Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Coming back to Kampala

I had thought London was quite balmy when I left. The snowdrops were out and, with my winter coat packed away, I was wandering around wearing a fleece. (I almost wrote ‘just a fleece’, but London wasn’t that warm!) Having spent the last eighteen months proclaiming to all my friends and relations that Uganda has a surprisingly temperate climate, not too hot despite being on the Equator, not too wet and not too dry, I stepped off the plane at Entebbe to be met by heat. This was real heat, real African heat, and it was already half past ten at night. The last few days have been hot, too hot even for Ugandans, well into the thirties.

And the dust! Every surface is covered with a deep red powder, no sooner wiped away than deposited again. Our green car looks red from the distance, as does our rather repulsive white plastic balcony furniture, and even the leaves. Every object one touches stains hands and clothes a rusty red. The latest news is that this hot dry weather is likely to last well beyond February, which is when the dry season usually comes to an end. Instead, commentators are talking about it going on till April. I love the heat (though not the dust!), but this is not good news for farmers, or indeed for Ugandans generally. The papers are warning of an increased fire risk because of the high temperatures and windy conditions. People in rural areas are being warned not to light fires in the bush or burn charcoal.

A hazy Kampala city centre on a quiet Sunday afternoon

In this dry heat, dust hangs in the air, as does the smoke. One of my most distinctive memories of Uganda, particularly in the conurbations, is of the smell of burning rubbish, sometimes so pungent you can almost taste it. Anyone know the carcinogenic effects of smouldering plastic? With as good as no garbage disposal except in the wealthy suburbs, the verges of the streets are lit by the glowing embers of small domestic fires while any open space becomes an impromptu rubbish heap. I was shocked all over again as we drove towards our office on Monday morning, seeing the children clambering over the stinking heaps of refuse at the side of the road, every so often setting off mini-avalanches which slithered down into the gutters. There the heaps will remain, becoming mini-dams during the next rainstorm and flooding the road itself and even the ramshackle houses and kiosks from the whence the rubbish came in the first place.

However, during the dry season it is smoke not floods which one is aware of. As we drove towards Kampala from Entebbe on Sunday evening, we could see the pollution hovering over the city, painting the sky behind the sun’s huge crimson ball with glorious blood-red streaks. Yes, it was spectacular but other senses also come into play. London may not be famous for its fresh clean air but I was soon longing for it.

As night falls, the women start to line the streets, most of them bending over small charcoal stoves, roasting stalks of maize to be sold to passing pedestrians. They nurse their babies on one arm while their toddlers scramble around them, or, worse, sit dead still, not daring to move a muscle.  The first thought of an expatriate Briton is, ‘Why are these children not in bed?’ The answer is sadly obvious.  The darkness is illuminated by little wooden kiosks, whose candles and paraffin lamps provide welcome – if unofficial – street lights. And other women and girls stand in the shadows. Who knows what they are selling?

I had forgotten the sounds of Kampala’s evenings and nights. From the church below our flat rise polyphonic choruses, cantor and congregation taking turns through interminable rhythmic verses. They are still at it the next morning. The dogs bark incessantly. The children in the neighbouring compounds chant their rhymes, shriek loudly during games of tag and squabble and sob in the manner of children everywhere. However, British children tend to do this inside the house, particularly in January. In Uganda life is lived outside and families preserve few secrets. Do Ugandan children ever go to bed, I mutter to myself? Not when all the family share one living-cum-bedroom.

Relaxing on our balcony, 'autumn' 2010

So has much changed during the three months I have been away?

Well, the load-shedding has got worse. The power is switched off around eight o’clock every alternate evening and is only switched on in the early hours. We read by torchlight and go to bed early. Our rich neighbours have a generator which throbs away in the background. The reason for these cuts? The delay in developing the hydropower plants on the River Nile which runs from Lake Victoria to Lake Albert is usually cited. The dam at Bujagali Falls (cost Shs1 billion) should start generating power in the next month or so, and various other mini-dams in different parts of the country are also due to come on stream.  With any luck, the electricity shortage should then be reduced, although the latest estimate is 10 years for completion of the Karuma Falls dam (estimated cost Shs2.2 billion).

The Ugandan government has ordered that energy subsidies be scrapped, raising tariffs signficantly. (Nigeria did the same thing with the result that President Goodluck Jonathan had to restore the subsidy after a week-long general strike.) An investigation by the President's brother Gen. Salim Saleh has discovered that private electricity firms have swindled the country of Shs300 billion through manipulating tariffs. Apparently electricity charges would fall by 44% if this were dealt with. People like us shouldn’t moan too much about the load-shedding, of course. Only 12% of Uganda has electricity anyway (and only 8% of households), most of them in the towns and cities. Most of the rest rely on tadoobas (paraffin lamps) which pollute the air and are a serious fire hazard. Still, spoilt westerners like ourselves feel lost without our laptops, DVDs and water heaters, and sitting in the dark soon loses its attractions. More serious is the effect on industry. Load-shedding plays havoc with industrial processes.

What else? Traders were on strike for four days because of high bank charges and are now locked in conflict with the government whom they have petitioned to negotiate with the banks. The strike cost the government Shs40 billion in tax revenue.

Truck with armed police

On the good side, there certainly seem to be fewer armed soldiers and police on the streets. Ever since we arrived eighteen months ago, the roads have been full of trucks transporting paramilitaries from camp to checkpoint and back again. It is quite a relief not to be confronted any more by the menacing hulks of police tanks at major intersections, poised to aim their water cannon or fire their teargas at the least hint of a disturbance. The Entebbe Road looks quite civilised.

Police tank parked on a roundabout, taken through the car window

So does that mean that the ‘trouble’ is over? Not exactly, judging by the newspapers. The Activists for Change (A4C) movement has apparently resumed its protests and members of the opposition are back in the cells again. There are rumours in the newspapers that informal commandos under the control of the police have taken over political arrests. (The sinister Rapid Response Unit was disbanded last year for human rights abuses.) Mind you, who needs political protests when the City’s Director of Planning, ordering the demolition of ‘illegal structures’ (people’s homes and shops) in Luzira Port Bell, negotiated with the angry crowd by aiming a rifle at them. The rifle jammed so it was left up to his bodyguard to take over – two were shot dead and others seriously injured. The Director was fired.

And in case we westerners complacently think that people like us do not engage in such violence, this week an American who has been living in Uganda since 2008 was arrested for carrying an illegal firearm. And what is this American’s role in Uganda? He is a ‘missionary’. No comment on the role of ‘men of God’ in Uganda.

So, lots of things have happened while I’ve been away. There are all sorts of stories I could add from the last couple of days’ papers alone: the controversy about the Kabaka’s new son; the theft of the plaque commemorating Colonel Gaddafi's role in rebuilding the Toro Kingdom's palace; the continuing saga of corruption scandals in parliament; the threatened resumption of teachers’ strikes; and, of course the publication of the Primary Leaving Examination results – exactly the sorts of stories we would have in our own British newspapers, in fact. It really is home from home. 

However, all these tales can wait for another day. For the time being, I am just glad to be back in Kampala. Heat, dust and darkness: I can live with these!

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Goodbye for now, Uganda

Home from home

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