One of British colonialism’s minor legacies here in Uganda is an odd way of talking about travel outside the capital city. Londoners, if they go away for the week-end, always go to ‘the country.’ Could be Berkshire, Devon, Norfolk, doesn’t really matter, if it’s not London then it’s just ‘the country.’ (Come to think of it, New Yorkers talk the same way about ‘upstate.’) Ugandans too have adopted this cosmopolitan, syntactic mannerism. New inhabitants of the steadily expanding capital soon learn to divide this complex, multi-ethnic country, with 32 million people speaking 30 different languages, into just two parts. There’s Kampala and then there’s ‘up country.’
Last week I went up country—to Lira District in the mid north. This seems to have settled down now after the long rebellion by the Lord’s Resistance Army and the government counter-insurgency campaign. My main interest on this trip, though, is in what is happening to Uganda’s farmland, the country’s primary, and almost sole, natural resource. But war and its aftermath are the ‘back-story’ that keeps jumping to the fore.
My son, Enrique, 19, passed his Ugandan driving test today. He is a fairly proficient driver but would have passed anyway, however bad he was, by the simple—and apparently routine—procedure of handing the examiner a tip of 30,000 shillings (USD 15).
In the early hours of yesterday morning fire engulfed the outdoor Owino market, Uganda’s largest, in a walled enclosure hard against Kampala’s city centre. The dense labyrinth of stalls covered an area the size of two football pitches and provided a livelihood for thousands of small traders in cheap clothes, shoes, household utensils and other goods, all now gone up in smoke.
The visit of an old friend from the UK provides occasion for a Friday evening pub crawl to test Kampala’s reputation as a city that really knows how to party.
We enlist Peter, a boda boda (motorbike taxi) man whose number I once took because I was impressed by the absence of lunacy in his motoring style, and he sub-contracts another driver to help because we are a bit heavy both to sit aback just one 125cc machine. Peter had taken Tim (my friend) around town a few times the week before and has now become confused about our identities, is no longer able to tell us apart. Embarrassing for him but not surprising, really: two big, affluent (little does he know) middle aged white men who talk oddly; the commonalities must be more striking than the differences. Tim rides ahead with dependable Peter while I follow with the other guy who doesn’t seem too bad but blows it in the closing stages when, by the roundabout near the golf club, he attempts to overtake Peter—why bother?—and gets stuck behind a truck.
Went up to the National Stadium today to watch Uganda beat Benin 2-1 in a World Cup qualifying round. Neither team stands a chance of getting through but Uganda played with enthusiasm and it was a rare treat to see the home crowd enjoy a victory. It’s been a long time since the ‘Uganda cranes’ won a match. Fans were especially jubilant because they were 0-1 down at half-time; a comeback is always elating. On the way back into town we got caught up in a crazy cavalcade of motorbike taxis bearing flag-waving and horn-blowing fans through the billowing diesel fumes and red dust of the Jinja Road at sunset. A good moment.
Friday night rush-hour, which in fact lasts several hours, finds us inching through outlying districts where the twilight is thick with bicycles and pedestrians picking their way between the potholes. We are bound for the Munyonyo Commonwealth Resort where 76-year-old South African diva, Miriam Makeba, is the lead act in the first ever Kampala International Jazz Festival.