UGANDA: A COUNTRY RETURNS TO LIFE
Busia, Kenya, situated on the Ugandan border, is little more than a collection of faded pink storefronts, a dusty bus station, a half-mile truck queue backed up from the border station, and the bustle of human activity.
The atmosphere on the Ugandan side of the border is one of tension. The stares of the Kenyan people now seemed mere glances compared with the attention I received walking down the highway on the Ugandan side.
I arrived at a bus station and climbed aboard a bus, heading for Jinja, about two or three hours away.The people milling around the bus, particularly the men, were dressed in the ragged remains of shredded shirts. They gathered around the bus to peer in at the mzungu (Swahili for European) as I tried to relax under all the stares.
The conductor threw my pack on top of the bus, and people in the station watched with intense curiosity. I was concerned for the safety of my possessions. Finally, the bus departed, bouncing down the partially paved road. Several kilometers later the conductor called my attention to something ahead, and I glanced out of the window. Two bodies had been left on the edge of the road.
Nonchalantly, the conductor informed me that these men were caught stealing a goat the night before, and the villagers had killed them with pangas (an East African machete). They were left for a day as a warning to would-be thieves. I forgot about the safety of my pack.
The streets of Jinja were deserted. There were few cars on the streets, but no more than a handful of people. Walking farther, I noticed that the counters and shelves of the few shops that were open were completely bare; other shops were boarded up. In sharp contrast to the cities of Kenya, there was no blaring music to pace one's gait. No danger from roving taxis cruising at high speed; none of the old men who idle along the streets. Barren shops and deserted streets constituted the new urban landscape.
There were no manufactured commodities in Jinja. The cigarette trade was one of the few businesses. Small quantities of food staples such as rice and maize meal were available, but the price continually rises out of the reach of the people.
Fortunately, there is a plenty of fresh fruit. The diet of most Ugandans consists of matoke (plantains) bananas, or pineapple. There is almost literally nothing else in the way of food.
What clearly is abundant in Uganda are Tanzanian troops. These, attired in camouflage Army fatigues, walk the streets of the towns, though the only times they are armed are at key points: roadblocks, railway stations, bridges, centers of transport, and select outposts.
The soldiers are equipped with Soviet-type AK-47 assault rifles, which look more like toy machine guns than lethal weapons. The guns are strapped to their shoulders. The troops encountered thus far at roadblocks were cordial, efficient, and thorough in their work.
Later in the day, while I strolled through Jinja, a local restaurant owner named Gambetta invited me into his place for dinner. The tables were empty, devoid of tablecloths, salt or pepper shakers, or silverware. Several china shelves contained cups and plates; the other shelves were empty.
Mr. Gambetta, oblivious to the condition of the shop, handed me a plate of matoke and sat down. Proudly, he pointed to a wall mural depicting the restaurant as it was furnished prior to the war, complete with richly colored tablecloths, full china sets on each table, and customers in every chair.
He related his observations of the war in Jinja. The town actually suffered little physical destruction; a single plane dropped several bombs in the center of town one evening, and several banks were burned, but it was nothing compared with the massive damage of the southern towns of Masaka or Mbarara. Once the Amin troops evacuated the town, what they missed in looting, the local people lifted. Many civilian corpses daily littered the streets. Citizens were machine gunned indiscriminately if sighted by the retreating Amin forces.
Most people hid during this period, Mr. Gambetta said, or returned to their rural villages or those of kin. Others picked up abandoned weapons and joined the liberation forces.
Our conversation was interrupted by several young children in rags who gathered at the entrance to the restaurant. Mr. Gambetta invited them in for some fruit. "These children are among the thousands of orphans in Uganda today, " he explained. "Their parents were murdered when they refused the demands of the Amin soldiers."
There is, I discovered, a generation of "veranda children" in Uganda, children who sleep night after night under verandas or banana trees, surviving on what little food is given to them, or serving as smugglers' agents.
"One overlooked result of the Amin years," Mr. Gambetta continued, "is the impact on the social development and education of the youth of Uganda. A generation of children stand the chance of being lost to Uganda's future, and their rehabilitation will be one of the greatest tasks of the new government. Remember, education was not one of Amin's strong points.'
He explained that the current educational system in Uganda -- in those few schools that are open -- is based on the old pay-as-you-go basis, which excludes orphans, as well as the children of parents who businesses were looted or destroyed.
Several Gambetta friends came in, and it seemed almost a celebration. I asked if this was a special occasion. One of the men replied that "during the Amin years, a gathering of five people would be considered a possible conspiracy , and all suspects rounded up in order to disappear."
When questioned about reports of violence by Tanzanian troops, Mr. Gambetta laughed and retorted, "People opposed to the troops never met an Amin soldier."
When I finally left, my companions insisted on escorting me back to my hotel. The remembrance that stays with me of that evening was one of pride, defiant optimism, and confidence in the future of Uganda.
There was only one roadblock between Jinja and Kampala, the Ugandan capital. This was the only point during the entire trip that I was searched by a soldier, as was everyone on the bus.
Arriving in Kampala, the busy streets presented a vivid contrast to the eerie desolation of Jinja. Yet few shop windows remained intact, and signs of burning , looting, and bombing dominated the scene. Twenty-foot mounds of garbage dotted the street corners; the street sanitation system had yet to be re-established.
