"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 II

There were not as many people as on the Gulu rally, and again many of them seem to have been shepherded by trucks by Museveni’s men, but there were still enough to fill the field on which the rally was taking place. Some were sitting on the ground, others took shelter from the sun in the nearby thicket and waited in the shade of the trees. We waited with them, walking around and trying to take pictures. People in Uganda do not like to be photographed and the resistance to my attempts was often quite pronounced. It’s a shame as there were many colourful types in the crowd, in funky Ankole-cow horn hats, garments adorned with feathers, or cloaks made of skin. Some were holding noise-making implements, drums, rattles and also what seemed like close-cousins of vuvuzelas. All in all, this crowd was much more exotic than the one in Gulu, practically no one spoke English and consequently Mark and I were even more of an attraction than on the previous day.

The excitement at President’s arrival was palpable and when he drove past to take his place on the platform the crowd closed in after his car with tremendous speed. I found myself squashed in the middle and seriously feared for the safety of my ribs and my camera. Luckily, one of the guards saw my struggle, reached out to me and helped me get behind the barrier separating Museveni from his supporters. Quite by chance I found myself in a prime position again, just a couple of meters from the President with just one very serious looking guard in between. I could shoot (pictures, of course) away.

Because of the heat, long drive and the fact it was simply tedious I could not concentrate on the speech. Museveni does not come across as a brilliant speaker. The fact that his words had to be translated into Acholi did not help and took away what little zest and flare that there was in it. The President also has a rather bad habit, possibly picked up from one of the countless self-help books on public speaking I see in Ugandan bookshops, of every now and again asking the translator how to say a certain phrase in the local dialect. In itself it is probably a good idea, but given the fact that he seems to have no language abilities, and has to repeat the phrase he is given a number of times twisting it mercilessly, the effect that creates is rather unfavourable and slightly ridiculous; the crowed did not fail to chuckle unsympathetically. When the president finished promising millions of shillings to war veterans, free education, less corruption, better roads, and the continuation of peace he had so skilfully brought about, the local officials rose to congratulate one another and the Movement at large. While this lasted, the President just looked a bit lost and bored. His gaze was quite absentmindedly scrutinizing the crowds. He looked at me, just a couple of meters down in front. I winked. He smiled.

This was probably the moment to pass him a note with an interview request but neither had I thought of it at the time, nor were the chances of the guards shooting me down on the spot that slim. Their presence and nervous glances every time I reached to my belt for my camera or Dictaphone reminded me very strongly of a passage in Lem’s Futurological Congress in which the Indian ambassador dies under concentrated fire of US president's bodyguards when he reaches out for a hankerchief - the incident leading to an enchange of apologetic diplomatic notes. In any case, the rally finished when it was almost dark, the President was whisked to his car and we rushed with Mark to find ours. It turned out that on the way back we are going to have more people in the car and James tried to squeeze five of us on the back seat. I protested strongly and said I’d rather go in the boot. Silly as it sounds, it turned out to be a jolly idea and while Mark was squashed with three others I could lie down on, admittedly very hard, but spacious, platform at the back. I put my bag under my head, looked at the almost-full moon that shone on me through the rear window, and pondered just how crazy yet another day had been. I had not much hope of reaching the President any more (Sam had in the end consulted with the PPS who simply had that there was no gap in the busy rally schedule) but I had, as the bet stipulated, joined the entourage to go to with the President up North. I had also seen enough of Ugandan government politics up close to give me food for thought for some time. Now it was time to rest and focus with renewed vigour on the Opposition.

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