Friday, October 5, 2001
Images of Uganda as reported by an American traveling with his wife to her hometown in southwestern Uganda
Say "Uganda" to an American and the invariable response is, "Idi Amin." This is unfortunateas if the United States were to be forever associated in the foreign public's mind with Richard Nixon. (Both leaders relinquished power in the '70s.)
Amin is long gone and Uganda has recovered from its long national nightmare. With my wife Florence, who was born and raised there, I visited Uganda for two weeks this summer. I am grateful to the Mosquito for the chance to tell its readers something about this little-known but charming country.
Uganda straddles the equator in East Africa. It is bordered by Kenya and Tanzania to the east and south, Sudan on the north, and Rwanda and Congo on the west. The north is arid, but the central and southern parts are lush and fertile. It covers 91,000 square miles, slightly smaller than Wyoming.
Tribal kingdoms began to appear in the 14th century, and the Baganda, from whom the country took its name, emerged as the predominant tribe. Their language, Luganda, is today the most widely spoken African tongue, although English is the official language.
During the unseemly scramble for Africa that took place among the European powers in the late 19th century, Uganda and Kenya were temporarily lumped together as the "East African Protectorate" under the mandate of the British who controlled the Suez Canal in Egypt. Control of the mighty lake that fed the Nile, the source of everything that made Egypt relevant, seemed imperative. That lake was Lake Victoria, half of which lies within present-day Uganda and all of which was British territory at the turn of the century.
As in most of their other colonies, the British allowed Uganda a fair amount of self-rule, and an administrative structure was in place in 1962 when independence was peacefully achieved. As in so much of Africa, the dream of peace and democracy remained sadly unrealized.
The country has had a 'no-party" (in effect, one-party) but nevertheless stable government for 15 years now, with slow and steady economic growth. Because of this it is the darling of American, European and international aid groups, who despair at the never-ending turmoil elsewhere in the region.
A revealing conversation took place among Ugandans one evening after a late supper. Florence said, "Remember years ago when there was a 6:30 curfew, and anyone in the streets after 7 p.m. could be arrested or just disappear, and soldiers would come and take whatever they wanted? You can say what you want about Musaveni [Uganda's president] but at least it's safe after dark now."
Tourism is very big business in Kenya, but not in Uganda. Decades ago Uganda had game parks with all of the animals that touri sts come to East Africa to see, but wars and civil strife during and after the Amin years largely wiped them out. Most of the tourists to Uganda now are young, adventurous, back-packy Lonely Planet types who camp out and ride buses with the locals to see sights like Murchison Falls and the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, home of the mountain gorillas. Ironically, the near-decimation of wildlife in the past has led to a resurgence today, as there is plenty of habitat for high-maintenance species like elephants. Still, the range of facilities for tourists who need warm showers and cold wine in the bush is very limited.
The trade-off, of course, is that Uganda is, in that tiresome but unavoidable travel-writer word, "unspoiled." People are friendly and curious, more bemused by mzungu (white) visitors than intent on plucking them. Florence's word to describe her countrymen and women seems perfect: "They are humble." Not as in servile, but as in modest and pleasant. Food is plentiful and cheap, accommodations and transportation are reasonable, and life for the visitor is largely free of the understandable but nonetheless dispiriting hassles of more popular tourist destinations.
Like Rome, Kampala is built on seven hills. The capital of Uganda is home to over a million people. It is a clean, orderly place with the air of a provincial city. Kampala is to Nairobi as Boston is to New York smaller, calmer, quieter and cleaner. The red clay earth provides the bricks that most houses are made of, and the tile roofs as well. The view from one hill to another resembles Italian cities like Florence or Siena. Because of the showers that pass over once or twice a day, there is no dust. The climate is tropical, but without the steam-bath, Heart of Darkness heat and humidity that people associate with Africa. In fact, it is much like Honolulu. Mangoes, pumpkin-sized papayas and pineapples are plentiful, along with citrus, jackfruit, melons and bananas.
Ah, the bananas. Pale green, dark green, yellow, red; raw, fried, steamed and mashed; bananas are to Uganda as potatoes to Ireland. Florence's first home-made dish of matooke (beans, carrots, peas and a special kind of banana tragically unavailable in the Boston area) prepared by her sister came with a side dish of happy tears.
