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Snapshots on a wet Sunday

May 3, 2010 - 9:00am -- Nick Young

Palm Sunday and I find myself invited to assume management of Cologne Football Club. The North Rhine city of Köln must, I imagine, have some sort of team of its own. My prospective lads hail, by contrast, from Cologne FC of Bbira—an outlying Kampala township—whose captain and crew I meet by chance on a soggy patch of ground just off the at-last completed northern bypass. I am drifting about in uncertain temper taking photographs. They are standing in a purposeful huddle in the pouring rain, serious in their yellow strip, reviewing tactics while waiting for a local derby with Kasubi FC, who haven’t turned up for the fixture.

Kasubi’s non-appearance may have less to do with inclement weather than with the latest sorry turn of Uganda’s mystifying politics. On the night of March 16, the country’s oldest (1882) human-made structure, the UNESCO world-heritage-listed Buganda Royal Tombs—a substantial, straw-thatched dome wherein four Kings of Buganda were laid to rest, on the summit of Kasubi hill— burned to the ground.) Many Baganda people (some 16% of the national population, probably 95% of the Kasubi population) took this to be politically motivated arson. The fire’s early reckoning included three young men shot dead the next morning by President Yoweri Museveni’s armed guard as he tried to visit the site to offer condolences, only to find his motorcade swarmed around by angry crowds. Several more heads were cracked in downtown troubles that day. So it may be that Kasubi FC now lacks strikers.

A wet Sunday in Kampala—and we have had so much rain, so unseasonably—is the perfect time to explore the outskirts. The better off stay home to watch European football on TV and many of the moderately poor stay packed in the churches, singing with only slightly less than the usual gusto. This decongests the roads, makes the logic of the city more legible (while also lathering it in red, treacly mud), and the absence of sun and dust and crowds makes it easier to look without squinting. Which is also useful for the ungifted photographer, unable to cope with sharp shadow, and so helps me advance a small project: a pictorial record of Kampala sign language—commercial and social messaging, from the billboards promoting beer, bank accounts, cellphone networks and HIV testing to the cheap flyers with contact numbers that will dispense advice on how to GAIN HIPS or acquire a BIG BUM. I put new batteries in the camera and set off in the car towards Kasubi, thinking also to inspect the damage there.

I poodle through Wandegeya, past Makerere University where, two days before the tombs burned down, a security guard shot dead a couple of students in God only knows what precise circumstances, something to do with triggery nervousness in the closing stages of elections for Student Guild President, a post that often marks the way to higher office. Violent episodes like this seem to make only a momentary dent on civic life: another two dead in some inexplicable fray and life goes on with its ordinary aspirations for a flashier phone and bigger hips. My ordinary aspirations today include giving up smoking. There’s a Chinese herbalist somewhere near Kasubi who might be able to help.

I pull over to snap a barbershop shack opposite the University gate, the New Obama Haircut Salon. Obama brand borrowing is everywhere: a few examples are a must for the portfolio. The proprietor is asleep inside, customers seeming so unlikely today. Awakened, he suggests a fee of 1,000 shillings (US 50 cents) for the picture. I demur and spend 400 shillings on bananas from the stall next door instead. He relents, says go ahead; I compose the shot hastily, ashamed of my base bargain.

Behind the car meanwhile a guy with a wheelbarrow of charcoal, the ubiquitous although technically illegal cooking fuel, has spilled his load in the mud. A tall young woman is offering him token assistance, prodding at the gleaming shards with her shoe. Seems a bit odd but transpires that she’s waiting to intercept me as I splash back to my driving seat. Her name is Stella, a first year Makerere student of Development Studies—one of the most common undergraduate courses in this country where the scramble for opportunity has produced a surfeit of certificates, diplomas and degrees that is poorly matched to any real market, but where top scores in Dev Studs might just about land some sort of job with an NGO.

