Uganda; Kampala tries to rebuild - and regain its dignity

Driving in from the airport at Entebbe toward Kampala, the visitor is struck by what a beautiful, verdant country Uganda is. Everything is green - the yellow-green of the banana trees that line the road, the blue-green of the grass , and the waxy green of the foliage.

The rich, red earth of Uganda is irrepressibly fertile. If you eat a mango and throw it on the ground, Ugandans say, two or three weeks later it will have sprouted, and in no time you will have a mango tree. ''We just put it in the ground and it grows,'' says one woman.

It is therefore a shock in this soothing landscape with its temperate climate , gently rolling hills, and the lovely Lake Victoria teeming with fish, to enter Kampala.

First there are the roadblocks, which have been a fixture in Ugandan life for several years. There are several on the airport road, and on every road leading into or out of Kampala. There are also roadblocks on most of the major roads throughout the country.

Sometimes these roadblocks are marked by nothing more than a branch in the road or a tin can. But if a driver does not stop, soldiers armed with automatic rifles may shoot up the car.

Roadblocks are reportedly less dangerous these days than they were two or three years ago. At that time, travelers were terrorized by men dressed as soldiers who may have been government soldiers or bandits or guerrilla rebels or the Tanzanians who had been sent to ''liberate'' the country from the bloody rule of Idi Amin. Often the travelers were robbed, and sometimes they were shot.

Now, although Ugandans complain that the soldiers at the roadblocks still fleece them for cash, the situation seems much better. But on the road to Jinja, the country's industrial center, for example, one can still see long lines of Ugandans waiting patiently next to their buses or cars as they go through roadblock after roadblock.

Kampala was once the hub of East Africa and made Nairobi, where the center has now shifted, look like a provincial backwater. As is common here, Ugandans speak of the ''good old days'' before 1971 and Idi Amin, when Uganda was, in Winston Churchill's phrase, the ''pearl of East Africa'' and Kampala was its gay , glittering capital.

But now Kampala is a shadow of its former self. After the liberation war in 1979 and the looting that followed, its skyscrapers stand as empty hulks, the hotels are in shambles, and the lovely villas set in the hillsides are stripped down, even to the lightbulbs and doorknobs. The shops still operate behind heavy metal grates designed to discourage thieves. Many buildings are boarded up, so dilapidated they cannot be used. The roads are filled with potholes.

Ugandans are rebuilding their capital, but they have learned to scale down their expectations. Most are resigned to the fact that the ''good old days'' are gone for good, and they are trying to salvage and improve what they can on a much more modest scale.

For beginning with the Amin period, there was a slow, steady deterioration in every sector of the economy, in the conditions of the roads, the factories, and the public utilities. The country went from an 8 percent growth rate to bankruptcy.

What Amin began was finished in the liberation war, as both the liberating Ugandan and Tanzanian troops and Amin's retreating forces also ''liberated'' the cities' cars, stores' inventories, and the like.

The damage done to the country during that period was not only physical, but also moral and spiritual. Order broke down, and people lost the ability to work together toward community goals. Residents who have returned from exile at President Milton Obote's call to help rebuild the country note the sharp rise in the rate of theft and armed robbery since they left.

The Uganda Times, the country's official English-language newspaper, which appears sporadically, carried an ad recently by the city's water pumping station. It asked for reports on the whereabouts of an employee who had stolen eight of its motors.

A factory manager who returned from exile complained that it was hard to get his men to work well at the factory. They kept wanting to tend their own garden plots, he said. This was part of a trend begun during the Amin years, when people left the cities and the danger of Amin's security forces to return to the countryside and subsistence farming.

A foreign aid worker recounts that when building supplies were delivered to a village for rebuilding the roof of the school, villagers stole the material to reroof their own houses.

The phrase the Ugandans use now for the process they are working through is ''moral rehabilitation,'' or the effort to restore a sense of dignity, of right and wrong, to a population that has lived too long with brutality, in fear and insecurity.

Even in this uncertain atmosphere, there are many Ugandans with the energy and desire to help rebuild their country.

The faculty at Makerere University and their 5,000 students are extremely motivated, in spite of shortages of books, paper, and pencils. An English literature class this reporter visited was lively. The students were articulate and eager for intellectual contact and exchange with the outside world.

Women have become more vocal. There is a desperate shortage of skilled labor in the country (during Amin's time 65 percent of the technocrats fled or were killed). So many women have found new avenues open to them.

There is another reason for the new prominence of women: Most of the Ugandans killed during Amin's time were men. (According to some counts, 300,000 were killed under Amin's rule, with many more killed during the liberation war and the ensuing chaos.) Many widows are now the single heads of households.

The national theater, whose last director was killed by Amin, cannot afford to keep a resident company. But more than 132 amateur theater groups are registered there, and the theater is open year-round.

The roadside market stalls, which had closed, have reopened and the government has raised producer prices on such export crops as tobacco, tea, and cotton to stimulate production.

Although economic indicators have improved somewhat, there are still obstacles to the smooth recovery of Uganda. Fear and violence are two such obstacles. Recently, several members of the ruling Uganda People's Congress party were killed on one day in separate incidents on the outskirts of Kampala. Reports of killings in different areas of the country also inhibit the distribution and transport system.

Many Ugandans fear and even hate the Army, which is underpaid and some of whose members are undisciplined. Even the government is unsure how many soldiers are under arms and is making an effort to build up the police force as a counterweight.

The atmosphere of insecurity is amply demonstrated by Ugandans' worry about being out after dark. At 2 p.m. people start toward home to be there by nightfall. By 6 p.m. Kampala looks like a ghost town. The theater gives its performances at 10:30 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. to give people time to get home before sunset. One still hears sporadic gunfire at night.

The security situation is worsened by the country's economic predicament. During the Amin years, the Ugandan economy kept going by reverting almost entirely to the black market and barter system. The official economy became, in a sense, meaningless.

In an attempt to eliminate the black market, the Bank of Uganda has accepted the suggestion of the International Monetary Fund to ''auction'' off hard currency every Friday to the highest bidder.

Currency exchange is controlled according to two different rates - Window 1, a lower rate for development imports, and Window 2, a higher rate for other imports.

The IMF's cure is showing some success. It is narrowing the gap between the government exchange rate and the market rate of the currency. But it is also giving rise to some distortions.

The most serious consequence of this is that Ugandan salaries bear no relation to actual costs. The salary of a Ugandan soldier, for instance, is 1, 000 Ugandan shillings a month, the equivalent of $4, enough to support him for three days. The salaries of civil servants are not much better.

So some soldiers continue to fleece travelers, and many workers hold two or three jobs. Others steal. Almost everyone grows his own food or has access to a family member with a farm.

A newspaper editor who wanted better coverage for his newspaper asked, ''How can I press my reporters to work when I know they cannot even feed their families?''

Nevertheless, many Ugandans have returned from exile - despite salaries they cannot live on - in order to rebuild.

The discussions these days in Kampala and its environs seem to center on the limited alternatives the country faces at this point. Many have voiced unhappiness with the country's current leader, President Obote, but others argue that there is no other figure of sufficient stature in the country at this point to lead it back to health.

But many Ugandans are impatient for the recovery of their country, hoping to build new and better structures than the old ones that have broken down.

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