Monday, August 13, 2012

Kampala: Getting There and Away

[I wrote a note the day before I left Kampala back in May, but never posted it, and as I’m now just days away from leaving the continent, it seems as good a time as any to catch up.]


This post is chiefly concerned with the ‘away’ part, as tomorrow morning, earlier than I care to contemplate, I will be on my way to Entebbe Airport, site of the notorious hostage crisis.  I will miss the good people at Tuhende, and the good food that they cook.  I will miss the comfort of Kampala, which somehow manages to generate an easy-going atmosphere in spite of the chaos.  And I will miss the cheery demeanour of most of the Ugandans I’ve met.  I will not miss the traffic, the pollution, the weather or the pedestrians, who are as indecisive in their movements as Mitt Romney is in front of a policy position.

I know I keep talking about the madness of the streets, but it really is something to behold.  And so I was shocked, and heartened, a few days ago, when I saw a white-suited traffic cop (goodness knows how his uniform stayed white amidst the pollution that you practically have to claw your way through to get anywhere) helping an elderly lady across the street!  I am no longer shocked by the sight of a boda boda barrelling down on me, loaded down by 15 mattresses, one piled atop another.  Once, up towards Masindi, I saw a cyclist going along the road, miles from anything remotely resembling a destination, with an enormous sofa balanced across his handle bars as he gamely squeaked along the edge of the road, past the long-horned cattle which put their Texan brethren to shame. 

I no longer flinch when a taxi pulls up beside me and the conductor unceremoniously hurls his human cargo out the door without even drawing to a complete stop.  People pop out like detached jack-in-the-boxes, and the minibus roars off.  Only yesterday I saw a taxi in such poor condition that its sliding side door was detached, and there were two conductors jogging alongside it holding it in place. 

But there is order of sorts amidst the chaos, and my survival as a pedestrian is a testament more to the discretion and driving skills of others than to any keen mental edge on my part.  At first when you look down at the massive taxi parks you think it must be impossible that any of them could ever extricate themselves from the massive lot.  But eventually you can discern various trajectories and patterns (best observed from a distance if you’re at all claustrophobic).  [I have since learned that days after I departed Kampala, the police moved in and dismantled the rows of ramshackle shops which hemmed in the taxi park in an effort to ease congestion.]

Beneath the cheery freewheeling of Kampala’s streets, there are deep social chasms.  Elevation functions as a telling indicator of social class, with embassies, churches, mosques, banks, NGOs, universities and hotels perching atop the city’s many hills, and the slums piling up in the depressions between those hills.  I’m gun-shy in the U.S., where firearm ownership is nothing unusual.  But in Kampala there are armed guards (some in uniform, some not) sitting outside of many shops, massive guns across their knees.  Police swagger everywhere, grouping in scores in City Park, guns pointing down until someone publishes a tract critical of the government.  Then their weapons come up, the visors snap down, and they’re off to go thump some hapless opposition demonstrators.  Recently a group of Ugandan clerics have taken up the issue of presidential term limits, and it emerged earlier this week that the security services have been conspiring to launch a smear campaign against them using charges (according to the Sunday Monitor) such as “rape, incest, molestation and illegal possession of firearms”. 

And then there is the nation’s history, not so much visible in terms of monumental architecture as in between the lines in each and every debate being hashed out in the press or at pavement restaurants.  There are Idi Amin’s torture chambers up at Mengo Palace, which has since been restored to the Kabaka, ruler of Buganda, one of the country’s customary kingdoms.  Many Baganda favour secession from the nation, putting, among other things, dreams of an East African union in jeopardy.  In Toro, another kingdom restored during the ‘90s after being shuttered not long after independence, the inhabitants remember another of Africa’s big men with fondness.  Colonel Gaddafi took the kingdom’s young monarch under his wing and funnelled money to its royal family and infrastructural projects. 