Stella comes from Gulu in the north—‘recovering from the ravages of a 20 year civil war’ in the idiom of the newswires—and, predictably, there is a slight problem with her college fees: her parents have nothing, there’s just an aunt who has only half of something . . . I don’t really want to hear the details, they are too familiar, and I have not yet found a simple way to explain to the 29.8 million Ugandans whose families are poorer than mine that the even redistribution of our entire surplus would amount to no more than one grain of maize each. (Wasn’t this John Rawls’ basic argument for keeping one’s cheque book closed?) Then she mentions an arresting detail: a little baby daughter who lives with her in the women’s hostel just over there . . . We know from our son Enrique, at college in Entebbe, how grim those places are. ‘So who looks after her when you’re in class?’ The answer is not clear because she is intent on persuading me that I must know people or organisations who will want to sponsor her. I crumble under the assault and say I’ll try and think of something, give her my number, which is stupid because she will phone repeatedly. Oh well. As I drive off it occurs to me that this aggravates more than expiates the pettiness of withholding 50 cents from the New Obama Salon. The guy whose sleep I interrupted probably figures that a sugar-daddy relationship is in the making; common enough here, as a current ad campaign against ‘cross-generational sex’ readily attests.

Next stop, a roundabout on the bypass: a thirteen kilometre strip of single carriageway that took five years and USD 50 million, mostly from the European Union, to complete. It’s the kind of thing they’d throw up in any Chinese town in as many months and at a quarter of the cost. Even on a wet Sunday the roundabout is jammed so I park on the posh new pavement overlooking a hovelscape of banana vendors and, what has caught my eye, the Superito Auto Tyre shop operating out of a sawn-off shipping container amidst piles of old remoulds. A banana man permits me to snap his stalks with the Superito sign in the background. There are noises off, a hollering from a guy a hundred metres out of frame. I go over to exchange greetings which consist, on his side, in a volley of commands to give him money or fuck off. Fair enough. I snap signs because I don’t like snapping strangers, that subtle violence of possession. But I am also a man and I am giving up smoking and I feel like punching him in the mouth.

Instead (and to show how unrattIed I am), I buy a kilo of bones for my dogs from a cheery butcher in a cheerless hut and then cross the road to a giant billboard where a Bristol Myers Squibb supported foundation is advertising, in Luganda, its success (my guess) at preventing mother-child HIV transmission. A bonus here is a smaller ad for oral rehydration salts, dad throwing healthy baby in the air, which fits neatly in the foreground along with a truck whose cab is decorated by the legend ‘Born Lucky, Allah Harim.’ I pay an old lady 1,000 shillings for a shot of her kiosk, where she purveys tins of brake fluid and silicon grease with images of these goods neatly painted on the kiosk walls, and a little bit of space—rented or stolen?—given over to BRAIN BOOSTER and HIPS GAIN flyers. The old lady complains that we had agreed 5,000, which we hadn’t.

Swish down the bypass to the next junction, rain steady now, and park by a grassy bog on the far side of which is a 20 metre mural for a private primary school: a cartoonish collection of curiously Mauritian-looking children (mini Obamas?) in study and play, framed on the left by mothers cooking on an open fire, on the right by Mickey Mouse and a long-horn Ankole cow. I sit in the car for a while, watching Cologne FC assembling on the bog in front of the mural, and listening to BBC World Service radio: a tribute programme for broadcaster Charlie Gillet, who reportedly coined the phrase ‘world music’ and who died last week. They play a song called ‘Sans Mystère’ by a Berlin band called Seventeen Hippies, said to be a firmly obscure favourite of Charlie’s. It is exquisite.

The low-lying pitch is absorbing all the run-off from the bypass and would be better suited to mud wrestling or pop festivals than football. I squelch past the guys in yellow strips, take my mural snap and stoop to show it to a bunch of kids hanging out in the rain. (At least you can do that with these digital things, even if you never figure out what all the buttons and beeps are for.) Cologne captain Sandy strides over, wiry and firm of purpose, carrying a beer can he has not been able to resist crushing out of shape before it is finished. A can of beer is a pricey item in Kampala, double the bottle price, a sure sign Sandy takes his Sunday matches seriously, and he is pissed off about the no-show opponents. I am puzzled: we keep hearing about how the mobile phone is revolutionising Africa, so how come a dozen guys are stood up in the rain like this?

