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Published: July 19th 2006
Posing for the camera after the rafting
The hell came to the fore under Idi Amin. Greed defines much of African politics and it was under him that Uganda rapidly deteriorated into chaos; a situation that is still mirrored today in many African countries. Uganda had just been on the verge of a civil war, when Dr Obote, Prime Minister of Uganda in the 1960s, carried out a coup to abolish the Bugandan monarchy, before setting about gaining absolute rule a few years later. Amin, then the Army Chief of Start, started to show himself for who he was when, accused by a Colonol Okoya of stealing government funds, this colonel was mysteriously shot dead with his wife. Amin bided his time, and when Obote went to Singapore, another coup was arranged, leaving Amin in power, a move ironically endorsed by the naïve British Government. The reign of terror began.
Travelling through Uganda today, which I’ll come to shortly, after this briefly shocking history lesson, it’s amazing how well it’s recovered, for one could say it went through a pretty bad patch. All political activities were suspended, and over the next 8 years, the army killed over 300,000 Ugandans suspected of opposing the regime, sometimes with the
use of sledgehammers by torturers in prisons and police stations - the screams often being heard around the clock from buildings in Kampala. First, Amin focused on a few tribes, wiping out entire villages at a whim, before turning his attention to the professionals that might have posed a threat to his regime - professors, lawyers, doctors, all dragged from their offices and never seen again.
He was kind enough to oust, rather than kill, the entire Asian community, though allowing them to leave with nothing but the clothes they wore, picking up the $1billion treasure trove of goods they left behind, to sell for guns and Mercedes. The inflation rate rose to 1000%, hospitals closed, cities became garbage dumps, factories ground to a half, and wildlife was gunned for food. The tourists decided it was time to leave too.
Due to the slightly bad economic situation, Amin was forced to delegate more and more power to the provincial governors, who became virtual warlords, and the only outside ally was Colonel Gadaffi of Libya, who provided guns and a little money, though not enough to help pay the soldiers. As a result, Amin needed a diversion to overcome
the restless army and intertribal fighting that had broken out. For an insane man, what better way to do this than decide to start a war with Tanzania, for pretty much no reason?
After an initial worry, Tanzania eventually won with the help of Ugandan Liberation groups, though it took half a year to do so. Kampala fell without a fight, and Idi Amin fled to Libya, before being thrown out there also, to live in Saudi Arabia to this day. The war cost Tanzania $500million, and no other country has ever made a contribution, including Uganda. Consequently, back into chaos Uganda went, as this time, it was the Tanzanian soldiers that turned on the country - looting shops at gunpoint, hijacking trucks and killing more wildlife. Gangs of armed bandits roamed free killing at will, and hospitals once again closed.
Now things get complicated for a while. Tanzania installed one President for Uganda, but changed its mind and installed another President, Binaisa. However, a couple of senior Army members opposed a few of his policies and so placed Binaisa under house arrest. The army then set about co-ordinating a new election, which was won by Obote (remember
him from the 1st paragraph?) who had returned to a warm welcome by forgetful Ugandans, although the election was still naturally rigged.
So here we go again - favouring certain tribes, Obote set up ‘The State Research Bureau’ which, between you and me, was the Secret Police. Prisons filled up and the screams began again. Mass graves were unearthed, Western journalists expelled and absolute rule was once again nearly achieved. Fortunately, he was stopped by yet another coup, this time led by the army, and specifically, Tito Okello. Of course, you understand the pattern now - Okello continued where the others stopped - for a fourth time.
As such, the fighting wasn’t to stop just yet, as a new group was on the rise, the National Resistance Army (NRA), led by Yoweri Museveni. But this was not your average army - new recruits were indoctrinated by political commisars and taught that they had to be servants of the people, stamping out corruption - those who stepped badly out of line were executed. Okello wanted a truce, but Museveni wisely did not trust a man who was turning corrupt and sour, and responsible for more atrocities. Finally, after months
Apparantly crocs don't like hippo meat
Which is a good thing for these cute hippos
of fighting, by early 1986, the liberator-turned-badman Okello was ousted to Sudan, and Museveni came to power. At last, the Ugandan nightmare had come to an end.
Despite the refugee problem from before, during and after the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, and the current problems of banditry in the North of the country bordering Sudan, Museveni has done a great job at bringing peace and prosperity to Uganda, arguably with the help of volunteers. In fact, there’s so many of them here that a standard question I get asked as a Westerner is “where do you work?”. Like Cambodia, Uganda’s history his hardly known in the West - I certainly had never heard about it - yet this history is still mild when compared to Rwanda, Sudan, Burundi, The Congo, Somalia…I can go on! Why does the West continue to ignore or washover such acts, 60years after Hitler?
It’s a question I’ll leave hanging as I finally get round to the point of this blog - what has little British Simon been up to this past week? Well, apparently, he can’t get enough of rushing water as he makes his way to Murchison Falls National Park in the
north of the country (where, he’s been assured, it’s much safer than it used to be - aka, the kidnapped tourists!). Again, unlike most who pay for an expensive tour, Simon decided to take public transport there and back, which, although took around 2 days, allowed him to see much more of the region than he would have otherwise done, and experience local life.
