Notes from Africa: The quiet joy of smoking a pipe – HeraldScotland

FOR 40 years I have smoked a pipe, the tell-tale signs being small singed perforations of shirts and trousers through which a hairy chest or red underwear can be glimpsed by the observant. Puffing indoors or in company is banned. Three bowlfuls a day is the average and then only when meditating with feet up on the sofa or outside on a canvas chair in the sun. When concentration is essential, the empty pipe is sucked between clenched teeth, the alternative being chewing gum. The latter is not compatible with dodgy upper dentures and thus led to partial but noisy upper airway obstruction which alarmed medical colleagues and neighbours.

In Africa many folk have a small patch of tobacco near their hut. The broad leaf is sun-dried then shredded, mixed with pungent herbs, then stored out of reach of ants and inquisitive small boys. My cousin, Opi, and I occasionally swap tobacco, mine bought from a stall in the Arua Park market in Kampala, his from a trouser pocket. He insists on giving this offering a long rub with none too clean hands before handing it over, while I prepare mine by sprinkling the boxful with any available alcohol-based spirit and leaving it for several days, turning the container frequently.

In several areas of Uganda, women smoke pipes, the bowls carefully fashioned from clay while the stems are tooled from various soft woods. I use these from time to time, depending on the mood, but have lost one or two due to termites finding the pipe-rack and feasting unobserved inside the stem. Cleaning the pipes with the strong straight veld grass stalks growing near our water tank is a weekly activity and much more hygienic and cheaper than commercial pipe cleaners.

Some time ago, I was asked to discipline a teenage nephew whose teacher suspected he had started smoking cigarettes. Without saying anything critical, I ushered him to a quiet spot, far from witnesses. He looked surprised when I offered him a pipeful of cherry-flavoured tobacco.

“I know you don’t know how to smoke, Iwa, but this is a lovely tobacco. Here, have a sniff.”

He agreed it smelt good. We then proceeded to light up. I didn’t tell him you don’t inhale pipe smoke. After he’d recovered from the resulting dizziness, coughing spasms and vomiting, we returned home. As far as I know, he never smoked again.

The only occasion I have sampled a Cuban cigar was at the Malmaison restaurant in Glasgow’s Central Hotel, both five-star establishments. I had been paid a substantial sum by a pharmaceutical company for taking part in a drug trial when I was a fifth-year medical student and decided here was the chance to sample the best cuisine and wine in the city without needing anyone’s permission. I invited my close friend, Al, and together we entered the gorgeously appointed dining-room. It was a quiet night, bitterly cold, and the maitre d’hotel himself greeted us, albeit with a disbelieving expression.

We insisted on a bottle of Madeira with the soup, shared a chateaubriand and a decent Bordeaux, enjoyed fresh imported strawberries with Muscadelle, then moved on to their excellent cheeseboard with glasses of port. The maitre was unaware that during vacations I worked as a barman and waiter in various hotels, and had hitch-hiked through many of dear old Europe’s wine-growing areas. I chose a Havana cigar to finish, having asked a favourite and understanding uncle the week before about the technique of preparing and smoking these beauties as compared to my normal cheap cigarettes.

Al later developed socialist tendencies and became a Scottish Nationalist member of parliament. I never did discover whether this change was a reaction to our night out…

Dr David Vost studied medicine at Glasgow University and is currently working at a hospital in Swaziland. He and his family live on a small farm in Northern Uganda near the Albert Nile.