I ask Sandy if he went on Saturday to watch the Ugandan national team trounce Burundi 4-0. (We lot went, our family I mean, although we only saw half the match because it took hours for the turnstiles to cope with filtering the 10,000 or so fans into the Chinese-built 80,000-seater Mandela Stadium; what would they do if they ever had a real crowd?) Of course Sandy didn’t go. He was in a bar somewhere watching the English Premier League. Cologne FC Bbira, he tells me, is not quite in the Ugandan Super League but in one that’s more like the English First Division, only not the national division, nor the corporate division, but the area team division for that part of Uganda which is still the Buganda kingdom. Football is evidently as layered and segmented as politics.

I ask if they ever practice on the East Kololo Primary School patch, which is cut into the hillside just down from our house. It is almost entirely lacking in grass—due in small part to the daily discharge from the bladders of my little dogs, who take me walking there each morning—but a surface so well drained that it would work equally well for tennis or ptonk! The staff from Museveni’s Chinese-built State House hire it for Tuesday afternoon practice, and on Saturday mornings several southern Sudanese teams compete there. No, of course Cologne FC don’t practice in such a genteel place, too far, costs money. But Sandy has sensed an opportunity. ‘Would you like to join us?’ Sandy, I’m an old guy with two left feet and both knees fucked and I know nothing about football. ‘But you can manage us.’ Thank you, Sandy, I am honoured. I give him my name card and promise to think about it. I know he will phone.

The janitor of East Kololo Primary school, a tall dignified oldster from Gulu, greets me every morning, and we often while away the odd minute while the dogs snuff about for bones. Six months ago, with painful delicacy, he begged a contribution for his son’s fees at Gulu University. I can’t imagine what quality or use the IT qualification will be, but the request was irrefusable.

Just a few stops more. There’s another Obama tribute: a vendor of ‘rolexes’ (fried meat and veg wrapped in chapatti) who has wreathed his stall in white plastic sheets proclaiming ‘White House. Yes we Can.’ After snapping that I am physically captured by a small woman of indeterminate age and language, nothing I understand anyway, reeking of waragi, the local hooch, who has something urgent to communicate. We dance down the road out of all step but manage to compromise on a destination, the portal of a bar, four plastic tables under a roof of planks, and appeal to the bartender for interpretation services. It turns out my companion wishes to be snapped. ‘No Hungover. No Headaches. Smooth and Gentle’ claims the ad for Royal Vodka which, without my noticing at the time, appears to right of subject in the resulting portrait. An old TV set is also in frame, advertising Moonberg lager.

At the Kasubi taxi stage there’s a happy healthy family ad for Riham powdered fruit drinks. I chat to three youngsters running one of the adjacent second-hand shoe kiosks, this one specialising in spangly ladies’ footwear, bought in the Owino market downtown and traded on here with a tiny mark-up. They pay 150,000 shillings rent a month, 400,000 for a yearly business licence, but have only just started up and can’t tell me yet how many pairs they need to sell each week to show a profit.

The shoe guys direct me to the Chinese herbalist kiosk that I’d spotted round here last week. Alas, it is all locked up—traders next door tell me it really is run by two Chinese people who I will have to come back and meet—but the signs listing remedies for everything from psoriasis and gout to ‘lack of reasoning ability’ and ‘nagging personality’ are irresistible (although I’m after a meaningful miscellany here, not just clever-clogs sniggering.) Help also available for loss of sexual drive and ‘organ volume.’ Snigger. No Chinese script, sadly; I am curious to ask them why not.

At the tombs

The night the tombs burnt down Kate and I were at an Irish Embassy do for Paddy’s Day. We heard about the fire after midnight when a friend of Enrique’s texted him the news. We passed an anxious night for this surely could have sparked a major conflagration. The Baganda are so pissed off, so full of repeatedly cheated pride. Cheated by the colonialists into becoming just a part—the superior part, they were encouraged to feel—of a bigger notion called Uganda; cheated by Obote in 1966, their king sent into exile; cheated now, they feel, by Museveni, another false ally. And there goes their great cultural edifice up in smoke. Like the Owino market fire last year,) few would be able to believe it might have been an accident. It had to be arson.