The majority of shops in Kampala were open, and a few even had a small stock of commodities. Though stores may have been empty, shopkeepers were perched behind the front counters as though it were business as usual. A Kenyan businessman I met near the market remarked wryly that it seemed odd to open a shop for business with nothing to sell.
Kampala's sidewalks are crowded with small displays of merchandise for sale by independent "businessmen." These rag-tag merchants offer two-year-old copies of Newsweek, Time, and other magazines, colorful postcards of downtown Peking, and calendars featuring the late Edward Mukesa II, the last King of Buganda.
Some of the men sported T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, "We are chasing the dictator out of Africa" -- with a graphic sketch of Idi Amin fleeing the jungle at the point of bayonets. Others wore shirts commemorating the visit of Pope Paul IV -- in 1969.
The women, however, were conspicuously well-dressed in the traditional Ugandan basuti. It is a peculiar outfit fashioned out of brightly colored East African textiles, featuring sleeves that protrude four or five inches above the natural shoulder line, giving the appearance of wings.
I stopped at every known hotel in Kampala in search of lodging and at each one the story was he same: full up. Given the turmoil of war, the dislocation of the economy, and the absence of tourists, the scarcity was puzzling. Several hours later, I secured a room at a rundown lodge near the railroad station.I had scarcely set down my pack when several young Ugandan men trooped into the room: the word was out that a mzungu was in town.
The majority of these people turned out to be refugees from Masaka. Most og the former residents of Mbarara and Masaka, two of the largest cities in Uganda that were razed in the liberation war, now live in the hotels and lodges of Kampala. There also is a large expatriate community that has returned to Uganda since Amin's ouster, further accentuating the tight housing situation.
Setting off for a place to eat and some privacy, I found few restaurants had reopened. After finding a small one, I was informed that it was only 30 minutes before the 8 p.m. curfew. The proprietor prepared my food quickly and urged me to hurry to avoid being shot or arrested. I hurried home through dark streets.
The road to the southern town of Masaka is a striking example of what has been termed Amin's "war on the economy." The width of what was once a two-lane paved road barely affords clearance for one vehicle, as the edges have eroded at least six feet on each side of the asphalt. The competition among vehicles passing in opposite directions for this precious smooth surface is intense and hair-rising. Indeed, it is a continuous game of "chicken," with losers facing a long journey to Nairobi, Kenya, for spare suspension parts for their battered vehicles.
This sorry state of the Ugandan road system, once one of the best in Africa, is a key bottleneck in reestablishing commerce and business. The roadside is littered with overturned tanker trucks and transport vehicles -- most of them losers in the competition for the paved middle strip.
Masaka was the first important town taken by the combined Ugandan and Tanzanian liberation forces last year. The town center was hit by Tanzanian Saba Saba missiles (literally seven-seven, the date of the founding of the ruling Tanzanian African National Union Party), and they were extremely accurate. Most buildings have been reduced to rubble, and reconstruction is taking place very slowly due to shortages of cement and other raw materials.
Back in Kampala there was a wait of several hours at a taxi park for a vehicle heading for Tororo, near the Kenyan border. The bus station was hopeless -- hundreds of people had been waiting all day for a bus. A train left only every other day. The confused frenzy in the taxi park saw stampedes of people converging on any vehicle pulling into the lot and forcing themselves into the back door before the occupants had a chance to alight.
Unlike Nairobi, where taxi agents hustle through crowds searching for passengers, the agents in Kampala try to enforce order. Once loaded, the vehicles depart, often with several would-be passengers dangling from the rear door. Twenty-six people in a Volkswagen bus is not uncommon. Fortunately, I was able to get into a vehicle with the Kampala Amateur Boxing Club en route to a match in Tororo.
Unlike Masaka, Tororo's buildings remain unscathed by war, but like virtually all Ugandan towns, Tororo was looted and pillaged. IN the Lions Children's Park , one youngster inquired if I were a spy. A number of youngsters insisted on writing their addresses in my notebook, asking me to send them books, a letter, a card, anything from the United States. The notebook slowly worked its way through the crowd.
One young man, Ocheng Livingstone, informed me that the grassy hills near this park were mass graves. When Amin's retreating soldiers gunned down dozens of townsmen, workers were told to bury the corpses as quickly as possible. Ocheng's parents were among those slain.
The match between tha amateur boxing clubs of Kampala and Tororo that Saturday evening was another sign of a country struggling to return to normal life. The match was held in the Hindu mosque which had been converted into a recreational building shortly after the mass expulsion of the Asian community by Amin in 1972. The old ring and faded canvas clashed with the colorful woodwork and ceiling fans.
I had the honor of being intoduced as the distinguished guest, and addressed the crowd prior to the match. I also was selected as one of the three judges for the evening's 13 three-round bouts. Little did the sponsors know that this was the first boxing activity I had attended, or that my neutrality might have been tainted by the ride to Tororo with the Kampala club.
Later, while I was waiting for a ride to the Kenya border, Ocheng Livingstone and several other youngsters from the park showed up. Ocheng said they wanted to see me off and had nothing else to do.
"We are just here," he muttered, shuffling his feet in the sand and looking off toward the hills.