Sipi Falls and Kampala, Uganda

Strangers are getting into heated discussions in the matatus (confusingly called taxis) here. All around, there are banners, flags, blaring horns from rallies, and of course, hundreds and hundreds of posters from competing parties pasted over each other and over “No Posters Here” signs: it’s election season, with the big day two weeks away. Given the way things go in Ethiopia and Kenya whenever there’s an election, I’m a little bit nervous to be here, and also a little ashamed that I only found out the moment I got to Uganda.

The tiny village of Sipi is magnificently situated across from its namesake falls, two of them clearly visible and the third somewhat hidden behind a hill. I spent practically an entire day sitting outside at my hillside accommodation, chatting with the family that owns the place, and staring at the first (and largest) waterfall, watching it as the light changed from afternoon to evening before heading up to a viewpoint for sunset. But even away from the city, it’s impossible to get away from it all, as we could see and hear rallies in the distance.

I took a guide the next day to visit the three falls. The first one, a stunning 100m drop, was accessed by what felt pretty much like a 100m drop: a steep, rickety ladder virtually vertical! The second falls, actually a pair of them, ran in front of a cave that we were able to stand in, viewing the falls from behind. Right above is a swimming hole where people were also washing their clothes. The third falls, while less geographically impressive, is accessed through a walk through plantations of coffee, bananas, cabbage, and villagers’ property. And about 20 km from Sipi and the falls is the town of Kapchorwa, set even higher in the mountains. Having to go up there solely to fix my Ugandan sim card, I was a bit bitter about the long detour, until taking the boda-boda (back of a motorbike) ride up and down the hill.

Going back to my guesthouse, sitting on a precariously perched swing on a steep ledge, I had one more evening with the picture-perfect view.

Moses and Ivan (nametwin!), a cousin and a much younger brother of the owners, kept me company as they were working at the guesthouse while on extended holiday from school — every student has been out for nearly three months, with school postponed until after the elections. Their minds were more on school than the elections though, and they ran through a litany of complaints about their education system. While an increasing number of children go to school nowadays, keeping them in it has been more of a problem, due to the difficulty of the curriculum. In addition to writing papers upon papers upon papers, they have some baffling mandatory subjects, often taught by teachers’ dictation. European history? Latin? A geography class that requires them to learn about fishing in Peru and Norway and timber in British Columbia?! (Seriously, every single adult I’ve met here to whom I’ve mentioned that I’m from Canada has brought up timber in BC.) While I’m impressed that they can draw all the borders of the world and label an empty map and name off all the provinces and states of Canada and the US (something that even people in Canada and the US *can’t* do for their own countries), or name off every geographical feature and plant in a photo, or talk at length about Louis XVI, is it really necessary knowledge? And even if it was, is writing a transcript of the teacher’s talking word for word really a way to learn?

There’s a notable problem of overpopulation, with 37 million plus people living in Uganda (about the same as Canada), and a whopping 80% of the population under 30 making Uganda one of the youngest populations in the world. The country can’t sustain that much of a working population, and so much of the youth is unemployed (83%!), with drug addiction and gambling a problem. That’s a story perhaps for another day, but the point is, the idle youth are media-savvy and see what’s outside of their country in the media, and they covet Western standards. Perhaps that’s why the education system here has been so slow to change from being Western-centric. Or why whenever someone gains wealth they’re said to have become mzungu (white). Why can’t success be measured in Ugandan or African terms, both personally and economically? Modern Uganda in 2016 rightfully should not look like modern USA in 2016, given the different cultures, nor should it be seen as inferior — many things here can improve, but it can improve on Uganda’s terms, rather than as a country where they study up so much on other countries but not their own, where French (well, neighbours DR Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi speak French…) and German (huh?) are often compulsory subjects. It’s a complaint I’ve heard from several people, and Moses and Ivan only echo it. In fact, Ivan couldn’t even name the previous president of Uganda!

…Which leads me back to the election. Yoweri Museveni has been the president for 30 years. (Ivan’s lived his entire 18 years of life under his presidency, so perhaps he has an excuse.) While it’s a bit troubling that Museveni’s running for another 5 year mandate, with corruption seeming to be festering in his party, election rigging allegations rampant (even though he’d probably still squeak out a smaller win without it), and passive-aggressive threats of national instability should he not win, there’s a big reason why he’s popular. There are even people out there that would vote for Museveni until the day they die, every election he continues to run, no matter what corruption or issue they have with him. Why? Well, for the simple fact that he lifted Uganda out of its darkest years.

From its independence in 1962 til 1986, Uganda was a dictatorial mess of coups and notorious violence primarily under Milton Obote and especially Idi Amin, who toppled Obote and ruled for eight years. Amin still affects Uganda’s reputation today — despite his reign ending nearly 40 years ago, I heard a tourist ask if he was still in power — due to his drag-from-place, torture or shoot-on-sight suppression of anything resembling opposition, massacring of 300,000 people during his reign, and his…odd (rumoured cannibal) and megalomaniacally unhinged tendencies (his official title? I quote, “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular”, which includes a bunch of made-up military acronyms in the middle, and he also claimed to be the last king of Scotland). He pretty much destroyed a burgeoning country due to greed and graft, then launched a very unsuccessful war with Tanzania to create a distraction that ultimately led instead to his downfall. Then it was back to Obote, and back to some years of even more repression and violence.