Our hotel in Kampala lay a few kilometers outside the city center, halfway up one of the seven hills and away from the exhaust fumes of downtown. (If I ever again complain about Massachusetts emission inspections, somebody please slap me.) With clean, comfortable rooms, a breezy veranda surrounded by tropical flowers, and a swimming pool and sauna/steam bath, it was a bargain at $38 per night including breakfast.
The Trip to Busanza
After two days in Kampala, Florence, her son Brian and I set out for the big family party in Busanza, the small village in the extreme southwest corner of Uganda where Florence was born. The national highway most of the way from Kampala in central Uganda is in excellent shape. The only bumps are intentional: speed mounds that force traffic to slow down when passing through villages. Florence's sister had gone on the previous day with non-perishable party components, so Florence's job was to buy peppers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, watermelon, papayas and peas. We found everything but the peas at roadside stands along the way. At one, a bystander told the vendor, "Charge her more, she's with the mzungu." Florence responded, "I don't know that guy, and anyway, it's me buying, not him," thus covering all bases.
For most of the journey the landscape was gently rolling savannah planted
in bananas, coffee, sorghum, sweet and "Irish" potatoes, and
cabbages. Cattle grazed in pastures, and goats were tended by children
with sticks. With fertile soil and reliable rainfall, Uganda feeds itself
and much of Kenya as well. Men toil up hills pushing bicycles laden
with bananas to a gathering point where the fruit is loaded onto trucks
and brought to the capital to feed the city dwellers' bottomless appetite
The tarmac ended and the landscape changed dramatically at Kabale, the last town before Kisoro. The Rwenzori Mountains that stretch across western Uganda and eastern Rwanda and Congo begin here. Further north they rise quite high (Margherita Peak on Mt. Stanley is 15,000 feet), but from Kabale to Kisoro they are really just tall hills. Steep tall hills. The trip over an increasingly narrow and twisting dirt road was (with apologies to William Blake) an eternity in an hour and a half. Brian and I divided symptoms between us: he got mildly nauseous, and I was petrified of looking down. Spectacular vistas unfolded around every hairpin curve, of steep terraced hillsides with trees, shrubs and crops, vistas that cried out to be photographed. I couldn't heed them, because it was all I could do to keep from crying out myself. I had made this journey once before, in June of 2000, but it was at night, and ignorance was indeed bliss.
Our morale took a further plunge when we came around a curve to find a large truck on its side with its driver patiently waiting for help. We eased around it and soon emerged into Kisoro, a frontier town (think "Shane") which only got electricity a few years ago but which is now a burgeoning commercial center for surrounding farm communities. So burgeoning that Florence got briefly lost in it, to her chagrin since she had been in and out of it her whole life.
The next morning we drove the short trip to Busanza up a one-lane dirt track and over a heart-in-your-mouth wooden bridge. To reach Florence's father's house one walks about a kilometer along a narrow trail with splendid views, and then up a steep slope through a banana grove.
Most of the town dropped in at some point during the day. The celebration was only incidental to our visit; the main feature was Florence's sister, her husband and their two-year-old daughter. Even though Agnes and Cariste had been married for four years, Cariste had never before been to the village and thus had not formally asked Agnes's father for her hand or established the amount of the dowry.
With the bridegroom and his brother and friends seated on sofas under an outdoor canopy, Agnes's sister Agatha and two other young women approached them and knelt down on a mat. The emcee (a cousin of the bride) asked the groom if one of them was his betrothed, and he said no. They retired, and Agatha and two other girls approached. Still no. Then came the bride and two more decoys, and this time Cariste approached her and gave her the bouquet he had been carrying. He asked for her father's blessing, and a family member whispered to me that in theory the father could have said no, and that would have been that.
Life in Busanza is very, very basic. There really is no town as such, just houses sprinkled over the rugged mountain landscape. No stores, churches or post office no permanent structures at all apart from homes. There is no running water or electricity. Kerosene lamps may be lit briefly in the evening and some people have transistor radios. Water is fetched up a steep slope from the river, and is supplemented by collected rain water. Some houses are brick from the local red clay, but most are made of earth spread over a framework of poles. A few still have thatched roofs, but the rest have galvanized metal. Food is cooked in a shed or lean-to over a wood fire.
