Everyone said, why Uganda? Like me, they associated Uganda with the brutal rule of Idi Amin in the 1970s, with military coups and civil uprisings. A few years ago there was a terrorist bombing at a sports stadium. Why would anyone want to go there? And I asked myself this when the possibility of some work arose – was I prepared to conduct workshops in Kampala for a new secondary school examinations curriculum?
I decided it would be an adventure. I opted to go for the shortest period of time. I had my yellow fever shot and procured malaria medication. Then – second thoughts, too late because I’d already committed – I had to complete various forms including a ‘proof of life’ form. I had to provide questions that only I could answer. In other words, if I were captured, what questions could Australian authorities put to me to ensure that I was still alive, and what code words and gestures could I use to tell them I was being tortured? I told myself that other Australians do this frequently. I thought of journalists. It is just a procedure mainly to indemnify one’s workplace. The exercise was quite confronting.
Entebbe International Airport reminded me of Rockhampton or maybe Townsville. The countryside is lush and green with clumps of banana palms. We flew in over the expanse of Lake Victoria (there is also a Lake Albert, named, I presume, when Uganda was a British Protectorate).Uganda is close to the Equator but at a high altitude, so the temperature stays in the mid 20s C throughout the year – a perfect climate. We left the Emirates Airbus 338 by stairs and then scrambled into what one might call a customs hall to complete our landing cards, which had not been handed out on the flight. A long wait, ultimately to be released into Africa after paying for a visa in $US50 cash – the notes to be 2006 or newer. Everyone else was fingerprinted but the guy on the desk forgot to take mine. I thought this a blessing at the time, but later wondered what would happen if I were wrongly accused of a crime. No need to worry about obtaining currency or deciding what kind of taxi would be safest, we were met by a driver who drove us the 40km or so to our accommodation.
All along the roadway from Entebbe to Kampala are market stalls or fragile structures that serve as shops for anything – food, clothes, furniture or refrigerators. I tried to ignore the live chooks in cages. The vendors looked contented, although not many people were buying. The trick is to have God blessing your produce; the ‘God is Love Supermarket’ and, particularly puzzling, the ‘Psalm 23 Unisex Hairdressing Salon’. The soil is reddish gold, there are piles of green bananas, food growing everywhere – maize, vegetables. The roads are rutted. In the centre of Kampala the main streets are sealed, but the roads to our accommodation and our workplace are unmade, with ruts so deep I feel one would need a four-wheel drive even to get around the city. The drive from the airport takes nearly two hours. It is a single lane carriageway all the way and the traffic is heavy.
Forest Cottages is set in what is probably a well-to-do suburb of Kampala. Quaint ‘apartments’ with no regard to Occupational Health and Safety. A colleague from Kenya thought they were grotty, but I rather enjoyed the quirkiness and found them far more refreshing than a conventional hotel. For a week I couldn’t read in bed at night – the first night I tried to adjust the power cord of my light and the whole power point came out of the wall. I asked for it to be fixed. It was. The power cord stayed plugged in, but then the light itself gave out. I decided it was too complicated to ask again, so tried to read by my flickering torch that needed a new battery, which I didn’t have time to buy. My ‘apartment’ was on two levels; a kind of living room on the top floor (which I didn’t have time to use) and a bedroom with a mosquito-net-covered bed and small desk on the lower floor – this was reached by a precarious wooden stairway – no bannisters. I came to relish a cup of African instant coffee, which I sipped at six in the morning as I prepared for the coming day.
We held our first meeting with the exam authority the day after we arrived. A meeting room had been booked, but it was nicer to sit on the Forest Cottages lawn, surrounded by tropical trees, interesting birds and large carved animals – including a kangaroo! This lawn provided respite after an 11 hour day of work – just the place to sip gin and tonic. After the first day of plenary sessions we had two shots of gin.
I was working mainly with a Creative Arts group; warm, enthusiastic people with deep soft voices. They had written a song about changing the curriculum. There was a spirit of generosity; no problem to photocopy at a moment’s notice, or to provide ring-binders and a hole puncher. The generosity extended to food; a choice of two types of food such as scones, for morning and afternoon tea and lunch was hot, with many dishes to choose from. I asked whether they usually eat so well. ‘The food is fresh,’ said one woman as she eased herself into her chair. Everything was wholesome.
I hadn’t expected Kampala to be so middle class. Of course, the people we were working with were middle class. But I’d expected to see beggars. I’d expected it to be like India where children are trained to run up to your car and bang on the windows, or an elderly person shoves the stump of an amputated arm under your nose. Although we drove along many roads, I didn’t see a beggar. I’ve been to Botswana, Colombia and Saudi Arabia, so I wasn’t alarmed by the presence of armed guards at the entrance to all buildings. Your bag is searched before you go into a supermarket (not afterwards), there was an armed guard at the iron entrance gate to Forest Cottages and a guard with a truncheon kept watch within the grounds.
One evening we went to the Ndere cultural centre. There was a show of local and other African dances and music – vibrant, colourful, passionate. I couldn’t help noticing that the dancers were leaping around on a hard brick surface.
The best evening of all was when we went to the home of a colleague I had met in Botswana. Now retired to his home town, he had been managing the examinations centre. He lives with his wife in a spacious bungalow and the whole extended family had been invited to meet us. His daughter, who is CEO of a world AIDS organization, collected us and also drove us home. Another daughter is a civil engineer, another works for an international food agency and one son is a teacher. There was a delicious spread of African food. The most touching part was the end of the evening when there were family prayers and they all clasped hands and sang in harmony.
I know that parts of Uganda are very unsafe – it is dangerous to travel up north – precarious because of road conditions and wild animals as well as terrorist threats and rebellious tribes. But I shall take away from my very brief and sanitised experience a picture of that family who have blended their lives of spiritual devotion with the reality of a 21st century world.