Friday, January 7, 2011

Nobody Goes to Uganda...

Stanley's Pearl of Africa

Palace of the Kingdom of Buganda

“Nobody goes on a holiday to Uganda,” said the travel agent, with a hint of incredulity, as we approached him to suggest an itinerary for our proposed trip there. When we emphasized that we did not seek to track gorillas or traverse the game park circuit, he thought we were out of our minds. So instead of having the agent plan our programme, we did the groundwork for him, contacted friends of friends in Kampala and arrived at a holiday plan. We would visit the historic towns of Kampala, Jinja and Entebbe over five days. We wanted to explore Stanley’s “Pearl of Africa”.

After the salubrious climes of Nairobi, we were a bit apprehensive of the weather in Uganda, but as we stepped out into Entebbe airport in the morning, it was pleasantly pleasant. Our driver-cum-guide, Sam was a cheerful chatty Rwandan, who offered information on tap, as it were, about the sights and sounds of Uganda – much to our delight - as we embarked on an hour-long drive, from Entebbe airport to Kampala city (a distance of 35 kms). From declarations such as “Uganda is a cultural prostitute” to opinions about how Uganda was a better country than his own homeland of Rwanda, he illuminated us with nuggets in most articulate manner. Often, the driver who is the first rung of the tourist information ladder and who can interpret the local flavour of things – culture, language, places, people – like few else can, disappoints, but Sam would ensure a wholesome experience, about that we had no doubt. “Kampala is a distortion of the literal translation of ‘Hill of Impala’ in the native Luganda language. The hills were rich with antelopes which the British used to hunt and referred to as impalas,” Sam kept up his prattle as we neared the city of Seven Hills.

Everywhere we cruised along we sensed a feeling of insecurity, of a city being under siege with security checks at all vital infrastructural facilities, fallout of July bombings. Without any particular agenda or guidebook to tell us the “must see sights” we let Sam show us around the city. Veering through the traffic of the industrial area steering clear of boda bodas and matatus, Sam warns about these killer machines.  “Be wary of the boda boda motorcycles, they appear from anywhere and can crash into you even if you are an innocent bystander,” he says. The first pit-stop is the Grand Mosque on Kibuli Hill. The white and green facade of the old mosque looks imposing and particularly striking with a lone mango tree shielding its front not unlike the veil of a Muslim woman that hides her face. This is a sacred place for Muslims (15% of Ugandan population) as a centre for Islamic studies. There are few minutes for the evening azaan still and we hastily climb one of the minarets to spy over the city below. We look down upon skyscrapers of the modern business district with the railway yard and track of the Rift Valley Railway in the foreground. The scene takes my breath away not only because of its contrasting charm but because I suddenly lose my bearings and feel that I am peering over a cityscape across continents in a small town India. Panning our sights further, we see the dome of the revolving restaurant of our hotel and the red-tiled roofed squatting quarters of the police personnel amidst bursts of greenery.

Being particularly interested in birds, I had asked Sam to educate me on the city’s and country’s avifauna and he had gamely offered to get his guidebook and binoculars the next day. But as fate would have it, Sam suffered a mishap, thanks to the very boda boda that he had warned us about! The guidebook and the vehicle arrived with a new driver who was, unfortunately, not as voluble and forthcoming as our friend.

Museums being windows to a country’s past and present, we presumed that the Uganda Museum would edify us about the history and wealth of the country, but we were so wrong.  The exhibits here were few and far between and quite sketchy; the bookshop and crafts boutique therein had nothing much original to offer on the country’s culture or even, art and craft. The only thing that held my interest was the bark cloth made from fig tree that was worn as apparel in olden days. It actually appeared to have “the look of corduroy and the texture of silk” as Charles Miller described in his historic book on the Uganda Railway. A bark-cloth runner or panel was what I would like to take back as souvenir, I decided then and there, but when I went shopping to the Crafts Village on Buganda Road, I came away empty-handed. They did have the token of a bark cloth, but tackily made into purses or as canvas for cheap touristy paintings.

Rift Valley Railway Heritage Building
Kampala Railway Station

While cruising through the week-day crowded city, suddenly a forlorn frontage catches the eye. Etched in stone, the words Rift Valley Railway catches our attention and on an impulse we dive in; it is a heritage building oblivious of its own history. Decades ago this railway station was linked to Mombasa in Kenya with regular freight and passenger movements; today it is in a state of utter neglect. But Kampala station, built in 1931, still retains a romantic air about it. 

