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Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Thursday, 24 March 2011

March 24th: Kampala

On March 24th 1980 I was in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, travelling with Audrey my American friend.  It was nearly a year after the overthrow of Idi Amin, but Tanzanian soldiers were still in the country, making people uneasy, and the government seemed weak.  Things were scarcely getting back to normal.

We were trying to stay in a downtown hotel, but finding everything a hassle.  In the evening we went for a meal at the colonial Speke Hotel.  Afterwards we were walking back to our own hotel as the time was approaching the ten o'clock curfew deadline and the air was pleasantly fresh and cool.  There was already gunfire in the streets around and we were stopped by a friendly policeman who was anxious that we might not get where we were going on time.  The gunfire kept up most of the night, interspersed with louder noises whizzing across the sky above and exploding when landing.

Although banks and larger offices were largely operating, the main street was lined with boarded up or empty shops, right along to the area where a few Asians were still trying to do business.  We had to leave our room during the day because it had been reserved for government officials who never materialised; and so we took a tour with a friendly taxi driver out through the hills and suburbs to the Kasubi tombs of the Kabakas, the traditional rulers of Buganda, and to the Catholic Cathedral on another hill which had murals of the first missionaries and the embalmed body of the first African archbishop.  It was good to get some historical perspective on the country amid the depressing current situation. 

We had made a fleeting visit to the city ten days earlier to transact some business when we first arrived in the country.  We stayed that time in a small Asian hotel a mile or two from the centre.  This is what I recorded in my journal:
We took the bus journey to Kampala from Kabale, which was long and slow; we were on the bus at 11 but didn't leave until 2.30 or so and it stopped frequently in the densely populated country of Kigezi.  After that the country became more hilly savannah, Ankole cattle land.  Mbarara was battle-worn, the barracks and police area destroyed, the centre of the town empty and looted, only the bus station functioning.  Our neighbour on the bus was going to visit his daughter, aged 20, previously at Makarere University, now in hospital, blinded by gas in the war.  In the early morning Kampala was empty and calm, yet busier than anywhere else I had seen so far in Africa.  Bomb and looting damage, some piles of rubble, yet banks and hotels functioning, and some men involved in construction.  Night-time seems to be the problem, but we heard nothing except a storm after curfew yesterday.  We went at night to see the Israeli film of Raid on Entebbe and the audience hooted with laughter at the appearance of the actor playing Idi Amin (now that he had gone).
Mbarara had been notorious during the Amin years for the killings that were carried out in the police barracks and headquarters.  I had been particularly interested to see what the state of the city would be, and found the sight numbing rather than shocking.

I remember that the bus took a back road as we approached Kampala in the evening.  We parked up for the night in a quiet place, sheltered, with houses near but not right outside the bus.  We were asked to stay quietly on the bus and then we drove into Kampala in the morning once curfew was over, all this handled very calmly in a matter-of-fact way. 

Kasubi Tomb in Kampala:  Picture by Eve Gray, CC
Patrimonium Mundi: Panorama of Kasubi Tomb.

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