O Uganda, the Land of Beauty, Thieves and Rich History

“They have roads? I thought this would be a bush… .,” a contestant on US reality TV show The Amazing Race once said when the race, worth a million dollars for the winning team, took them to South Africa.

The American and his teammate continued wondering when they saw more Africans with smart phones and gadgets, wearing clothes and not sleeping in trees. This played back into my mind earlier this year, in July. I was contacted to work with a group of journalism students from various universities in Holland.

My task was to put together a group of Ugandan journalism students to make them feel at home, help with directions, interpretations and friendship. Fast-forward to October 14, and Janna Ruigrok, Producer, Beyond your WorldLokaalmondiaal arrived ahead of the other group she was not going to be around throughout their stay but wanted to make sure they were in safe hands – my hands.

Later on the October 17, the Dutch students with a teacher and freelance journalist – Ans Boersma – landed at Entebbe airport. Early the next morning, they visited their first destination, The Observer newsroom. Besides Ans and Frans Blokhuis, one of the students, others were visiting Africa for the first time.

Others in the group were Ruth Van der Kolk, Vincent Lengeek, Malu Keijzer, Eline Mirjam, Hanneke van Olst, Joel Oosterhagen and Maaike Reynaert. Being 2014, Uganda is on the high as far as international news appearances are concerned our president signed two “celebrated” bills – the anti-pornography (mini-skirt) and anti-gay bills – into law, although the latter was revoked by a court.

Both local and foreign news have spun stories twisting events surrounding the laws, and to a non-Ugandan looking in through the worldwide web, Uganda must be as interesting as it is scary. One of the students asks if we are lynching gay people, while another wants to know why people look so healthy, yet (according to international media, who else?) millions of children in Kampala go hungry for days.

On Saturday, they were supposed to go on a Kampala tour and to make sure it was perfect, I employed the services of a good friend in the tourism business, Simon Mukisa of Afrika Dreams Safaris. A couple of months back, Mukisa started a cheap tourism package that would see someone enjoy Uganda without visiting the mountains, gorillas, or sleeping in the cold that was the birth of his Xtreme Kampala Safari, for tourists on a backpacker budget.

We met at the National theatre – both the Dutch students and their Ugandan counterparts. Mukisa gave them a survival guide to staying in Kampala: avoid solo movements, don’t count huge sums of money in public and bargain for everything – boda bodas, food, clothes and taxi fares.

Once the talk was through, the first site we visited was the Buganda king’s palace in Mengo.

King’s palace:

That place, built so many decades ago, holds more history than even we, the Ugandans, could have imagined Kabaka Muteesa II’s vintage cars and Buganda through the years were portrayed in pictures. The most captivating thing about the palace was its strategic location that allowed us to see almost all the seven hills of Kampala, and the disastrous history that lies in Idi Amin’s torture dungeons, established after the 1966 siege on the palace, on then Prime Minister Dr Apollo Milton Obote’s orders.

Reynaert was hesitant about going into the dungeons she said she hates visiting haunted places and did not feel like being part of this particular expedition. I did my best to sweet-talk her into it and she eventually came with us. According to the site guide, at least 2,000 people were brought into these chambers on suspicion that they were supporters of Obote, whom Amin had deposed in a 1972 coup none of them survived.

On some of the walls, the last words scrawled by some of the victims remain written in blood, like the haunting one saying, abaana bange mbaleese ntya? Loosely meaning, How am I leaving my children?

“This place is very haunted,” an emotional Ruth said.

“Yes, it is,” a Ugandan student agreed.

Under a normal schedule, a Kampala safari lasts five hours and it would start from the palace, to Old Kampala mosque, the museum and Baha’i temple. But after the trip to the palace where the Dutch students got a chance to share delicious jackfruit with a number of local children, they were tired.

We made a quick stop at the mosque and called it a day. By the time they set off from Holland, the Dutch had been told about their new nickname – Mzungu – none of them seemed bothered by the fact that children were calling them that.