Now that we were on an ad hoc tour of the city, we decide to stroll through Makerere University to experience the erstwhile glory of the institution when it was the pride of East Africa. It was here that Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul came on a fellowship and where began his 30-year association with American author Paul Theroux, who was teaching at the University then. It was at this “Oxford of Africa” that Kenya’s legendary writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o also studied literature. Being Christmas, there was not the usual hustle-bustle and the vacant look at the campus seemed to reinforce the sad deterioration of once-glorious past. In the absence of the students and teachers, giant scavenger storks, Marabous, had peopled the premises – they were perched on treetops, rooftops, on clock-tower and on logs idling by the pathways. Walking on ground, they looked like so many professors ambling with their hands behind their backs in a pensive posture!

Before day close, we have time to go to Kabaka Palace of the Kingdom of Buganda on Mengo Hill. We had to satisfy ourselves with the exteriors of the Palace as it was not open to public.  The ceremonial driveway outside the gate leading from the Buganda Parliament at the end of the road is an interesting feature; the straight path was the sole preserve of the King who traversed along it from work to residence as he was bound by superstition against turning a corner on that route! Mengo is the local word for a grinding stone, a tool believed to be prolifically used to grind millet by the migrant populace settled here back then. 

Across the gate, the luminous dome and glossy minarets - peach and buff – of the Gaddafi Mosque peep out from top of old Kampala Hill. For the locals, this building, a gift from Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, is the new “rich” landmark that brightens up the old dilapidated city. While the new and the modern has been ushered in thus, some of the old wounds still stick out sore. A block away from the Kabaka Palace stand the dungeons of horror. The notorious torture chambers of General Idi Amin, the tyrant who ruled Uganda with an iron hand for nearly eight years, lie in eerie isolation. Horrific scenes from films – documentary and feature – come to mind of atrocities committed in this hell-hole. At our next port of call, the fallout of Idi Amin’s excesses stare in the face in myriad ways, mainly as decadence, decades after the Asians were purged from the Ugandan soil.

The road from Kampala to Jinja is picturesque with stacks of matoke – both green and yellow – lined up by fruit-sellers and with verdure on either side. Both, banana plantations and the fruits, are a ubiquitous prop by the countryside and it is par for course to stop by for a quick nourishing meal of mashed matoke with groundnut sauce. We are fortunate that there is not much traffic today, on other days, the road is choc-a-block with vehicles, say the locals who commute to work between the two towns. We have been advised to halt at Mabira forest en route, which is the last large tract of indigenous forest in Uganda, inhabited by Pygmies, once upon a time. We embark on an hour long nature trail in the semi-moist deciduous expanse that boasts of 300 species of trees, with many varieties of fig, alone. A Greenbul woos from its hiding place, while a Great Blue Turaco and a pair of Black-and-white casqued hornbills make guest appearances vouching for the forest’s IBA (International Birding Area) status. For all its natural beauty, Mabira forest hides an ugly secret, connected with the tyrant General, of course, that I would rather not think about!

Source of Nile - Lake Victoria, Jinja
Lake Victoria comes into view as we drive over the new Nile Bridge to enter Jinja, the second busiest industrial town after the Capital, but a century ago, the chief commercial centre trading in coffee and cotton. The Jinja Nile Resort, where we stay is a highly acclaimed resort, an enchanting hide-out peering over pacific Nile waters with its fishing boats and frolicking children. With less than 30% occupancy, despite the peak season, our travel agent’s words certainly seemed to ring true here.

Jinja has another, more significant, asset to its credit; the origin of River Nile, to seek which explorers from Europe braved insurmountable odds to come to the hinterland. A plaque at the entrance proclaims: “This area marks the place from where the Nile starts its long journey to the Mediterranean Sea through Central and Northern Uganda, Sudan and Egypt”. History tells us that it was here, in 1862, that explorer John Hanning Speke “discovered” the “Source of Nile”.  Commemorating this is the Speke Memorial Obelisk on a hillock on the other side of the lake from where we stand, to mark the spot where Speke stood and gazed in awe at the tranquil waters below. More than a century and a half later, we too stand dazed watching the narrow gulf, Napolean Gulf, which magically transforms the lake into a river that embarks on its 6000-km plus long journey. A little distance away, I am pleasantly surprised to see a bust of Mahatma Gandhi erected in 1997. It is said that the Mahatma’s ashes were dispersed in the Nile. Local tourists, young girls, express their displeasure at the memorial. Says one, “I don’t like it, why should this be here; it is our country, of Blacks.” The vestiges of Idi Amin’s psyche still persist in some pockets of Uganda, it may seem. On our way back, as we turn a corner, we are spellbound by the sight of a Swaminarayan temple on a quiet street. The soul of India is visible here, even today.

