Coming to terms in Uganda

It is one of the great natural spectacles of the world, when over a million wildebeests and hundreds of zebras and Thomson’s gazelles join them.  It is a feast for the eyes for tourists and a real feast for the hungry hyenas, lions, crocodiles and other carnivores who trail them.

 (Daily Times, 26 December 2012)

It is said that one goes to West Africa to view the diversity of human cultures and to east Africa to see wildlife.  Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda are renowned for their wildlife.  Kenya is home to the Masai Mara National Park and, just across the border in Tanzania, is the larger and more famous Serengeti, both renowned for the epic wildebeest annual migration. It is one of the great natural spectacles of the world, when over a million wildebeests and hundreds of zebras and Thomson’s gazelles join them.  It is a feast for the eyes for tourists and a real feast for the hungry hyenas, lions, crocodiles and other carnivores who trail them.

Uganda is regarded as a great tourist destination in Africa – it has nearly everything that a visitor would like to see: waterfalls, rivers, lakes, mountains and wildlife.  The last includes the few remaining mountain gorillas in their natural habitat, who live a precarious existence here as well as in neighbouring Rwanda and Congo, all wracked by poverty and conflict.

My own encounter with Uganda last year was a bit scary.  In fact it was the low point of my African trip, for a number of reasons.  My bus dropped me in the centre of town after a six-hour ride from Kisumu in western Kenya over a bad road.  Very exhausted and looking forward to a good night’s sleep after a hot shower, I took a taxi to my hotel.  The taxi dropped me in a dark and deserted street full of empty trucks with two to five storey buildings on either side.  

Feeling very vulnerable alone in such a place at a late hour in an alien city, I quickly made my way to the hotel reception on the third floor.  The lift was not working and the lights were out in the stairway.  The hotel receptionist was very unhelpful, should I say dishonest, as regards the exchange rate. The hot water tap in my room was broken and the phone did not work.  When I was given another room next day, again the water tap in the shower was defective. 

My attempts to use my credit card to buy air tickets were unsuccessful. The ATM machine would not recognise my debit card and I was told by two travel agents and one airline office: “We do not accept credit cards in Africa.” It did give me a scare, for I had a long way to go.  But this was not true, for I was able to use my credit card in all the other African countries I visited.

When I wanted to buy a new memory stick for my camera, I was sold a used memory stick as new, that too at an inflated price. The salesman had not even cared to delete the photos.  It was almost certainly taken out of a stolen camera. Judging from the photos, a young white couple had been deprived of not just their camera, but also their valuable collection of photos from their visit.

I took a trip around town at the back of a motorcycle taxi.  Though a bit dangerous, it was not just the cheapest but also the best way to see town, giving me 360 degree views.  I asked to be taken to Makerere University, which was a highly regarded institution before, and for some years after, independence from UK in 1962.

My motorcycle-taxi was stopped at the gate by 4-5 policemen lying on the grass next to a receptionist’s cabin.  They smiled at me and asked why I was there.  Instead of answering them, I walked straight towards the female receptionist and asked her if I could go inside to have a look at the “famous university”.  As that did not appear to be sufficient reason for her to let me in, I added that I was a former university teacher from Pakistan.

The last point was considered a valid reason to allow me in, but I was told that my motorcycle will have to wait outside.  And because the campus was too large for a walking tour, I was advised to hire one of the many motorcycle-taxis waiting outside the gate, which were the only ones permitted to ply within the campus.

Thus, my campus tour was to take place on the back seat of an “authorised” motorcycle-taxi, while my old driver waited at the gate with his “unauthorised” motorcycle-taxi.  It is a rather big campus with old buildings, humming with students moving around, some strolling, some rushing. The atmosphere was not very different from universities anywhere in South Asia.

More interesting than the tour itself was my conversation with this motorcycle-taxi driver.  His was a tragic personal story but perhaps not exceptional for Africa. Speaking in a very melancholy tone, this soft-spoken man told me that his mother died of AIDS after his father had deserted her with him and his younger sister.  Helped by some very kind people and in constant danger from some really bad ones, he struggled on behalf of himself as well as his sister to stay alive and keep out of harm’s way.

When I disembarked at the campus main gate after the tour to switch motorcycles, the policemen at the gate waved me to see them.  When I did, they asked if I liked what I saw, and then asked for “drink money”. All they got from me was a smile, many thanks and a quick goodbye.  I resumed my tour of Kampala, for there was much else to see.

By Razi Azmi


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5 Responses to Coming to terms in Uganda

  1. Jacob Kipp says:

    Very interesting account of African travel by an experenced traveler and keen observer. Thank you for the insights.

  2. Javed Agha says:

    While reading your article, I compared East Africa of 50’s and 60’s with the East Africa of today. The beautiful sight of migration of wild animals is the same, whereas human side of the story has changed. What a pity. Just like the independence from the British did no good to the Indian sub-continent, same is true for East Africa. Razmi, thanks for an interesting article.

  3. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Razi Azmi Sahib has the ability to make us live what he experienced. His travel writings are a blessing for likes of me who will never see the places he visited. He shares valuable insights and of course gives brilliant descriptions.
    Thank you Razi Sahib.

  4. Kamath says:

    Hi Razi:
    I was disappointed to find that your column did not mention even once the citizens living fearfully of under Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s rule (1971-79).

    It was sheer brutality, disregard for law, expulsion of citizens of minority- ethnicity, torture, imprisonment and deaths of tens of thousands of Black Ugandan citizens : chaos and a chilling tragedy. I have listened to few first hand stories by few Ugandan Asians who had been expelled from the country overnight. They were lucky for they were helped by Britain. But then horrors faced by so many Ugandan Africans never came out. What you saw was the direct fallout of such a tragedy: insensitivity for human suffering, low self esteem, widespread corruption, disruption of economic production and distribution, poverty and now AIDS. One Ismaili acquaintance, I recall, wrung his hand, spat on the floor , cursed and wondered why Idi Amin , after his fall, was later given asylum in Saudi Arabia , a Muslim country .

    Anyway, your travel story in Uganda reminds me of just another of never ending great tragedies in our own life time or human history. I praise your courage for travelling and reporting from ‘uninteresting’ part of Africa!


  5. Razi Azmi says:

    More on Uganda and Idi Amin in the next article (already in press)

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