For example, he somehow miraculously found the right matatu in the crazy Kampala taxi park (see photo above) and took it to a small, dusty, provincial town called Masindi for the night, away from the tarmac roads of the south - a small, lively but sleepy place, full of shops selling bread and lightbulbs, and street stalls selling BBQd chicken and corn on the cob. The next day, he got another matatu full of chickens and 27 people (officially, they hold 14), down the Rift Valley Escarpment to Lake Albert and the Blue Mountains of the Congo in the distance. He was quite happy about the beautiful views, even if he was a little squished in the matatu. Finally, he got a boda-boda 30km into the park itself, balancing on the back with his bag
and tent, and waving to all the kids shouting “Mzungu! Mzungu!”.
Ok, back to 1st person. The Murchison Falls National Park was awesome. I arranged for a boat trip up the Nile to the Falls, a trip that took 2 hours, due to the nine South Koreans and I constantly stopping the boat to take photos of the amazing wildlife. There were literally 100s of hippos submerged in the river, or frolicking in the mud along the banks, and just as many crocodiles, peacefully living together. The crocs all had their jaws wide open, supposedly because of the heat, though I can’t help but wonder that they were actually greedily spying us, tasty human meat, sitting in the boat, that now started to seem futilely small… So we sped on, and eventually spied the Falls in the distance. From the incredible rumble, it wasn’t difficult. It’s a spectacular sight watching the water cascade through the narrow gorge, thundering to the river below, and I decided to get off the boat and explore the area, to be picked up again on the afternoon service.
To those that have never heard of the Murchison Falls, they’ve been described as the
most spectacular thing to happen to the Nile along its 6700km length, since the entire Nile is squashed into a space 7m wide and around 100m deep, making it possibly the most powerful natural surge of water in the whole world! I was able to get right up to the falls and feel the full force of the water flowing along the top, before plummeting into a narrow gap and disappearing (the water, not me), like opening a plughole. That’s one rapid I wasn’t going to be riding! I’m quite proud of myself that I, at least, have some sane brain-cells left to realise this.
Waiting for the afternoon boat to take me back I started panicing; I had managed to get myself into another precarious situation. If the boat didn’t come to collect me (and thoughts started running through my head that maybe I hadn’t made my situation clear enough to the boat driver), I was trapped at the Falls with no water or food left, no torch nor bugspray nor phone, and the camp only accessible along a 40km dirt-track. The boat was also coming up to be an hour late. Bugger. Fortunately, the boat eventually arrived,
I kissed the sky and my potential nightmare night was abated, as I waved to the hippos and the crocs, the impalas and buffalo for the last time.
That night, it rained and rained, and camping on relatively impermeable ground, it felt like I was sleeping on a waterbed in my tent! Then the following morning, I had some much-missed British delicacy of beans on toast, while watching the less-British pack of baboons playing wearily nearby, and discovering in the newspaper that the World Health Organisation ranks Uganda with the highest alcohol consumption index in the world! Well, fancy that - must be their local brew.
In the previous blog, I think I remember saying how I’ll be doing no more death-defying stunts, besides taking public transport. Well, this was definitely the case on returning to Kampala, hitching a two-hour ride on the back on an open truck which proceeded to drive at 80kph on a narrow dirt track. My bruised bum and headache were the least of my worries, as I was in fear of the truck seemingly trying to knock down the children and cyclists, like bowling pins at the roadside, or drown them in a
spray of dust. Even at this speed however, and with my hat and shades on, the children still managed to spot that I was mzungu, and shouted and waved accordingly, apparently not caring that their faces were now red with dust.
Back in Kampala once more, I spent my second and final weekend in Uganda in the company of the rafting ladies Caroline and Laura, and their friends Abby and Sophie, who kindly let me stay at their ‘Save the Children’ mansion for another couple of nights on the two-seater sofa, which fitted perfectly for the impish height that I am.
Among other things, we chilled out at a local hotel pool, ate like kings at an Indian restaurant, watched the sun setting on my final night over all of Kampala from a hilltop café (followed by watching all the lights go *poof* at exactly 7:30pm on two of the hills, for their turn at the power-free 24hours), and danced to some live music til the early hours at a cool venue, filled mostly (and pleasantly) with Ugandans rather than Westerners, where they strangely kept giving out newspapers as prizes (?).
I also misplaced my books in
Eating at the Indian
Caroline, Sophie, Abby, Laura, Bill and Moi
a taxi, only to luckily discover that the taxi driver was a resident at the pool hotel, so I got them back. However, these things always come in threes and has led to the loss of a decent pair of sunglasses (well…decent by Indian standards at $10), and culminating in $108 stolen. Gahh! I was so close to the end without a single crime against me. And the worst thing about it? It wasn’t any impoverished Africans, but four American 17-year olds sitting behind me at a noisy restaurant, who must have sneaked (snuck?) into my bag when I was too busy engrossed in eating yet another Indian meal. Why? Meh, these things happen, and still, if this is all that happens on my travels, then I’ve been very lucky, especially as I’ve heard of plenty of worse stories!
Just a small downer adding to the weariness I’m now starting to feel with only two weeks left, and wanting to go home. But I’m in the last country now, Tanzania, at the foot of Kilimanjaro as it happens (though I’m still waiting to see the summit through the cloud), so with a little exploration through the Usambara Mountains, then
Sunset in Kampala
plus electricity cables
on to Zanzibar, I’ll be back at Heathrow before you can say “fish n chips”. But these potential adventures, misfortunes and stories can wait until the next blog. Lots of love - the small bearded one. x
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