Sunday, April 29, 2012

Kampala--Dangers and Annoyances*


Earlier this week, I got tear-gassed.

Okay, that makes it sound as though I was the target, and that I got it right where it hurts, and I wasn’t and I didn’t.  The power kept going off at Makerere, which was okay for a while.  But in the afternoon, as the angle of the sun changed, it was getting increasingly difficult to decipher the 1960s newspapers I was scanning anxiously for signs of wildlife, and rather than falsely-document wildlife developments of the period, I decided to head for home.  My early departure was fortuitous as it turned out.  I’d no sooner dropped my bag in my room and begun reading Mark Twain’s Roughing It when the chaos broke out in the streets in front of and behind the place where I’m staying.

It seems that there is a difference of opinion in Uganda’s Muslim community about the election process that is about to unfold, and that this had spilled over into fisticuffs as one group marched towards the Gaddafi mosque to have words with the target of their ire, and were met along the way (just in front of our building, it so happened) by a rival faction.  At the time I had no idea what was going on, and merely heard a great deal of shouting outside.  Moments later, this gave way to shooting, as the chuckleheaded Ugandan police, who looked like they were on their way to a Storm Trooper-themed party, rolled up and began firing live rounds into the air, and apparently into the crowd, since I just heard that they killed one person (though the newspapers haven’t reported this).

I’d had my suspicions about the marksmanship of the police, who swagger around town pointing their guns every which way.  Some of them twirl them around their hands, like you see little kids doing with sticks.  To the inexpert eye, some of the weapons look like they’ve seen better days, perhaps back around 1930.  So when the shooting started, I got a bit jumpy myself.  Unsure of whether the correct procedure was to lie on the floor, flatten myself against the wall, or stand up and yell “I surrender!”, I took the middle path and wandered towards the front of the building to see what all the trouble was about (I’ve got loads of common sense, it’s just sometimes a bit slow to kick in).  The people pummelling each other out on the street apparently realised that they were completely safe so long as the police were trying to hit them, and so they continued their efforts to do each other harm.

I no sooner reached the door and peeked out at the riot (for I cannot, however charitable I’d like to be, characterise it as anything else) than I was forced to beat a hasty retreat when my worst fears about police shooting was confirmed, and tear gas canisters began exploding close enough that I could see the flashes.  Some of them ricocheted around the yard upstairs, and one of the caretakers went by, performing the kind of evasive action you’d presumably have used in World War I trenches during a gas attack.  In no time I was coughing and wheezing, and my eyes were smarting and tearing.  So looking, undoubtedly, like I’d just lost my whole family, I scurried to the bathroom and stuck my head under the shower. 

I was not present at the O.K. Corral, but I imagine spectators at that venerable event must have felt similarly disconcerted.  When I turned off the water, the clouds of tear gas had dissipated.  Either some of the police fire must have accidentally gone home, or else the officers had ordered their men to train their weapons south towards Lake Victoria in the hopes that some of their fire might boomerang about and alight amidst the rioters in Old Kampala.

Gradually, the fighting began to wane, and the shooting was reduced to an odd ‘bang’ here and there.  I sat down and started back in on Roughing It, waiting until someone sounded the all-clear to go back outside.

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* Having exhausted my creative powers, I hereby declare my intention to plagiarise all of my titles from Lonely Planet headings.  They can sue me for everything I don’t have.

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