Stratospheric statistics and serial superlatives can still cut through – even in this age deluged by data. For some, today’s omnicrisis, ... born of the pandemic and the ensuing geopolitical clash over Moscow’s war on Ukraine, might seem to rival the great crash of 1929, which also followed a pandemic amid heightened geopolitical rivalries.
Shauna Mottiar recounts her experience in Uganda as a visiting Human Rights expert in this three part series. Her encounters with Verity, an outspoken researcher from a local NGO, and her remarkably disruptive hand bag and later Colonel Hugo, a retired English officer, mark the beginning of an exciting adventure.
I got back to my hotel that evening tired but happy with the days work. As I walked through the lobby I was hailed by my trusty English companion who had been on the flight with me and whom I then found to be staying at my hotel – Colonel Hugo. The Colonel was retired and traveled in Africa frequently to “study conditions on the continent”, he had apparently been based in various regiments throughout Africa as far back as colonial times. He had obviously just returned from some kind of field trip as he was decked out in a safari suit complete with hard hat and binoculars, he waved his cane at me, “Good evening young lady. Was your quest at the commission successful?”
“Yes thank you”, I replied politely, pleased to see a familiar face. “How was your day?”
“Dreadful, absolutely dreadful – everyone here is just B.O. I say, B.O. We went looking for the source of the Nile but our guide got lost and when I asked him how a guide could get lost in his own country he answered that he was actually from Kenya and that tour guiding was not his trade, he was a philosophy student at Makerere University in Kampala. Fat lot of good that does us doesn’t it? A Kenyan philosopher masquerading as a Ugandan tour guide! And to make matters worse I had the misfortune to be sitting next to an American on the bus who kept saying that she was sure the Nile was in Egypt and that it was just as well we hadn’t gone off on some wild goose chase…uhh yanks.” I smiled sympathetically. “Well, I suppose it could have been worse,” he added mournfully, “there could’ve been Australians on the bus! They’ve positively given me a headache.”
“Have you had enough water to drink?” I asked. “Lack of water generally gives me a headache.” He looked at me in disgust,
“You can’t drink the water here – you do know that don’t you?”
“Yes”, I replied quickly, “I meant the bottled water.”
“You shouldn’t drink that either,” he said shaking his head at what he perceived as my naivety. “Stick to canned drinks.” I nodded obediently – I didn’t think the colonel would be sympathetic to the fact that I am constantly on diet to fit the criteria demanded by my generation and wouldn’t therefore dream of consuming too many carbonated drinks. I excused myself and went up to my room. Alighting some three hours later I entered the hotel restaurant for dinner and observed the colonel at the bar making good on his insistence to avoid drinking water – whiskey I was told, Johnny Walker in particular was his primary method of quenching a thirst (not to mention notching up a headache). After dinner I made my way back up to my room and just as the elevator doors were closing, the colonel (whom I had observed to possess more alacrity than his age dictated) jumped in beside me clutching a large bottle of water. This was all too much for me and well brought up as I am I could not help myself from asking what he was doing with the same water he had not four hours ago disavowed in no uncertain terms. He looked at me in surprise and said, “Well I’m certainly not going to drink it my dear – but a chap has to brush his teeth.”
