For me, the best way to capture the essence of a place is to engage with its people. You may visit its sights, you may snap its pictures, and you may experience its luxuries, but I believe that the true purpose of travel, where you might attempt to fully understand a place instead of just drifting through with an ultimately meaningless bucket list, lies within the people that inhabit that place.
For that reason, my travel stories will be told through the conversations I have with the people of whatever place I happen to be in. Conversations with taxi drivers, shop owners and hotel receptionists. Conversations with businessmen in fitted suits, builders in baggy overalls, and homeless beggars in old rags that seem to litter streets across the world. Conversations with myself. Conversations with that drunk man at the end of the bar at 2 in the morning. These, I must stress, are not interviews – I do not whip out a dictaphone and a sheet of questions that do not follow on from one another and have nothing to do with the person I am talking to. I look into that person’s eyes and I ask them, humbly, to open themselves up to me. I ask them to tell me about themselves, about the place they live in, or just to tell me stories of their past. I have no designated starting point, apart from asking for their name and if I may, perhaps, buy them a cold beer. Then, I let the conversation flow, in whatever way it does so most naturally.
I was recently fortunate enough to attend the 4th Institute for African Transitional Justice in Kampala, Uganda. This opportunity arose out of my studies – I am a postgraduate Politics student at the University of Cape Town, specialising in Transitional Justice with a particular focus on Africa. For the week of June 16th-19th, I engaged in practical work in my chosen field of study, alongside practitioners, scholars and lawyers already working in the field, and, perhaps most significantly, in a place that is in desperate need of transitional justice itself. It was a chance to learn an incredible amount, make contacts, and share what comparably little knowledge and experience in the field I had myself.
Kampala is in itself a fascinating place. It bustles with activity from dusk till dawn and every minute in between, and, over the course of my short week there, I found that the people are of an unheralded beauty. It is a place that is unashamedly African, colourful and full of life. It is defined by people of hope, people of action and people of intense intrigue. They believe in Kampala, they believe in Uganda, and more so than that, they believe in Africa. Given the nature of the Institute I was attending, I was able to connect and engage with some of the brightest African minds, predominantly from East Africa, but I also made time to explore Kampala on my own terms, finding conversation in the unkempt corners of the city and the hazy rush of the street.
I had the most incredibly eye-opening taxi ride from Entebbe International Airport through Kampala to my resort on the margins of Lake Victoria. I had the most spontaneous and inspiring lunch with a lively Muslim entrepreneur. Through the Institute, I spoke at length with the President Secretary of the Democratic Party of Uganda, Norbert Mao. I became utterly mesmerised with the deeply intellectual Pan-Africanist ideologies of a reggae Kenyan radio host. I spoke to people from all over Uganda, and indeed from all over East Africa, some for a good few hours and some for a short five minutes, all of whom found themselves in Kampala for various reasons at the mercy of my relentless curiosity.
My story in Kampala will be told through a series called ‘Uganda in Conversation’. Each conversation will be intertwined with my own observations on how these conversations reflect Ugandan and African culture and perspective. My idea is to promote a sort of hybrid travel journalism where, when writing on a certain place, it is not the traditional tourist sights that are said to reflect its nature but rather the average person that walks the streets every day. I wanted to understand more about Uganda and its culture. I wanted to understand what the people of Uganda thought of the current political context, Uganda’s role in Africa, and the challenges it faces moving forward. In short, I wanted to listen, not just to the sights and sounds of Uganda, of which there were many, but also to the voices and stories of Uganda, because all of them, no matter how supposedly “uneducated” or “oppressed” or “broken down”, contributed to the powerful allure of the African country.
It was not possible, of course, to gain full insight into all of the issues surrounding Uganda. I wish I could have spent longer than a week there, and travelled to more remote locations, but the way I spent my time there, and this approach to travel, gave me a small yet unique illustration of Kampala. I hope the ‘Uganda in Conversation’ series will ably reflect that.