It might at first seem striking how little people talk about the Amin years, particularly given their centrality to outsiders’ understandings of Uganda.  But on the one hand, many Ugandans seem to want to draw a line under the brutality.  On the other, a staggering percentage of Ugandans are under the age of 15, meaning that for a growing percentage of the population, Amin’s rule, and the civil war and bloodshed which followed, are part of history rather than lived experience.  But the ghost of those years of chaos still haunts people, and it is this which explains the fury of many Ugandans, even those unhappy with the current political elite, at Besigye, one of the main opposition leaders.  They see his resort to the populist politics of preaching on the street after failing to unseat President Museveni as an attempt to stir up disorder, division and violence, which could lead back to the bad old days.  In other words, the most indelible mark of the Amin years might manifest itself in the belief of many Ugandans that stability is more important than democracy.

The thing that unnerves me the most in Uganda is how people have to weigh every word they utter and every paragraph they write to determine whether it might offend the wrong person.  Media freedom, under the rule of President Museveni (in power since 1986) is ranked amongst the worst in the world.  To me, this constant glancing over one’s shoulder is spooky.  In the U.S., for all the country’s faults, I would never think twice before criticising a public official or a government policy—indeed, the less charitable might accuse me of not thinking at all!  Nor would I hesitate to couch that criticism in the harshest terms I can imagine.  It would not occur to me to fear any consequences, not least because the words of a single private citizen are pretty inconsequential.  But people everywhere must defend the right of freedom of expression at all costs, particularly in an era in which governments grow increasingly intolerant of dissent—as though those governments are indulging their citizens by ‘tolerating’ their speech, rather than the other way around.

In Uganda, President Museveni is beginning to exhibit the symptoms that you associate with regimes on the brink of some sort of explosion.  His answers to criticisms increasingly involve invoking the (sometimes fictitious and always wildly exaggerated) legacy of his ruling party, the NRM, piling on some fairly outlandish claims which I suspect have most Ugandans sniggering, even if they remain quiescent in public.  He is writing up a penal code which will take away the rights of opposition leaders to politick on the streets.  He has been dismissive of the complaints levelled by FDC Women’s League activist Ingrid Turinawe over a police groping.*

He recently involved himself in a very un-presidential scrap on the pages of the Monitor with the paper’s former editor over some pretty mild criticism, and waded in wielding cloud-cuckoo language, calling the ex-editor “one of the greatest enemies of NRM”, the Monitor an “opposition” paper, and remarking that the Monitor “is famous for telling lies”.  Museveni and the NRM have real achievements under their belts (some positive, some not), but although the country has come a long way under his leadership since 1986, some of his rhetoric makes him sound like a real crackpot.  It’s hard to take him seriously as a national or regional leader when he’s so thin-skinned... He’s at the stage where, if he wasn’t an increasingly cranky national ruler, you’d want to pat him on the shoulder and take him off to see a shrink. 

The media in Uganda is much more than its Kenyan counterparts, which almost revel in the open environment they’ve helped to carve out since the end of the Moi dictatorship.  The Ugandan Monitor is owned by the Nation media company, and although regional and international news is sometimes a bit threadbare, they do a pretty good job all around and don’t shrink from criticising the government, even if Museveni’s tag of “opposition paper” is a bit silly.  The New Vision is the government rag, and is a bit tabloidy both in look and writing, and gives the impression of a rather creaky ruling party attempting to go hip. 

I spent my last day running a few errands, which including changing some money so that I’d have dollars for my Zambian visa.  When you change money, you must complete a form giving your personal details.  I’m pretty sure no one ever looks at these, so in an act of patriotism, I listed my country on my last official document in Uganda as ‘The Republic of California’.


* A segment from a recent interview the President conducted with the Monitor, in which he brushed away the complaint by saying that the offending police officer was a young, inexperienced female operative.  Museveni: “But it is true that some of the young people (police) make mistakes for example this young girl who was pulling the breast of this other Turinawe woman”.  Monitor: “It is still being contested whether that was a lady or a man pulling Ms Turinawe”.  Museveni: “It was a girl.  I will not tell you the name because they are doing their work.  But it was a girl.  Even from the pictures you can see that they were short people, even having difficulty going over the pick-up to reach this Turinawe woman [...] But I also hope that you also saw a picture of an American policeman who was lifting a woman.  And of course you didn’t put it in your paper—I don’t know what you can say about that”.  That, Mr. President, is known as a red herring.

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