February 1, 2013 7:30 pm

Expat lives: From Queensland to the banks of the Nile

Shirray Knight talks about being a ‘Musungu’ in Uganda
Shirray Knight in Uganda©Will Boase

Shirray Knight in Uganda, where she runs a quad-biking safari business

On the banks of the river Nile in Uganda, Australian Shirray Knight has spent the past 12 years living in a former shipping container. The house, which is surrounded by coffee plants and banana trees, is in Bujagali Falls, 8km north of Jinja, where Knight and her husband Peter run a quad-biking safari business.

A love of motorbiking brought the couple to Africa via England, where they had lived for six years. In 1993 they left Queensland so that Peter could pursue his sidecar-racing hobby on the Isle of Man. But the two longed for a bigger adventure and in 1999 they left the UK to charter tourist trucks from England to Cape Town. Each tour took nine months, and after three and a half years of life on the road Knight grew tired of the nomadic existence. “I was exhausted. You get sick on the road. At one point I caught malaria and shrank to 8st 4lb. I looked like GI Jane – I was all muscle from digging trucks out of bogs,” she says.

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With no desire to return to England or Australia, the couple decided to settle in Uganda. They managed to buy a three-quarter acre plot of land for $2,000 from a local businessman. The house, which the Knights built themselves, is a stone’s throw from the water. “It’s absolutely stunning, overlooking the river Nile. At night you can hear African drums from the nearby village and the sound of the guinea fowl – it’s wonderful.”

Knight says the wildlife surrounding her house is the highlight of living in Uganda. Turacos, ibis, cormorants, guinea fowl, kingfishers and crested cranes are just some of the birds she can see from her window. “It’s amusing watching the red tail and berbet monkeys while you’re drinking coffee outside. We’ve also got this fish eagle couple that make a big screaming noise in the mornings.”

After clearing land and laying a concrete slab, Knight was surprised to be living in such an unusual home. “It was Peter’s idea to buy a shipping container to make the house; it was a much cheaper option. I was a bit uncertain after living on a truck for so long but when we cut out all the windows and furnished it, I thought it was the best home I ever had – and I still do.” The house has a split terrace open-plan design, large windows and cane furniture bought from the local market. “For security reasons shipping containers are also good. Once you’ve bolted those doors no one can get in,” she says.

When the Knights announced they were moving to Uganda, friends and family expressed concern about the country’s turbulent governance and the enduring internal conflict – perpetrated by the Lord’s Resistance Army – in the north. “They thought we were mad. They would ring me up and ask if I was still alive and I didn’t even know what had been going on because I didn’t have a television. People don’t understand that the conflict is in the north of Uganda; here in Jinja we are peaceful people.”

Now that Knight is more settled in Uganda, she feels safe at home while her husband is away. “Everyone knows us, people look out for you. I like that part about it, I never feel worried for a minute.” Knight employs 13 boys from the village behind her house to do mechanical and administrative work for her quad-biking business, which takes groups of tourists through the Ugandan countryside on game-viewing safaris. The boys work for her on the condition that they finish school, which the couple fund. “We have decided to run our business in this way. We look after our people. They’ve got driver’s licences, mechanical experience, Musungu (foreigner) experience – which is important. If you work for a Musungu it usually means you are well looked after.”

Being a foreigner in Uganda is often complicated, as Knight experienced when she first moved to Jinja. “Everyone would come up to me in town asking for money, screeching at me and making noises. Now I just say ‘You give me your money – I haven’t got any,’ and make a joke of it. They are quite content when you say that.”

In the decade since they came to Africa the area has changed dramatically, particularly in Jinja, a former fishing village and now Uganda’s second-biggest city. Knight estimates that prices are three times what they were a decade ago, and there are rumours that the town will soon open a branch of ShopRite, the South African supermarket chain. Knight is also stunned by the proliferation of mobile phones: “You go into the middle of the forest and see Africans with better mobile phones than you. They’re using BlackBerrys while I’ve still got my old Nokia.”

Knight witnessed an even bigger change on her own doorstep, when earlier this year a hydroelectric dam was opened 3km down the river. The stretch of water, which was once renowned for its grade-six white water rapids, is today barely recognisable. “We don’t have Bujagali Falls any more, we call it Bujagali Lake. When I first saw the dam I cried, but that’s progress and we have to have it.”

Despite the recent dramatic changes to Jinja’s landscape, Knight has no desire to leave Uganda. She returns to Australia every year to visit her parents, since her mother can no longer fly. “I miss my family, I wish I could ship them over, but if I had to leave Uganda for good, I would be devastated. I like the disorganisation of living here – somehow I feel comfortable with it. Every day I get out of bed and wonder what will happen today – it’s the adventure of it.”

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Buying guide

Pros

Land can be bought from $15,000 per acre

Undeveloped land means stunning views and wildlife abound

The equator runs through Uganda, which means year-round sunshine

Cons

Lack of basic infrastructure means power cuts can be frequent

Purchasing the leasehold for a plot of land can take up to five years because of bureaucratic procedures

Ugandan society is very traditional: in 2009 the government tried to introduce a bill to make homosexuality punishable by death

What you can buy for ...

$100,000: a new-build three-bedroom bungalow in a gated community 14km outside of the capital Kampala

$1m: a seven-bedroom house overlooking Lake Victoria, with one acre of land and staff accommodation

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