"Ex Africa semper aliquid novi", quoth Pliny the Elder. There is some debate about what he really meant, but most likely he meant trouble. In this sense has the phrase been used most often since but I hope to reverse the trend and on these pages bring you the exciting, novel and curious out of Africa.

And wherever I am I hope to remain,
Ex Africa Semper Yours,

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Kitgum and the Presidential Entourage part I

I woke up thinking that this whole presidential chase is ridiculous. It might be a fun, exciting and instructive thing to do, but I’ve done enough of it and maybe, while in Gulu, I should look at some orphans, child-soldiers and war-invalids instead – in other words, things that make people shed a tear and buy my articles. With that resolve, I took a boda-boda to Acholi Inn to let Mark know I’m done with politics. Mark, who was seating in the hotel garden with his morning coffee, welcomed my decision saying he was also tired after that one rally and went back to his breakfast and book. I sat by and, for the lack of anything better to do, observed the spectacle taking place in the hotel courtyard.

Just like the day before, the grounds were full of Museveni’s yellow T-shirted men running to and fro. This time however, the gardens were also full of soldiers and people who looked like higher-ranking officials. There were a few little groups of them spread uniformly though the shaded bits of the garden. The centre of garden evidently belonged to one imposing-looking man, around whom a sizable coterie had formed. I might have been under the influence of too many ‘dogs of war’ movies but to me he looked just like your typical African general should – huge, jovial and avuncular at first glance but observant and possibly ruthless underneath. He was talking on three phones at the same time, listened to petitioners, gave orders to soldiers and generally looked busy. I was intrigued.

Luckily, my Chamber of Commerce friend from the day before turned up just at that time and I was able to go and enquire. He looked at me surprised at my ignorance of local politics – that was Sam E., the chairman of the NRM for the whole of the North. A big fish; if I wanted the interview with the president he would be the man to organise it. Suddenly, my resolve to stick to orphans evaporated. I decided to come up and introduce myself. After all, I had nothing to lose.

I came up to his table, nodded and sat down at one of the empty chairs. Tried to look cool and as if I belonged. I think I failed. Finally, Sam finished talking on the phone and looked at me enquiringly. Here a digression into African greeting habits is in order. Even more so than with the British the initial ‘how are yous?’ are vital. To rush into business without enquiring about other persons well-being is considered awfully rude. The pace of the enquiries should be slow, attitude interested but not too eager, each response taken in and considered carefully as if it really mattered. Handshake is compulsory. The African handshake is tripartite – clasp the palms, clasp the thumbs and than the palms again. Then hold while exchanging greetings. Often uncomfortably long, with extra shaking for added effect. This should ideally be accompanied by laughter and jokes. Only then you can relax and ask about directions or place a soda order. Or, as in my case, introduce yourself and ask for an interview with the President.

To my utter surprise Sam laughed and said that’s not a problem. We just needed to get to Kitgum, some 100km away to the north-east, where the next rally is. He asked if I had a transport. I did not, as Amos the day before informed me that there were no more places on the press bus. Not a problem, according to Sam, I would go with them, the Party entourage. The cars are better quality anyway.

I run up to Mark to ask him if he has not changed his mind about rallying. As we had made plans to lounge by the swimming pool that day, he cursed me and my obstinacy which deprived him of well-deserved rest, but again just packed his bag and followed. We were to go in the motorcade with the chairman but in another vehicle. Our car-host was none other than James A.O.: a former spokesman for Joseph Kony’s rebel LRA. He had been granted amnesty in 2008 and since than had been in the Museveni government as the secretary for External Affairs and Mobilisation. He turned out to be good company, telling us in his posh English RP all we wanted to know about the area and the campaign.

The road to Kitgum is beyond belief bad. Patrick, our driver, was very daring and skilled in avoiding potholes at high speed but it still took us over two hours to get to our destination. We stopped briefly in a small village to get some food – I did not have a chance to take a picture but the mental image of these (Saville-row no doubt) suit-clad men exiting their huge 4x4 SUVs in the clouds of red dirt to buy roast maize by the side of the road from an old woman whose entire life-fortune was probably not worth the petrol we spent on getting there will stay with me for some time. I accepted the maize though.

We got to Kitgum with time to spare and were encouraged to make ourselves comfortable in the bar of the Baroda hotel. Another ‘big man’ was waiting for us: Henry O.O., current foreign minister and the son of the former dictator Tito Okello. We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries; after that Mark and I were left to our own devices. Mark decided to finish that morning coffee that I have so brutally interrupted and I decided to wonder out of the hotel to find an internet café. I did not find one for I stopped to chat to a man who greeted me on the street. In one breath, he told me what he thought of local politics and shared the news that one of his children died of epilepsy the night before. How do you react to that? He seemed to be equally happy to talk about either. I just could not comprehend him and did not know how to relate. I backtracked to the hotel.

It turned out the rally is still half an hour’s drive from Kitgum, in a little village. Just like the previous day, despite influential backing, we were carefully scrutinized by the army who guarded the grounds. My pepper-spray was taken from me and so was Mark’s lighter. The fusion of high-tech and professional with ramshackle and haphazard is quite priceless in Uganda. A metal-detector gate under a baobab tree, cutting edge sound system on a wooden football goal half-eaten by termites, ferocious looking sniffer-dogs who were so lazy that the guards had to put them over the luggage they were supposed to sniff.

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