Crossing the Equator Reading the Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa
November 17, 2007 – Kampala, Uganda and the Entebbe airport
Our last day in Mbarara we wanted to go to Queen Elizabeth National Park, but it was too much of a pain. Our only options were to (1) pay a "guide" with a car $250 bucks (and that was just to get us there, and didn't include gas and other expenses incurred) or (2) take advantage of a UN vehicle which didn't seem too kosher, and we still would've had to figure out how to track the animals. Such a thing as an organized tour doesn't seem to exist here (unless you book it from outside Uganda). Surely you'd think there would be a market for it, making it convenient to visit a national attraction. Plus we already had a safari in Kenya to look forward to, though they won't have chimps.
Staying in Mbarara for a day didn't sound like fun either, but it seemed with the impending CHOGM it wouldn't be easy to get accommodations in Kampala. CHOGM is this big commonwealth gathering that is a huge deal, laying out the red carpet for the queen and all the other heads of state of British commonwealth countries. They were all coming into town the day we were leaving, and we were warned that it could potentially cripple the city and airport. We finally were able to get one of the last rooms available at the Sheraton, so we left this morning to drive from Mbarara to Kampala (about a 4-hour drive).
In between watching the scenery go by, I finished reading Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa. It is a sprawling historical novel, a sort of African 100 Years of Solitude, though it only spans one generation. It follows Mugezi, as he comes of age during the rise and fall of Idi Amin and all the other political and social drama Uganda has undergone in the past 40 years. He goes back and forth, giving a historical perspective, then ties it in with what he or his extended family was specifically doing during these chaotic times—the expulsion of the Indians, the rise of the equally brutal Milton Obote, inviting the Indians back, the long settling in of the current Museveni, the turmoil of the rise of AIDS in a time when they had no idea what it was, ditto with the Ebola virus, etc. Interesting especially in light of our trip to Ruhiira—he had many of the same complaints, going to seminary school and eating beans with pebbles in it that were "weevilled, tasteless and far from nourishing." Eating maize with maggots in it. Having to walk to fetch water. Not much has changed.
Like this entry, it's definitely verbose and long (the book is over 450 pages). I usually don't have the patience for long novels and perhaps wouldn't have finished it if I didn't have some time on my hands and wasn't in Uganda where it takes place, which always makes a book more interesting. It's easy to be critical of his writing and say it's wordy or at times awkward. It's written in first person, where he is in the minds of others, or at least his relatives. There's an academic term for that kind of writing, usually used in a critical context, I just can't think of it right now. Isegawa writes in the voice of the collective conscious of Uganda channeled through one boy's story of becoming a man. It is also from the point of view (assuming it is somewhat autobiographical) of someone who didn't know who Michael Jackson or MTV was until he was on a plane to Amsterdam towards the end of the book. So he probably wasn't exposed to much literature outside of Africa. It's just a different writing style that almost seems learned from tabloids as he wasn't exposed to too much else. He, and his writing, is a product of Uganda. Reading the newspapers here is amusing, at least the Red Pepper, which perhaps might be more of the equivalent of the New York Post, the British-style tabloid. Here are some sample passages from yesterday's Red Pepper newspaper:
The latter news article goes on to read like Penthouse Forum, how the lady wanded him with her metal detector and it started bleeping when it got to his growing crotch, one thing lead to another, etc.. Next to this article, this Sharp Hyena gives his sex tips ("lies to tell"):
Great way to combat sexism. Not sure if this the reputable newspaper, but it was the one slipped under our hotel door, so presumably it is the Ugandan equivalent of USA Today. And this is not to say Isegawa's writing is this awesomely "bad," but his dialogue especially bears the influence. It's not as "primitive," as say Tutuola, but it is refreshingly rough around the edges, more as if learned from such tabloids as Red Pepper and Ugandan street talk. And like Ayi Kwei Armah, Isegawa's language is also very raunchy and descriptive. In graphic detail, he describes ulcerated lesions on penises and cancerous testicles that are swollen to the size of jackfruits. A wedding digresses into a veritable orgy:
Like Armah, he also does not shy away from fecal matter. His job in fact, is to wipe the asses of a line of bent-over "shitter" kids after they take craps, which he describes in explosive detail.
