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

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Into Uganda - Part 3

We were in Uganda during a period of social unrest. Museveni has been in power since early 1986 and won a fourth term in government in February after a fiercely contested election which the opposition say was fraudulent. Since then inflation has spun out of control with the prices of some basic commodities skyrocketing. Rice, sugar and petrol have all roughly doubled in price and the Ugandan shilling has collapsed in value against the US dollar. An exchange rate of $1 = 1500Ush two years ago has now become $1 = 2800Ush. East Africa is one part of the world where the US currency remains very strong. Some places we stayed had decided to stick with previously advertised shilling prices which hurt them relative to the current dollar exchange rate, whereas others had chalk boards scratching the shilling daily rate as it escalated upwards. Unlike Kenya or Tanzania where some payments, especially those into National Parks, must be made in US dollars, Uganda has always been proud of accepting its own currency for tourist transactions. Not any more. Some operators were openly talking of all future tours and accommodation only being in US dollars. And the moral of the story is that unless you book from overseas, when it's usually done in $US anyway, remember to bring lots of greenbacks on your travels to Africa. Applies to Rwanda too. I wish I'd brought a whole lot more instead of relying on money changers at dodgy rates and of dubious character.
Lake Bunyonyi
As an aside, I nearly got rolled trying to get some street $$ in Kigali shortly before leaving for Uganda. It was a Sunday afternoon and all the official exchange places were shut when a nice, smiling fellow offered to help me out at a decent rate. Suddenly two other men appeared and blocked my way when the changer altered the agreed price. After trying to bamboozle me with zeros, the blight of all East African currencies - even pocket calculators get confused - I burst through their cordon with my cash like a front row rugby rucker. Out of the blue a well-dressed, fluent French speaker was at my shoulder. "I have just witnessed something terrible, monsieur. These are very bad men. Now can you reward me for helping you by sponsoring me in my studies for I am in reality but an orphan of limited means?" How much should I have given him: a) $2 or b) short shrift? I chose the latter but needed a Bex and two strong coffees back in the sanctuary of Café Bourbon. It has shattered my faith in Kigali's impeccable safety reputation!
View from Byoona Amagera island retreat. It means 'the whole life'.
Back to Uganda and the upshot of the cost of living increases has been a series of Walk to Work marches, led by the opposition leader Dr Besigye, highlighting the strain Ugandan families are under. Museveni has called demonstrators terrorists and wants to fast track an anti-bail law which aims to deny 'suspected rapists, rioters and economic saboteurs' bail until they have served at least six months in prison. There seems no doubt that this authoritarian measure is directly aimed at stopping any kind of protest to his increasingly dictatorial rule.
Luxury outside our geodome
Ordinary Ugandans were very outspoken about Museveni's 25 years at the helm. "Corruption is everywhere" was heard again and again. Certainly his NRM (National Resistance Movement) party mantra of 'stability and security", as an offset to the unstable years of Obote and Amin, is wearing a bit thin. "Give someone else a go" was commonly heard. But in keeping with other African countries, retiring doesn't seem to be in the Strong Leader's Manual. In fact, the African Big Men Elders Club reads like a list from Geriatrics Anonymous. Nguema from Equatorial Guinea, dos Santos from Angola and Mugabe in Zimbabwe are all in their dotage after an average of 30 years each in power. Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt and now Gaddafi in Libya have all exited the club and a journalist in the Ugandan Daily Monitor thinks that Museveni may be positioning himself to become the new Executive Elder of this less than illustrious club. He was only number 9 in the longevity hit parade two years ago but soon he may be a chart topper!
Geodome from behind
A series of mysterious street market fires broke out during our visit, at least two in Kampala, one in Jinja and another in the east of the country. Traders argued that they were started by mafia henchmen wanting their stalls removed to allow for the establishment of new development precincts. No one was caught for these crimes, or many similar previous ones, and it is testimony to the tenacity of the people that the next day, in all cases, they were back at their market locations rebuilding their flimsy stalls to start all over again despite losing billions of shillings worth of goods, without any kind of insurance cover.
View from our veranda across Lake Bunyonyi
It's a tough life by any measure in Uganda and it was natural to compare it with Rwanda. Judged by the number of motor vehicles Uganda is way ahead in the development stakes. From the stare factor perspective it also wins hands down. By that I mean there is a lot less of it! Ugandans are definitely more used to seeing white people around. When it comes to shoes, Rwanda wins. There is a law forbidding bare feet in the streets whereas nearly all Ugandan children in rural areas are shoeless. On the litter front, it's another win for Rwanda. Even Ugandans who had never been to Rwanda had heard how clean it was. This is certainly both a triumph for the banning of plastic bags and for the endless street and courtyard sweeping that goes on. On prices, however, Uganda is the victor. Despite the escalating cost of living, food, drink, accommodation and transport are still cheaper than in Rwanda. There aren't many places in the world where you can get a large bottle of beer in a fancy hotel for just over a dollar. In fact this was one of the arguments used by Museveni supporters in criticising the Walk to Work demonstrators - that things are a lot less expensive in Uganda than in Rwanda and you don't see people protesting there. On the friendliness barometer I'd like to call it an honourable draw. People are pretty welcoming in both countries. But I think the Ugandan kids may win with their chorused chanting of 'HOW...ARE...YOU' as you pass grinning gaggles of them by the roadside.

P.S. If you don't want to use the crowded minibus taxis (as in Kenya sometimes called matatus) to get around you can take motor scooters known as boda boda. Unlike safety conscious Rwanda, however, helmets are not compulsory, nor is one provided for the passenger. The word boda boda has a very interesting etymology. It turns out that in the early days of motorised transport between Kenya and Uganda, crossings between the two countries were known as going 'border to border' and one of the means of transport became a modified new word.
Inside the geodome

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