Every so often I stop and think that perhaps my posts about living in Uganda may sound just a bit negative. We actually enjoy living here, though it may not seem like it as I try and give you an honest picture of the country. It would be very easy to stick with the tourists’ view and concentrate only on swimming pools, Lake Victoria, Rwenzori Mountains, elephants and golf. Uganda is, indeed, a wonderful tourist destination and no one should be put off by the negative stories in the news. We happen to be going through a particularly troublesome patch politically just now, but you could be out in one of the national parks and be completely unaware of what is happening on the streets of Kampala.
So what is good about Uganda? Well, actually, even in Kampala you are really quite safe. If you ignore the current – and, we hope, temporary - risks of getting caught up in one of the ongoing protests, it is surprisingly safe to walk the streets, go shopping, eat out and do all the normal things which make life at least bearable and, indeed, really pretty pleasant. That doesn't mean that you don’t have to be careful, but it is being careful in the same way as in London, Paris or Rome. You can be mugged and have your phone or bag snatched, and we know people to whom that has happened. However, we also know people to whom that has happened in other major cities, including ourselves. Almost always, the people we pass in the street and meet in the shops are pleasant, helpful and friendly. We don’t drive at night outside Kampala, but that is common sense and has as much to do with the risks of driving into ditches, getting stuck in potholes or being run down by erratically driven buses and lorries as with fear of ambush.
Indeed, the friendliness and courtesy of Ugandan people is one of the first things which strike you. Going through Entebbe airport when we first arrived here was an amazingly stress-free experience, certainly compared to the threatening melee which greeted us at Yaounde and Douala. People are genuinely helpful. At first sight, the police are a bit off-putting, all of them armed with threatening-looking guns. However, as a mzungu you are perfectly safe. They are on the streets to control the local population and will be perfectly polite to you. Similarly, it is surprising to see so many uniformed ‘security guards’, almost all carrying guns, though some of the weaponry may look as if it’s been dug out of first world war trenches. You will also see soldiers patrolling on foot or on the backs of armoured cars or pick-ups. Again, it is not you they are looking out for. Even if you are stopped by the inevitable traffic policeman wanting a bribe to let you off some imaginary infringement of a non-existent law, he or she will be polite and patient as you and your wallet negotiate yourselves out of the situation. Remind yourself that they are badly paid, housed in horrible accommodation and live in a country where they’ve been surrounded by corruption since the day they were born.
|Looking over the plain: Semliki National Park in the west.|
|A common road hazard in Uganda.|
The driving is, of course, completely mad and the roads are terrible. The city has grown enormously over the last few years, the traffic has increased accordingly and the view out of the car window could hardly be described as scenic. In books published half a century ago you see references to the ‘Garden City’. Alas, almost all the trees have been cut down and jerry-built houses or shacks have gone up instead. However, there are worse cities. It isn’t particularly large, despite its recent growth. Traffic may be bad, but you can at least make progress in your journey across Kampala. Compare that with Dhaka. You soon get to know the ‘rat runs’ and short cuts, as in any major city. And the various hills give you landmarks to aim for.
If you have a bit of money, you can have quite a pleasant life here. You don’t need much. Although we do not find that our VSO/Link allowance enables us to live a life of luxury, indeed, quite the opposite, those of us with additional sources of income (like our pensions!) can live quite well. Kampala has a wide range of good restaurants, Indian, Chinese, Italian and Thai, as well as other ‘international’ eating places. African restaurants feature as well, although eating out has not been a normal part of Ugandan social life until relatively recently. Of course, we are also aware that food prices have been rocketing here and we are living quite a privileged life – by Ugandan standards, that is – a life which is beyond the means of most of the local population. Not all of them, of course. There are plenty of wealthy Ugandans who lead very comfortable lives. We see them at the swimming pools, clubs, supermarkets and coffee shops. They are the inhabitants of the luxurious mansions set in gated compounds in Ntinda, Kololo and Nakasero. In Kampala, being a small city, no matter how rich you are, you are never really far away from poorer housing, though. Down at the end of our road, people are living in wooden shacks and we often come across goats, chickens and even herds of cows as we drive about. Not a sight you often see in Glasgow. However, we like it. We don’t want to live in a vacuum isolated from the very people for whom we are working.
And of course, Uganda – outside Kampala and the larger towns – is a very beautiful country: green, fertile and well watered, especially now the rains have come. Uganda has wide plains, high mountains, some of them even snowy, and its own stretch of Rift Valley. It has beautiful lakes, including 100 crater lakes, and lots of rapids and waterfalls. Everywhere you look there are trees, though not as many as there used to be, and in central Uganda many of them are secondary rather than primary forest these days. Uganda has both rainforest and savannah: Africa in miniature.
|Uganda Kob enjoying the savannah in Queen Elizabeth Park|
|Spray rises from Murchison Falls.|
|Probably a sort of heron, by the Kazinga Channel.|
|Carrying mangoes to market in Kampala|
|Lining up for afternoon school.|
So that is Uganda. Not all of Uganda, of course. We do get angry, very angry, at the terrible waste of potential and of life itself, the rampant child abuse, the abysmal public services and the greedy and self-serving cynicism of the corrupt elite. More riots and arrests today and the promise of more tomorrow and the day after. This is expected to be a difficult week in Uganda, so think of the people. However, today we are describing the good things, and of these Uganda has more than its share. 'The Pearl of Africa': perhaps one day it will live up to its name.