Suddenly the elevator shot downwards with such alarming speed that my hair grip flew off
I recounted the story to Verity the next morning while on the way to our first meeting of the day (some 15 minutes later than scheduled.) She giggled and reiterated that the water in Kampala was only safe to drink if it had been boiled, she added that most people couldn’t afford to buy the bottled water anyway. She stared at me wide eyed when I told her that in South Africa we could drink water directly from the tap. My brush with basic services in Kampala did not end with the water but stretched across to electricity. Verity and I would intermittently stop at her office during the day between our various meetings and on one such occasion as we were leaving the office for our next meeting Verity was summoned to the phone. I told her I would go ahead and meet her in the car. As I was traveling down to the ground floor in the elevator there was a power failure and the elevator came to a grinding halt. I found myself suspended in pitch blackness. Panicked I fumbled with the switches hoping to find an alarm. Suddenly the elevator shot downwards with such alarming speed that my hair grip flew off. On hitting the basement level it came to an abrupt stop the impact of which caused the doors to move ajar. I prized them open and climbed out. Following an ‘Exit’ sign I made my way out of the building through an undercover parking lot encountering a sleepy looking security guard on my way. I stopped and told him of my adventures in the elevator. He didn’t look impressed, “ehem,” he began eloquently, “ehem, you know you must not use the lifts when there is no power – ehem, did you not read the sign? You must use the steps.” I wondered if it was worth trying to explain to him that the power failed subsequent to my entering the elevator. Deciding to spare my self the bother, I bore the admonishment bravely, hung my head in shame and walked off with as much dignity as I could muster. As I approached the car I observed Verity leaning against the driver’s door talking on her cell phone – it seemed that she had once again misplaced her handbag. She grinned at me and asked if I had been stuck in the elevator, slightly hurt by her lack of concern for my scare I nodded and changed the subject, inquiring if she had located the whereabouts of her handbag, she had left it, she said, on her desk but could reclaim it later when we returned.
When I returned to my hotel that night, I contemplated the day’s experiences over a cup of Ugandan tea in the lobby coffee shop. Basic services are a necessity easily taken for granted – but for many in Africa, access to clean water and the ability to rely on electricity is a luxury. I remembered Verity’s wide eyed stare at discovering that South Africans can drink water from the tap and her nonchalance at my having been stuck in the elevator, I wondered if she viewed me as being spoiled and ungrateful…Dismissing such fears, I looked about for the colonel but he was nowhere to be seen and when I enquired about him later I was told by an accommodating bellman that he had gone to a cocktail party at the British Embassy – the bellman added, somewhat unnecessarily, that it was unlikely that he would be back until the early hours of the morning.
The next day was bright and sunny. Verity and I arrived for our meeting with a representative of the Prime Minister’s Office. Before we could gain access to the building we had to be cleared by security. Once again our encounter was with a female security guard this time, clad in full military gear. She glanced at Verity but looked at me somewhat suspiciously. She then demanded identification; Verity lazily produced what looked like a driver’s licence and said that I was with her. The security guard insisted however that I needed to produce identification as well. Verity argued that she had brought many foreign visitors to the Prime Ministers Office before and had always cleared them with her identification. I decided to speak and explained to the guard that my passport was at my hotel. Her response was unexpected, “well go and get it”. I was rather taken aback and glancing at the box in which the identification documents were being thrown into (to be returned on departure from the building) I made the decision that I would rather forgo the meeting than risk losing my passport in the depths of the aggressive security guards box. Verity had by this stage had enough and suggested that the security guard call up and explain why we were going to be late for our appointment. This clearly threw her and, noting her hesitation, Verity apologized sweetly for the mix up, grabbed my arm and led me into the building. I half expected the security guard to give chase but as I glanced behind me I saw that she had resumed her position next to her heavily armed colleagues on the old garden chairs outside the security hut. “Are you sure she’ll allow us to leave?” I asked nervously.
“Oh – she was just trying to show that she had some power,” Verity answered with a shrug, “don’t worry.”
“Was that your driver’s licence you left with her,” I enquired.
“No,” said Verity with a grin, “it was my old student card.”
Verity’s healthy disrespect for authority was not all that impressed me about her that day. One of our later meetings was with one of the Justices from the Amnesty Commission – the Commission had been set up to encourage rebels from the north of Uganda to turn themselves in – in a wider view to curbing the violence in the north of the country. After I had completed my discussion with the Justice, Verity asked if she could ask a question. The Justice smiled at her patronizingly and graciously conceded. She leaned forward in her chair and asked what the Commission’s view was on the rebels’ victims. If amnesty was being granted to the perpetrators of violence, what about the victims? The Justice was taken by surprise – he had dismissed Verity as young and naïve when she was in fact fully conversant with challenges emerging from Uganda’s turbulent history of tyranny and oppression.
Read the full story
- Kampala Part 1
- Kampala Part 2
- Kampala Part 3
Understand Africa's tomorrow... today
We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.View subscription options