The next morning I took a boda to investigate but arrived, glad enough to be late, after the shooting. Now there were just a few score heavily armed soldiers strung along the road at ten metre intervals to seal off the site. Neither nervous nor cocksure, they watched without eye contact the throngs of people brooding among the petty business shacks. It looked to me like a proficient deployment of might, the situation locked down. In the market behind I got caught up with clusters of restless, angry Youth. We couldn’t communicate properly but to me they seemed as bewildered as enraged, not really knowing where to put their anger. I asked how the fire started and they said ‘the government’ but I felt they lacked conviction. It makes so little sense. There is matter here for a webful of conspiracy speculation but I have not yet heard any plausible argument as to who would stand to benefit from playing with fire on such a grand scale, who would be insane enough to think they could predict and manipulate the consequences. I went away with no understanding of anything, just a little photograph of the present King Ronald—photoshopped alongside his dad, who died in a London garret, and superimposed over the iconic tombs—which the angry youth had insisted on selling me.

Selling. That little bit of commerce perhaps a sign that the system will withstand the shock; that, because no-one really knows what happened, restraint would prevail over blind retaliation. It seems to have turned out that way, so far anyhow. The Baganda store of grievance is augmented, matter for future recrimination no doubt, for disputed commissions of enquiry and hot debate, but perhaps the need to trade, to buy and sell pairs of spangly shoes, to kick a ball about, to cure psoriasis, to kneel in church and dance in clubs . . . perhaps ordinary things will smother heroic conflict. Or perhaps that’s just market claptrap.

That night at home I listened to Christy Moore’s song, Minds Locked Shut, about Bloody Sunday in Derry, 1972, its understated power surging through the simple naming of those shot dead:

Jackie Duddy and Willie Nash,
Gerry Donaghy, Willy McKinney,
Gerard McKinney and Jim Wray,
Johnny Johnston, Barney McGuigan,
Paddy Doherty, Kevin McIlhenny,
John Young, Mickey Kelly,
Hugh Gilmore, Micheal McDaid . . .

It happened on a Sunday afternoon
On a lovely bright crisp winter’s afternoon
On a perfect day for walking.

This Sunday I am greeted at the entrance to the tombs by one of the erstwhile tour-guides, 28 year old George Senteza. It is a sullen greeting at first, since he (accurately enough) suspects me of voyeurism, but he begins to melt as he recalls me visiting before (twice, in fact) when the great, thatch dome still stood in regal glory. It was impressive enough, but I am not an antiquities person and it was not the architecture that interested me so much as the fluency of the guides, the sure grasp of their narrative, stated with a modest kind of ardour and just the occasional flicker of contempt for touristic stupidity. This was not just a group of guys who have learnt some spiel, but a brotherhood.

George recently wrote a new guide book, Inside the Kasubi Tombs. It is a great improvement on the old one, which was an incoherent cut and paste job peppered with alarming assertions about the manifest superiority of Ganda culture. George’s is far more sober and structured.

A pile of ash is not much to look at. More eye-catching is a heap of twisted steel girders—the heat!—which, George tells me, were incorporated during restoration works in the 1930s. I don’t remember that being mentioned in the earlier narrative, which insisted on the structure’s pristine and traditional nature. I venture the thought that the blaze might have been sparked by drift from the domestic fires of the lady clan elders whose huts circle the compound. George rules that out brusquely: it spread too fast, he asserts, must have been kerosene, though I doubt he ever majored in fire science. He will not be drawn to speculate on possible culprits or motives, though; which is a good sign, I think. He points out a woman of 90 who was sleeping inside the straw dome when disaster struck, and who they got out just in time.

‘There were a million people here yesterday’ George tells me, when the King came to mark the first week of mourning. Arrant nonsense, I’m sure: some tens of thousands, more likely. Enough, though, to cause at least one nameless accidental death, the papers said, and dozens more injured in the crush. Better to take a leaf from Moore’s songbook. Do not overstate the dead, but name them.

What will happen to the guides now there’s nothing left to see? ‘Pshh!’ George says, the same impatient noise with which Stella dismissed the question ‘What does your family do for money?’ ‘This is Africa!’ he tells me, that tiresome cliché. But I think he is saying something meaningful when he adds that ‘When things happen we just survive.’ Resilience is the story.