“In Uganda I am Mzungu but in Holland I am not,” said Reynaert. Her parents hail from Indonesia, thus her dark skin.

She’s a guitarist and plays with an underground band, Ivy’s Trial, most of their music is acoustic and organic. On one of the days at the Kampala Contemporary Art festival, we meet some of our city guitarists.

“We want you to play a song,” one of the guys said, handing her a guitar. She hesitantly took it and belted out one of her band’s original composition, San Francisco.

After her solo, one of the guys told her: “You can play for as long as you’re here.”

Most of the days, the visiting students were looking for interviews to finish their stories. However, the story in Kisenyi gave some of them a scare they had visited the slum on their own and as they were talking to the area LC chairman in his office, a thief that had just been arrested was brought in.

“It was scary but nothing happened to us,” said Frans about the incident. I later explained it is common for the LC office to multitask by acting as a holding cell, investigation room and in some cases for marriage counselling sessions.

Living dangerously:

All their encounters did not discourage these young people from living dangerously Mukisa had taken them through the dos and don’ts of surviving in Kampala, and had warned them against sharing a boda boda in the city centre, but on one of the days, Ans and Reynaert shared theirs. As fate would have it, they were caught.

According to Reynaert, the policeman had asked for Shs 200,000 to set them free. On realizing they were not afraid of going to jail, he drove them to the City Square.

“I lost some respect for the Kampala police,” she later said.

Besides the weather that many of them found too warm, considering that temperatures were dipping back home in Holland, they easily did all the other things Ugandans do, by themselves. They bar-hopped at night, bargain for bodas and snuck in an afternoon beer occasionally.

The first time I told them about Ugandans drinking early even on a Monday, they thought I was bluffing, but when we visited Dons bar opposite the City Square on a chilly Wednesday afternoon, they were shocked to find it operating.

Cheap beer:

“Beer in Uganda is very cheap and in larger volumes,” said Hanneke, noting that in Holland, an Amstel or Heineken bottle would go for an equivalent of Shs 10,000.

They marvelled at how friendly Ugandans were, and one couldn’t disagree with that for the days the group was in Kampala, I was noticed even by my friend’s cousins, artistes and actor friends, who would all walk over to greet me and whoever I was with.

When we visited Kamwokya, a legion of children screaming ‘Abazungu’ walked with us from the market into the slum during the rain. Having grown up in Kamwokya, the “Ugandan friendliness” went to another level. I was even noticed by those babes that rejected me in our high school days some came over to reintroduce themselves to me or declare how lost I was… kyokka girls!

Many Ugandans still associate white skin with opportunity, a visa out of this poor country, and yes, direct donations to one’s purse instead of waiting for GAVI Alliance or some mediating NGO. So, moving around with these “potential donorsinvestors” seemed to make my net worth go up considerably too, at least in most of my acquaintances’ eyes.

In Kamwokya, we met Shamillah, a 19-year-old mother of one and eight months pregnant with her second child. She stays home by day and works at night in a makeshift kiosk where she sells chips. Her story touched Ruth, who was surprised that even in the hardest situations, Ugandans in slums can still be creative to make a living.

She also noted, the slum children looked healthier than magazines and documentaries make them look.

“People wake up and struggle to make a living you will barely see that in Holland I guess it is because we have parents and government to fall back to,” Vincent said.

Unfortunately, a day before the group was due to fly back to Holland, the rosy Ugandan picture was destroyed by thieves that robbed one of the Dutch students as she was leaving Bubbles, near Kisementi. Still, Vincent was not fazed in his love for Uganda.

He said they had been warned about Uganda being dangerous and how they should not move with valuables, “but that could have happened in any city, be it Europe or Africa”.

At the end of their stay, the Dutch visitors could not gush enough about Uganda’s beauty, and several vowed to come back. One of them even tried to stay behind – the kind of stunt a Ugandan attending a conference in the US with the sole intention of “vanishing” afterwards, would pull. Very flattering for our potholed pearl of Africa, indeed.

Source : The Observer

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