final quarter (which is turning out to be the happiest) and Mukisa at the beginning of his. All three of us are healthy, happy and looking forward to the future. We have a nice place to live (no extra charge for monkeys), plenty to eat, we sleep well, we go for walks, our work and various projects are going well. Mukisa likes to laugh and thinks his mama is very very funny. He laughs politely at my jokes. He enjoys it when Nattabi and I dance and act like big fools, which is often. He is walking, running, jumping and climbing all over everything. Nattabi's most spoken and most ignored phrase, "Muki! You are going to fall!" He enjoys being read to and Nattabi (more often than me I'm ashamed to admit) reads at least one book a day to him. He loves his nanny, Sophie, and so do we. She is Muslim and when she prays Muki kneels beside her. He knows he must be quiet when she is praying, but he finds other ways to distract her. She also cooks, does laundry, cleans the house and often brings her sons over. They love playing with Muki; sometimes they all stay overnight. The boys are about 9 & 12. We sometimes take them swimming with us, always a fun day. Nattabi's tour company is picking up steam and threatening to start making real money. My work, including helping her build her travel business, is varied and satisfying, if not lucrative. We are busy in a good way.
On balance, when looked at from a distance, it is, as always, the best of times and the worst of times. No matter how perfect things may seem momentarily, we are every moment reminded of the tentative, fragile nature of that perfection in our lives and the lives of all we know and don't know. Living here, where the extremes of poverty and wealth are everywhere in evidence, keeps us aware of that truth every moment of every day. We are within a day's travel of where homo sapiens began -- the Great Rift Valley, the Source Perrier of humanity Before us we see how far humanity has come in its present form, since its inception 200,000 years ago. It's no joke unless God has a particularly bent sense of humor. Just in the last few weeks we've heard of loved ones dying, having severe illnesses, losing everything in a raging wildfire. So it goes, as Vonnegut put it (repeatedly) in Slaughterhouse Five. Thank you then, or as they say in Luganda, Webale, for staying in touch. It's important to me. I believe in the art of communication; it's my religion, and my wife and son are its saints, angels.