Home via Kamwoyka, stopping to snap the Amazing Grace Adult Education Centre, a shabby structure that is Laying A Foundation For A Bright Future, and to enquire at the grocery shack opposite who buys the Pampers diapers it advertises and sells singly. Who down here could possibly afford 2,000 shillings per baby shit? The question is not understood so I am left to guess that it is for Sunday best, maybe just weddings and birthdays.

Kampala, April 1 2010

Postscript (April 28)

Sandy has been in regular contact, the first call coming at 11.30 pm the day after we met. Two Sundays later, Kate, Enrique and I went to watch his team play another match. They are quite good! Have apparently finished the season second in their league. But it was not a team manager, I think, that Sandy wanted, so much as a mascot: an ageing white guy to stand on the sidelines and wave his arms about, like the managers on TV in the European leagues.

Last week-end he invited me to a service to commemorate the first anniversary of his grandfather’s death (the family being Catholic). About fifty friends and relatives gathered in the back yard of a house that was moderately poor but not desperate. We listened for an hour to a loquacious priest, handsome in a blue surplice and accompanied by a woman assistant in a smart red suit with a plunging neckline. Then people took turns to stand up and make their own speeches, mostly consisting, Sandy said, of advice to his Uncle Gideon, who now succeeds the dead man as male head of the family. It was all in Luganda so I didn’t understand a thing, but quite enjoyed watching the children playing in a wrecked Toyota van, a taxi once driven by Sandy’s brother, which now lies in the yard right next to where they erected the altar table. Behind, women were preparing vats of food over open fires. A small boy, I noted, was deployed to jump up and down on a yellow plastic jerry can—the ubiquitous water container for that overwhelming majority without a mains connection—which was directed at the fire and served as a bellows. Quite ingenious.

Stella, it transpired, does not have a phone of her own, but occasionally borrows one to call or send text messages like this:

“Hello Nicholas good morning, just to tell you that im not feeling well since Wednesday and ihave not even got any treatment ,im just down at home cause i have no money for buying medicine i cant even go to the university please help me this phone is for my friend i don’t have aphone.”

I eventually made time to call on her. She does not, it turns out, live at the Makerere women’s hostel, which is currently under construction, but in a tiny room behind it, part of a maze, a hive of concrete cells with no discernible place to wash or cook. The room contains only a grimy bed, a stool, bedside table, and a few cooking pots.

Stella’s daughter, it turns out, is in fact a son: Kenneth, aged around 8 months, a sturdy little chap with a good fuzz of hair sprouting from the back of his head, who crawls about our feet and dribbles on them as we talk. There is ‘a girl from the village’—aged 13, Stella says, but looks about 7 to me—who is the answer to the childcare problem, and shares the room with them.

The story now seems to be this. Stella’s not from Gulu, she’s from Soroti. She went to Gulu a couple of years back to stay with relatives ‘in the village’ and met Kenneth’s father there . . . they would be married now except that he has nothing for the dowry. She had the baby last summer and arrived at the University in the autumn with half of her first term’s fees paid by an aunt, in Soroti, who has since died of AIDS. It is possible that the AIDS detail was crafted to appeal to the sensibilities of soft hearted bazungu, but I doubt it. I don’t see much guile here. Probably I’m the only mzungu Stella’s ever met. And people drop dead all the time, drop out of school all the time. Sandy did a year of Tourism Management, that other great employment hope, before the family funds dried up—perhaps when that Toyota Hiace taxi went off the road; he hasn’t had a job since.

I ask about her studies, and she scrabbles under the bed to retrieve some course materials: a handful of smudgily photocopied papers, lecturers’ notes citing other texts written in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. My general impression is that Stella would need a brain as big as Amartya Sen’s to come through this with much grasp of the subject; but I see no particular sign of cerebral magnitude. She’s fairly brisk, though, on the accounting side, promptly producing the University’s list of fees. It’s quite complicated, so much for this, so much for that, and then of course there’s rent for this dingy room, money for food and, after all that, a little something for the young childminder. As far as I can see it would take at least 8 million shillings (USD 4,000) to get her through the whole degree; yet if that money fell out of the sky—and she appears to have no other hope, much less strategy, for getting it—I can’t help thinking that she’d be better off using it to set up a spangly shoe shop in Gulu or Soroti. Either way there’s nothing I can do to help. I come away feeling guilty, leaving them just to survive.