In the midst of all of this, Museveni formed a guerilla army that played a hand in taking both Amin (during the Tanzania war) and Obote down, along with Obote’s coup successor, though many fighters had to flee as refugees as the regimes chased them down. The National Resistance Army took over most of the country from the government, then formed an actual government (“Army” became “Movement”) and managed to bring peace and some economic prosperity to the country after a very bloody and destitute few decades, winning elections in landslide results after he brought in democracy. And remember “Kony 2012”? Museveni’s been fighting the Lord’s Resistance Army in the north of Uganda too, and there’s finally some sense of stability there. But the point is, there are people out there who are eternally grateful to Museveni for giving a chance for their sons and daughters to come back from exile, and they’ll put up with anything, including Museveni’s big ego and occasionally questionable decisions. I’ve even met supporters of the opposition who think another Museveni win won’t be so bad.

In Kampala, the election is completely unavoidable. Every crowded taxi ride devolves into babble about voting, not voting, and who to vote for. The boda-boda drivers and taxi conductors are wearing shirts for whom they support. There are rather horrifying-looking but well-intentioned non-burning “effigies” of some presidential candidates. The candidates themselves are holding rallies, instead of just local MPs, and causing major traffic jams. And for the first time in Ugandan history, there was a televised presidential debate that included the sitting president.

But before that! I met with Belinda, a friend of a friend (more on that in the next entry), and her brother Collins, and he took me around the city, a blur of lush hills, gleaming California-style malls, high rises, slums, and major congestion.

We visited the Ugandan Martyr’s Shrine, memorialising the Catholics who were burnt or hacked to death by Bagandan King Mwanga II in 1886 for refusing to work on a Sunday. (There were Protestants and Muslims burned at or around the same time too, but those faiths don’t declare martyrs. The Muslims were killed for refusing to eat the non-halal meat the king gave them as a celebration for the mosque he built for them… whaa?) Oddly enough, this king died a Christian. But anyhow, this site’s become extremely famous not just for the fact that the building looks less like an African hut than it does a spaceship, but because it’s turned into a massive pilgrimage site with pilgrims walking every year from Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, and DR Congo, and also because it’s been visited by three popes, most recently Pope Francis just three months ago.

We also visited the Kasubi Tombs, home of four Bagandan kings that give Uganda its namesake. (To quote the guide, Baganda people live in Buganda, speak Luganda, and each of them is a Muganda. The British just messed it up and forgot a “b”. The Baganda tribe are the biggest group in Uganda, but no longer the most influential; they were the most organised and therefore privileged kingdom at the time of colonialisation.) While the main building suffered from an arsonist attack in 2010 and is still under reconstruction, we saw some of the typical basket-like buildings of the time, and some of the houses for each of King Mutesa I’s 84 wives. The complex, used by four kings but not by the current (and now politically-powerless but still influential) king, is still lived-in by descendants of the 84 wives, along with members of various Baganda clans, each of which has a specific duty like decoration, drumming, guarding, and more. Oddly enough, the crown is hereditary but specifically not given to the firstborn son: it’s given to any of the ones thereafter, to avoid more cases of firstborn sons committing patricide to take the crown prematurely. As for the tombs? Well, no one’s allowed to enter them, since according to the Baganda, kings don’t die — they just disappear and are wandering indefinitely in the “forest”, so you can go ahead and view the tombs if you want to join them… But paradoxically, they keep the jawbone of the “not dead” kings if they have them. Yes, the jawbone — the Luganda word “kabaka” means king, but is derived from “owner of the jaw”. Huh.

We headed to a pub to watch the presidential debate, four days before the polls. Things are decidedly…different. Six of the eight candidates showed up on time. The president made a “fashionably late” entrance, holding up live TV, and a candidate widely considered as a joke but still officially a candidate showed up an hour late unceremoniously, providing hilariously short yet incoherent and rambling answers to questions. Main rival of the president (and former ally) Kizza Besigye made his opening statement about the venue — a stadium in which he was imprisoned in for several years under the direction of Museveni. Ooooooh. Accusations of corruption and vote rigging flying from the opposition (many of whom are former allies of Museveni), accusations of fiction and being too dense to understand his policies flying from Museveni. Juicy stuff. But real issues were discussed too (so many that despite the one-hour scheduled running time, we left past midnight after almost three hours and it still wasn’t over), and considering how little we learn about Ugandan or even African issues in the West, it’s interesting to see what the country’s focus is on: importing twice as much as they export, youth unemployment, deployment of troops in DRC, South Sudan, and Somalia; African justice versus perceptions of bias in the International Criminal Court, the overreach of foreign investment in the country, East African integration (Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi being the other members) and freedom of movement like in Europe, strong-man politics versus constitutional democracy, impending conflicts over water as a resource and damming of the Nile, slavery of Ugandans in the UAE and Saudi Arabia…

But most importantly, peace. A country that has never seen a peaceful transition of power, where the debate commenced with an inter-faith prayer against election violence, bracing itself and hoping (bluntly) to not be like Kenya. The country’s as stable as it’s ever been, and they don’t want to ruin it: Museveni says only he can keep the peace, and the other candidates say there already is peace and that the country needs a change to progress. Should I be less nervous now?

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