The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not reflect those of VSO

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Into Uganda - Part 2

Kampala is a traffic nightmare but, in one of those development paradoxes, mainstream economists often argue that this is good thing as it demonstrates the spending power of a growing middle class. It certainly makes Kigali, despite its surge in 4x4s, look like toy town in comparison. There are 33 regional languages in Uganda with English as the official one and the medium of instruction in schools and universities. It was odd being in a country again where you don't have to make any effort to speak a local language although many of the Bantu-related ones in the south bear a striking resemblance to Kinyarwanda. There is also a large number of Rwandan émigrés who have settled there as farmers following the many conflicts across the border.
Prior to the arrival of the British, Uganda was a series of autonomous kingdoms and during the colonial divide and rule period it was convenient to allow each kingdom a degree of authority. After independence this arrangement collapsed and although the kings of Buganda (known as the Kabaka), Bunyoro, Toro etc still exist, they are ceremonial positions. They get to have a nice big house and carry out cultural maintenance duties for their government stipend. In Masindi in the north west near Murchison NP, the beautifully restored Masindi Hotel is the hang out of the Bunyoro king who comes into the Ernest Hemingway bar most nights for a Nile Special.
Goat and chicken brochette sellers
Unfortunately, the night we were there was his evening at home with the missus so I got to join a group of fanatical Manchester United supporters instead watching the team come back from the dead to beat Manchester City in the Charity Shield season opener. The love affair with English football in Africa continues to grow apace. The Ernest Hemingway story is an interesting one as the famous writer, adventurer, womaniser and heavy drinker, not only propped up the Masindi bar in the early '50s, but suffered a horrific plane crash in Murchison sustaining the injuries and lasting pain that some say led to his eventual suicide in 1961.
With Eduardo and Simone
It was rare to meet someone travelling in Uganda who was purely on holiday. Nearly everyone seemed to be there, at least in part, on some form of goodwill or volunteer tourism. Nick, an English/Aussie, was trying to set up a viable fair trade coffee enterprise in East Africa; Maria from Madrid wanted to help orphans in Gulu in Northern Uganda brutalised by Joseph Kone and his egregious Lord's Resistance Army; hilarious Jeff, who ran a bicycle shop in New Orleans, was visiting to help kick start a bike rental business in Jinja; two young Brazilians, Eduardo and Simone, wanted to get involved in refugee issues but hadn't been accepted into the Somali camps in NE Kenya so were looking for someone worthwhile to do in Uganda; an Indian optometrist who had been kicked out by Idi Amin in 1972 and now lived in Canada, had come back to work with a group of expert volunteers on eye and ear related problems in remote eastern Uganda. In two weeks 10,000 people had been treated.
Village bandas
It wasn't all one way. A group of Dutch social entrepreneurs were visiting to learn from Ugandan small-scale traders on how to bring the human dimension back into the Dutch work environment. One of them, Jasper, was the most incredibly precocious 21 year old I have ever met. He was tutored privately from the age of three by his rich parents, started his own business at 12 and currently earns $1000 a day doing training workshops for large corporations in Holland. Wow! Imagine having the confidence to lay it on to a bunch of middle-aged suits at that tender age. And better still the suits seem to want it! I think I was just working out my arse from my elbow at 21. I would love to be the proverbial fly at one of his sessions as, despite my sociological background, a deep fog descends on my brain when someone starts rattling on about the intrinsic, value adding, capacity building merits of constructing social capital. One thing is sure; I bet the Ugandan traders they were learning from didn't use PowerPoint. And yet, Jasper wasn't achieving enough according to his super demanding dad, especially compared to his sister, who at 19 was only two years short of graduating as a doctor. They had become estranged and Jasper was soon going off to the US to study for a year at an Ivy League university financed by his own acumen. Initially, I thought of my early 20s - a lot of which seems, with hindsight, to have been spent sitting around listening to Dark Side of the Moon, Tubular Bells and the like trying to work out the meaning of it all - and felt envious of his rapid maturity. This is what happens when the mortality clock imposes a new appreciation of the preciousness of time. But, hey, gradual learning has its upside and at least I'm still on good terms with my two sons!
The crater lake  pic on the 20,000 shilling note
At one of the many beautiful crater lakes near Fort Portal in the west we came across an interesting volunteer programme where two Canadian women were helping plant native vegetation on the lake hillsides as well as set up a local library in the nearby village. A group of Spanish girls, each one more gorgeous than the other, were lounging around the lakeside reading fat novels. They had come for two weeks to teach (heavily accented) English to small children in an orphanage. We took a trip through the community protected forest with its plentiful Red Colobus and Black and white Colobus Monkeys, and bevies of Great blue Turaco until we reached the impoverished village where the library was located in a small roadside shack. Raggedy, barefoot children appeared out of the mud to stare at the pictures of snow-capped peaks and ancient temples in well-thumbed National Geographic magazines. The library door has to be kept locked otherwise the contents would all disappear and the Canadians, who were leaving the next day after a two month stint, said that a small amount of funding had been found to pay someone to supervise the library for an hour or so daily.
The rave up
Their imminent departure meant that we had arrived on the noisiest night ever experienced in crater lake country as a massive sound system was brought in from Fort Portal at the Canadians' expense and a goat slaughtered to celebrate the occasion. There was nowt else to do but join in and I danced non-stop for a couple of hours protocol dictating that I should hold hands with the African men and not the Spanish girls. That would have been too weird. And, by the way, I can assure you that not all African men have rhythm. I eventually went back to our Banda and crawled in under the mosquito net to join Stella who had retreated much earlier and was gamely attempting, by torchlight and with earplugs, to catch up on six-week-old world events in the Guardian Weekly. We didn't have mallets to knock each other out so went for more modern emergency sleeping pills which successfully blotted out not only the disco but also the torrential rain that fell during the night. Hooray for drugs - legitimate ones of course.
The village library

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