A lot of my observations being here in Uganda were confirmed reading Isegawa's chronicles as well as the "newspaper" and also listening to Ugandan talk radio. In preparation for CHOGM, the DJ in the car on the way to Kampala kept making comments like, "if you plant grass, they will piss on it," in reference to how most Ugandans are dealing with modernization. The DJ also talked about Ugandan customer service, giving an example of an "important" and tall (6'7") mzungu dignitary friend of his was checking into a hotel, and how Ugandans are able to give you a friendly smile and welcome you (the requisite opening for every sentence spoken back is "you're welcome," at least to mzungus), but they haven't crossed that border into thinking outside of the box to go that extra distance in giving actual customer service (thinking to give the man a large bed) or understanding how someone could be distraught over having a cockroach in their room because their whole lives they've seen cockroaches in their rooms and can't imagine a world where this doesn't always happen. This is what the DJ was saying. We haven't seen cockroaches here but in the last night we stayed in Mbarara, our hotel decided to set up a discotech outside our window that was so insanely loud that it rattled our windows and felt like it would knock the paint from the walls. The irony is that there was not a single person out at the pathetic discotech setup except the DJ and bartender. When I asked the hotel manager about it, he couldn't understand how this would bother us. When I said the music was so loud that it was shaking our windows, he simply laughed and said, "you're welcome," and agreed with me that the music was loud like I meant it as a compliment. I kept thinking of the "this amp goes to 11" scene in Spinal Tap—they just restate your statement back without furthering the conversation or initiating any sort of solution. I had to explain to him that we couldn't sleep with the music, that we didn't enjoy it, and even still he just smiled and said, "you're welcome," and apologized but couldn't offer a solution, so I had to suggest that perhaps we should switch rooms. Then we switched rooms to one with no mosquito net and got bit to hell all through the night, so I'm not sure what was worse. Hopefully our malarone will work as it is high malaria season here. There's another example—many Africans have malaria over and over, yet they don't seem to take to many precautions towards avoiding mosquitoes. They probably figure it's useless, and they might be right, but still, they are not able to comprehend how visiting foreigners might be interested in protecting themselves from a severe and possibly lethal illness during their stay. In comparison, a country like Mexico is quite clever in regards to tourism because they are able to put themselves in the tourist's shoes and provide a service they expect. I am not saying that is good or bad, maybe tourism, or appeasing to tourists, is not a good thing. Just an observation. And to further my disclaimer, because I know I will undoubtedly get nasty emails as I've gotten in the past when making such observations, saying I'm insensitive or racist--I don't at all profess to be an expert on Uganda or Africa. I am merely a mzungu traveling through and my observations are built on my experiences in America and elsewhere, and that is all I can know.
To digress further (at the risk of pissing somebody off for making unfounded stereotypes), another observation I have made here is that people don't seem to be as tied to their families as they elsewhere. In my own mind I keep drawing comparisons between Africa (or Uganda), and Mexico or South America where I have lived and spent a lot of time traveling in. A lot of these comparisons come to mind as the land here, minus the inhabitants, in many ways reminds me of Mexico. They grow much of the same things, maize, bananas and sugarcane. But what Mexico has done with their resources, just to speak of food, is far superior in my mind just based on what they eat. Perhaps it is just a matter of taste, but in my opinion Mexicans have come up with some incredible dishes, the best food in the world, while Ugandans eat bland posho and matoke with little to supplement it. They add no spice. And one of the big reasons to Mexico's success I think is family. Mexican's are incredibly hard-working because they want to support their families. There was a graph in the news today about countries where migrant workers send money home, and Mexico blows Africa away. The historical context of "work" to Ugandans is seeped in colonialism, so there is probably a lot of resentment towards the idea of work. The British brought in Indians to do the work (perhaps, you could argue, because Ugandans were too smart and proud and unwilling to kiss ass), and Indians subsequently took over the important jobs, the ones that led to aspirations, which served to cripple Ugandans. Hence why Amin kicked them out. And once kicked out, their importance was realized and Obote invited them back. Ugandans didn't have much to work for. And they probably still don't. Or at least there is a lingering legacy of that sentiment that they need to overcome. As we speak I am watching construction workers below us from our hotel window. For every three or four people working, they need a supervisor to make sure they keep working. I saw this elsewhere in Mbarara, observing some guys wheeling wheelbarrows full of bricks. They pushed the wheelbarrow 100 meters, and then stopped and rested for ten minutes until the supervisor cracked the whip on them, then they pushed their wheelbarrows another 100 meters, like their only goal is have the day go by to earn their wage. The snapshot at this moment, looking down, I count 39 people below on the construction site, standing around or sitting (including two white guys with clipboard in hand), and 2 people are actually doing work, the rest are watching. You see this sometimes in America, with construction workers in New York City, but that's more a by-product of labor unions. And there are processes in place that manage to utilize minimal labor to get things done. In a country that lacks such an infrastructure or technologies, this could be debilitating unless Uganda workers take pride in their work, and see the big picture of what they are building towards, which they are not allowed to see. And a lot of this persists because of all the aid still pouring into Uganda. Everyone wants to help Uganda (and Africa in general) when Uganda (and Africa in general) really needs to help itself.
