Not nearly as touristy as its neighbours Kenya or Tanzania, Uganda is a country with a very troubled recent history, probably best known in the West for the catastrophic regime of Idi Amin in the 1970’s.
When I posted a picture of this funny – or scary – looking saloon/barber/cell phone store on Facebook a couple of days ago, I sarcastically wrote that the place probably accepted Asian customers, despite the sign reading they were open to “both black and whites”. After reading a little Ugandan history, I am no longer certain.
Idi Amin’s regime was one of loot and destruction on a massive scale. There was little in the ways of Government policy and local Army battalion commanders ruled their fiefdoms as small warlords, in parallel to what remained of the Government structure. The self-proclaimed “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular” (all titles, ranks and decorations self-awarded) ruled erratically, conveying orders by phone, radio and public speeches, having never learned to read or write. This probably made him the only illiterate Doctor of Law in the history of the World!
One of his worst decisions – but very popular both nationally and regionally – was to expel all Asians from the country. The mostly Indian minority was given 90 days to leave and their goods and businesses were confiscated. Indians composed roughly 1% of the population, but controlled a large number of businesses, small and large. Houses, cars and shops were distributed among military officers, but the most damage was done by the senior officers who ended up seizing the larger businesses, such as sugar cane refining plants. Even assuming they would have wanted to operate the businesses, these colonels and generals, almost all illiterate and promoted for reasons linked to tribal identity, loyalty to Amin and political manipulations, would have never been able to do so after the departure of all those who had technical expertise in the field. The businesses all failed and net income per capita fell by 90% during Idi Amin’s 8 years in power.
Sadly, this is basically the same thing Robert Mugabe, re-elected this week-end of August 2013 for a seventh mandate, did in Zimbabwe decades later. Since most of the large, very successful commercial farming operations in Zimbabwe belonged to white Zimbabweans, he seized them and distributed them amongst his lieutenants. These men, with no experience or knowledge of farming of any kind, made the best of it by selling the tractors and farming equipment to South African farmers, which resulted in Zimbabwe, once known as the “bread basket of Africa”, becoming a food aid recipient in the space of a few years.
Apart from a few tourists and expats, I met a lot of volunteers in Uganda, mostly from various Christian organizations. I am not sure how their contributions measure up, as a whole. Many have great projects to built irrigation systems, schools and hospitals, while others lobby the Government to introduce the death penalty for homosexuality and replace public education about safe sex with campaigns promoting abstinence. The so called “Death to Gays Act” is stalled for now, as the Government judiciously ponders its broader impact on the country internationally.
Enough about these catastrophes, Uganda today is a very pleasant and safe country to visit, if you can avoid getting killed in the traffic (and stay clear of a few border areas where you would have little reason to go anyways). I don’t believe I have ever seen a city where crossing the street is so dangerous. The worst problem, other than that nobody will ever willingly let someone pass in front of them, is that traffic goes on the left, or sometimes one way in some streets, but motorcycles don’t necessarily respect this, so you have to watch both sides, at the same time, all the time. You might not notice it, but in this picture, behind the crazy traffic, is a place called City Square, a nice grassy park that could provide some respite from the street. Unfortunately, it is completely fenced off and nobody can enter!
Having avoided getting killed in traffic, I embarked on a tour of more rural areas for most of the week. I rediscovered a reality of the African countryside, pedestrians. In this picture most have bicycles, and there are houses nearby, but often in Sub-Saharan Africa you see people by the dozens walking along the road in places that seem impossible far from the nearest buildings. Public transportation is very limited, and petroleum is incredibly expensive by local standards.
When you do have a means of transportation, you make the most of it!
Sometimes a little too much, like this truck full of charcoal bags.
There are little roads going into the countryside everywhere, but the main, paved road is the centre of business activity, with long lines of stores selling foodstuff, cell phone minutes and locally made furniture and household items. When roadwork results in part of the road becoming one way only, you can be stuck for several minutes waiting for your turn to go. Not missing the opportunity, locals improvise mobile markets along the queue. You’ll never want for a bottle of water or Coke in these places. Apart from kebabs, beautiful fruit and the like, they will also try to sell you things no tourist would ever buy, such as raw corn or potatoes, which always made me smile.
The transport of water is a lengthy and difficult chore that has to be completed each day in the villages. In the regions I visited, people didn’t seem to have very long to go to get the water, but in regions where it is scarcer, this task can occupy hours in people’s daily routine.
Often the local women transport the water on their heads, as you can see.
Our mode of transportation was quite reliable, probably because this Native American dream catcher warded off bad luck. Sometimes the world seems so small.
I spent three days near the town of Jinja, the source of the Nile. A few months and thousands of kilometres later, this water will be flowing in Cairo. I also discovered the iPhone is not that great for landscape photography, but that’s what I had on my balcony at the time.
It is however convenient for snapping shots of people playing dangerous drinking games, in a country where liability probably has a rather loose meaning in courts.
This game required my big camera. I wanted to try bungee last year in Zambia, but they had just shut it down after the cord snapped and sent a French tourist floating in the Zambezi River with her legs tied together. Maybe I’ll try it where liability laws are a little stronger. Not wanting to spend my days idling away, I went rafting on the White Nile and horseback riding in the countryside. Unfortunately, I only have video of these escapades, no pictures. For now, my internet connections would make uploading video rather difficult, but I will as soon as I can.
The little camp ground / resort where I was staying was a little expensive, but I enjoyed the 24 hour hot water. When I realized it was made possible by a few guys keeping a wood fire going all day and all night, I stopped caring about the price.
Ugandan stores get free paint, in exchange for advertisement.
Vegetables, sold by the pyramid, in some small town where our second van broke down.
Enjoying the bar in a solar powered “eco-lodge”… on a cloudy day!
I often order food without asking too many questions. In a nondescript restaurant downtown Kampala. I ordered a “quarter chicken massala”. Perhaps because I saw a few Indian expats in the place, I assumed I would get something like chicken tika massala, but instead I got this quarter roasted chicken with fries smothered in some Indian-like sauce. Not bad, if a little on the heavy side.
And finally, I like to observe different business decisions between countries with high and low wages. For example, you would never have a pop vending machine in a poor country, because paying someone to sit there with an ice box and sell them is cheaper than buying the machine and paying the electricity bill. Here I went to a photo studio to get a set of generic pictures in case I need them for visas. They gave them to me in a hand made envelope. Machine made ones probably cost a few cents, but asking someone making $3 a day to spend a minute and a tenth of a cent’s worth of glue to make one out of paper going to the garbage is even cheaper! It’s so small, I think I’ll keep it.
Next, waterfalls, animals and other things I visited in Uganda.