Everyone in Busanza is a farmer, and the farming is subsistence, since Busanza is too far away from the road network to justify truck transport of its low-value agricultural output. On the weekly market day people carry bananas, sweet potatoes, reed mats and firewood to Kisoro to trade for things like salt, kerosene and batteries. People eat what they grow. Ground sorghum and millet are mixed with water to make porridge, and sorghum is also used in beer. Cassava completes the starchy everyday diet. Oh, and bananas.
Goats and chickens eat what they can find and are themselves eaten for special occasions. Cows give milk but are very rarely butchered. Eating beef is akin to spending principal.
Many older people in Busanza, including Florence's parents, never went to school because they were too poor. Free public schools exist now, but attendance is optional and some parents feel that merely learning to read and write is enough. The depth of Florence's gratitude to her parents, who, illiterate themselves, did whatever was necessary to educate their children, can never be measured.
Villages like Busanza exist all over the world. As population grows, increasingly marginal land is put under cultivation, and individual plots grow smaller. The bright, the energetic and the lucky leave, and never return except to visit. There are worse places, of course: everyone in Busanza still has food to eat.
Coming from opposite directions, both the wide-eyed romantic and the tough-guy realist might find something positive about that life. Being neither, we could not. Florence has some fond memories of her village in the past, but only sadness about its present and future.
I visited Uganda doubly privileged. My dollars bought me the luxe life, and through Florence and her family and friends I learned far more about ordinary people's lives than the average tourist.
An American in Africa can be likened to someone who has been allowed to step behind a two-way mirror and realizes he has been observed without observing. Africans know a great deal about us, we very little about them. They envy some aspects of our lives and are appalled by others. They go over or around obstacles which Americans would find insurmountable, but remain trapped by traditional social patterns.
Africa leaves indelible images in every visitor's mind. My deepest impressions are of Uganda's nightmare and its hope. First the nightmare.
Americans have largely forgotten about AIDS. In Africa it sits in every empty chair. At a restaurant in Kisoro, Florence ran into a man who had known her as a child. He set the ground rules: "Don't ask me about any specific person. The people I tell you about are still alive; the rest are dead." A woman in Busanza had nine children. Six died of AIDS and the mother committed suicide. After coming home and watching a story about the looming threat of West Nile virus from crows in Weston (Weston!), an imagination greater than mine is needed to picture America's reaction if the AIDS crisis were in our midst.
Finally, the hope. Everywhere you see children going to school. Gawky boys and girls in modest uniforms, shod in the city and barefoot in the country, running to school in facilities where most Americans would hesitate to board their pets, the fortunate ones with pencils and some sheets of paper, all desperate to learn. Teaching is an honored
profession. Education from the earliest years is competitive, and by middle school it is brutal. Parents weigh the reputations of schools based on scoring in annual national exams against the family budget, and literally go hungry in order to pay "school fees." The highest-scoring children advance through secondary school, and the very brightest go on to university , if they can afford it.
I see that I have not even mentioned the physical beauty of the people and the land. Towering thunderheads rolling in over the evening mountains, fog and dew melting off the bougainvillea in the morning as the hawks take wing. The Nile as it rushes silently out of Lake Victoria on northward to the Mediterranean. The lame goatherd who guided me to the top of the mountain behind Florence's home and waited patiently as I gasped for breath. Florence's two-year-old niece Dorothy with her impossibly big almond eyes, playing for hours with my plastic change-purse and taking forever to drink a Coke, sip by careful sip. The laughing, whirling dancers at the party, and Florence's father's big work-worn hands, so quiet in repose and so like those of my own father.
I'll conclude with my one regret: that I never had a chance to sit down for an hour or two with Florence and her father, and have him tell me through her translation what life was like when he was a boy. Sent to live with an uncle and made a herd-boy, he herded cattle and goats when predators still roamed the mountains. He had to stay with his charges in the bush overnight, when the big cats like best to hunt. I long to hear more details about his life: we'll do that interview when I go back next time.
© 2001 The Carlisle Mosquito