Besides drawing a lot of biased comparisons to Latin America in my mind, the feeling I get here in regards to aid workers, feels similar to how I've felt towards heroin addicts I've been close to. You can pump money and help into a junkie, but it will only go into their veins to fuel the fire. On their own they need to become cognizant of their problems and foreign dependencies, and help themselves. All they need from us is tough love.
While I'm on my cynical diatribe, one last observation... I've noticed very few bohemians or counter-culture types in East Africa. For the most part, people in Uganda are conservative. Museveni is in bed with Bush (we've actually seen hilarious Bush murals next to Museveni murals). The "rebel" LRA is rooted in right-wing Christianity. Also strange, is that they love American Country music here. We've heard it quite a bit. Without a liberal or progressive counter-culture, there is little to rock the boat, little to instigate change. Revolution here seems to be instigated by militaristic coups and not the left-wing movements you find in Latin America and elsewhere.
Anyway, back to the drive and The Abyssinian Chronicles... it was especially interesting to read while I was in or traveling through the places he talks about. Amidst the chaos and dysfunctionality that Isegawa portrays (and I also observed), there is a certain resilience. You figure there has to be. If anyone has survived all the political turmoil, colonialism, AIDS, Ebola, Malaria, they have to be pretty damn resilient. In Isegawa's words:
Perhaps this resilience is at the expense of detachment and lack of motivation for change (and, um, the circumcision of pleaure receptors). Like the kid getting hit by the car, the Ugandans shrugged it off as you might expect given all the death they've seen in their lives. Even the mzungu with them who has lived and worked here for many years shrugged it off as "coming with the territory." In the face of disaster or catastrophe, the survivor's mindset is just to get through it and not to rock the boat. To survive. Stopping to care or think about how it can be prevented in the future is not always a desirable trait and might get you killed as the next car comes plowing along with you standing in the road giving CPR. Less people probably would've died in 911 had firemen not stormed into the building to help. Even in the simple daily interactions and minor conflicts, I sense that many Ugandans just want to find the easiest way to put it behind them (for them personally), even if it is not the best long-term solution for their society as a whole.
Another thing we've discovered (as we talked with villagers from Ruhiira) is that Ugandans tell you want to hear, which is not always the truth. To quote Isegawa:
We stopped at a take-away to have some pea-stuffed samosas while our driver had sausages and a coca-cola.
Then we hit the equator! I've never traveled by land across the equator. When I was young, I always thought that there would be a burning red line where the equator was, boiling in the oceans. Sadly, I discovered this was not true. This is what it really looks like...
The border crossing coincided exactly with the half-way point on our trip.
I was wondering why Isegawa kept referencing jackfruit trees, until we were driving through Masaka to the outskirts of Kampala and jackfruit trees start appearing. There were also these huge anthills everywhere, but we were driving too fast to get a picture of them. As we got closer to Kampala, I read this passage:
This was far from what we were seeing in 2007.
It is interesting that Isegawa calls the book the Abyssinian chronicles, as if Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) is synonymous with Africa. The sentiment we have heard from people from here and Kenya is that Ethiopia is the root of Africa. Which also explains the Rastafarian obsession. We saw many marabou storks in Uganda, but by the time we got to Uganda, they were in full force, roosting in the trees. They are truly one of the vilest creatures I have ever seen, more ominous than vultures and bigger.
It started to pour as we entered Kampala. The traffic was pure chaos.
Now we are waiting in Entebbe airport, the stupidity of the check-in procedures is far beyond my ability to articulate in words. The airport is still under construction though CHOGM officially starts tomorrow and everyone is arriving today (we saw a few motorcades going the other way). The airplane from the infamous Entebbe hostage crisis is still parked off the end of the runway and it is over twenty years later.
(c) 2007 Derek White & Jessica Fanzo