Main Street, erstwhile Indian Bazaar
 In the early 20th century, the quiet and quaint fishing village of Jinja was ‘invaded’ by the Indian trader who left the shores of his homeland to embrace another as his own. Eons ago a civilization came up by the banks of the holy River Ganga, centuries later, in the same spirit, another mini-civilization obtained by the River Nile. Most Asians came as indentured labourers for the Uganda Railway, many came as dukawalas (shop-keepers) or fundis (artisans) much earlier, but most stayed back injecting fresh blood into the Ugandan economy. A walk down the town’s Main Street is a revelation. Not many Asians can be spotted among the pedestrians, unlike in Nairobi, but buildings named Haridas, Mathuradas and Madhavani still dominate the scene. Gullies and back lanes echo in the Indian image, and some of them, in fact, sport modest dwellings architecturally in the mould of 60’s interior India. Many house locals and are in ramshackle condition, many are even deserted. Series of roadside shops, once an Indian bazaar, beckon with their colourful wares – psychedelic plastic flowers, glossy fabric in blinding colours and “African” handicrafts. Tailoring units do brisk business of stitching ceremonial gowns for Buganda women in silken material with bold floral motifs. The craft shops are stocked with low quality stuff straight from Kenya, no originality here. Most shops look decrepit, only the clothes draped on mannequins look incongruously shiny and squeaky clean! Largely, the town itself wears a rundown look… it appears to be a ghost town that is just about finding its feet. In 1972, with the economic war unleashed by Idi Amin on unsuspecting Asians, Jinja town was flushed out of its Asians, leaving it unsettled, in more ways than one. Though General Amin redistributed the dukas to his countrymen, in a magnanimous gesture, the town itself, and its trade, never quite recovered since. With President Museveni’s renewed efforts to woo Indians, things are beginning to look up, once again.

Earlier, in Kampala, I had the opportunity of dining with Michael Wakabi of East African newspaper (we met at Haandi, an Indian restaurant, originally based in Kenya), who reminisced his time in Jinja as a child of ten. He recounts the horror of the Idi Amin days: “Overnight things changed…. people started disappearing… someone from the neighbourhood… there was distinct discomfort among the adults… we were told not to speak loudly, laugh loudly. Then bread disappeared from the table…and then sugar and salt.”  When asked, why Kenya with a similar history of Indian Diaspora, did not go the same way, Michael responds with a shocker. While he does not condone Idi Amin’s monstrosities, he says: “By sending Asians away, Idi Amin did a good thing; he was giving back to the people what was theirs. Kenyans wish they had an Idi Amin.” The irony was lost on him that he was with us in an Indian restaurant, or perhaps, not! He tells us that his marriage reception was held at this “same same” place.

We have to fly back to Nairobi via Entebbe, the scene of one of the most successful hostage rescue operations of the hijacked Air France flight by Israeli Commandos in 1976. But we have almost a day and Michael has suggested that we leave early morning for Lutembe Bay for birdwatching. Lutembe Bay is a Ramsar site known for its phenomenal variety of water birds. Even as we reach the waters we furiously strike out bird names - hammerkop, shoebill, Eurasian oystercatcher, yellow wagtail, woodland and grey-headed kingfisher, African jacana and Socotra Cormorant (a lifer, for me) from our list! The “beach resort” at the Bay promises a swimming pool and boat ride, among other things. The pool is dirty, the boat does not exist and the “bird guide” cannot tell me the name of the first bird in sight! It would have been better if the authorities had left the Bay untouched with only clean toilet facilities and functioning boats! But this is so typical of all our visits thus far, the towns – with their restaurants and “tourist” spots are all dressed up with nowhere to go and none coming visiting. Uganda can certainly take more than a few lessons from neighbouring Kenya. The warts, notwithstanding, Uganda has much to offer to a traveler keen on unraveling the country’s history and heritage. We are glad we did not take our travel agent, seriously.

Lutembe Bay - Ramsar Site 

Madagascar Egret