“We have quite a long drive now. An hour maybe. It is 44km from the airport to Kampala, and 12km from Kampala to your resort. There is only one road from the airport to the city, and there will be traffic.” Joseph tells me.
“Traffic?” I ask. “On a Sunday night?”
“Oh yes,” Joseph nods with the air of an understanding parent talking to his overly-curious child. “It is always busy here. The streets are always full.”
With what, I wondered silently. In Africa, the extent of my travels had hardly breached the borders of South Africa. In South Africa itself, I have been to the Transkei, a place of astounding rural beauty but not the meteoric buzz of an African city, while I also spent two weeks in the magnificent mountains of Lesotho. As I sat in Joseph’s taxi, then, I sensed that, for me, this trip to Kampala was new, exciting, and bold.
“You see on our right here,” Joseph breaks the momentary silence. “It is Lake Victoria. That’s why it is pitch black – there are no lights. You can’t see 5 metres in front of you.” Joseph was clearly experienced with foreign visitors in his taxi. He was a taxi driver slash tour guide.
“Joseph, how long have you been a taxi driver now?” I ask, stumbling over my words slightly in my eagerness to start a conversation.
“Hm. 10 years now I think,” he responds. “Always from the airport. That’s where I get the best jobs. No one uses our taxi’s in the city, they are too expensive. They take a minibus taxi or a boda boda.”
“What’s a boda boda?” I enquire.
“Boda boda’s are like public transport motorbikes – you will see lots of them soon,” Joseph continues in his mild-mannered way. “They are all over the city, fast and cheap, but they can be dangerous, because they are reckless. Most of crashes on the roads involve boda boda’s.”
We soon hit the traffic that Joseph promised. At first, there were just cars, but as we got closer to the city, boda boda’s started appearing. Joseph was right – they were nippy bastards, jumping from one side of the street to the other, trying to find the fastest route through and around the cars and minibus taxis. The painted lines on the road, faint as is, might as well have been invisible – it seems that the only rule is not to crash. The boda boda’s often have two passengers perched precariously on the back, although you couldn’t read a single worry on their faces – this was normal. This was Kampala life.
“You can’t drive in a straight line here,” Joseph remarks. “You are always dodging things, you have to be careful and pay attention.” It is at this point that Joseph flicks his taxi onto the wrong side of the road, oncoming traffic not too far away, racing past the outside of a couple of minibus taxis and floundering boda boda’s weighed down by the bulk of three people, all while glancing continuously down at his phone. I attempt to laugh it off while gripping the edges of my seat, though it comes off more like a strangled cry.
As we neared the centre of Kampala, the streets became busier with not only cars, minibus taxis and boda bodas but also people. To put this into perspective, it was 10pm on a Sunday night, where you might assume most people to be at home preparing for a week at work. But in Kampala, people crowded the roads, going about their business as if it was 4pm on a Friday afternoon. I saw locals getting haircuts under dimly lit bulbs. I saw kids clambering in front of small TVs on the side of the street. I saw surly teenagers kick stones along the roadside, a number of them resplendent in Ugandan football shirts. I saw women cooing babies as they walked - walked where, I do not know. Everyone seemed almost aimless; they were walking to walk, with no objective but just to live in the city instead of their homes.
“It is always safe to walk here,” Joseph suddenly perks up, as if he was reading my mind. “Even you, as an mzungu, can walk by yourself all night and you’ll be fine. We don’t have as much crime as other places. The people are friendly here, they like to share their city.” It is as he says this that I glance once more out of the taxi window, upon which I am spotted by a lonely boy sitting on the pavement looking out onto the road. He gives me an incredibly genuine smile, and raises his hand in an awkward wave. I smile and wave back.
I turn back to Joseph: “Joseph, what do the people think of Museveni here? What do you think of Museveni?” Yoweri Museveni has been the President of Uganda since 1986 – he is seen by many in the Western world to be oppressive and undemocratic, having been in power for 27 years. I was interested in the local viewpoint, the uneducated and educated – do they differ? To what extent is he seen as the root of Uganda’s problems? Do the people want him out of power?
Joseph chooses his words very carefully: “Museveni represents Uganda. He is our hero. He took us out of the ditch. He is good for the country.” Joseph doesn’t look at me while he says this, perhaps sensing my unintended judgment of what I had perceived to be a typically power-hungry and therefore unpopular African leader. “Maybe he is getting old,” Joseph continues. “But he still does good things.”
I decide to push the issue slightly: “Joseph, can I ask what you think of the recent anti-homosexuality bill that the parliament passed? Is that one of the good things he has done for the country?” I ask this somewhat hesitantly – I did not want to seem like a nosy white foreigner unfairly questioning the practices of a culture with which I am unfamiliar. Joseph’s response justified my concerns.
“Yes the bill is good. We celebrated it when it was passed. What people must understand is that the bill is good in our culture. It is our culture. People who say the bill is bad are criticising it from outside our culture, so they cannot understand it. How can they criticise something they don’t understand? We don’t criticise American culture, even though it is very different from us. For us, it is a question of moral and ethics – it is immoral and unethical to be a homosexual in Uganda. This is why we have this bill. It is good for the country, and people from outside our culture must stop criticising it because they do not understand it.”
I found this to be a fascinating response. It was, of course, true in many ways. The West is particularly prone to judging and criticising that which they do not understand. Respect and an understanding of another’s culture, especially on travels of this kind that demand the acknowledgement that we put ourselves at the mercy, so to say, of that place’s culture, is perhaps what is missing from the West’s incessant push of democratic ideals.
I understood and respected what Joseph was saying. That changes, however, when the issue of human rights is threatened. That is my chosen field of study – indeed, it was the reason I was in Uganda. A large part of the conference I was attending, the 4th Institute for African Transitional Justice, focused on the atrocities suffered mainly in Northern Uganda at the beginning of the 21st Century. The Lord’s Resistance Army, that of Joseph Kony fame, persistently clashed with the Ugandan government army, resulting in numerous civilian casualties and many gross human rights violations. Museveni, it was felt, was an influential player in these casualties, for largely negative purposes.
Joseph, my taxi driver, was a man uneducated in the traditional ‘Western’ sense but educated in many other, just as important ways. Driving a taxi for 10 years leads to many interesting conversations with many interesting people, all of whom add to his understanding of Uganda and her role in Africa and in the wider world. For him, though, Museveni was a saviour to the people of Uganda; he was their leader, and therefore he commanded respect. His policies, like the anti-homosexuality bill, are in line with traditional Ugandan culture, such that they are right and moral.
It is fascinating to compare the views of Joseph, a man poor in education but rich in experience, to that of the people I attended the conference with. At the conference, I spoke to educated lawyers, and seasoned practitioners from all over Africa. I spoke to civil society leaders and battle-hardened politicians with the ability to captivate a room with many a story. This conference was a unique opportunity to connect with some of Africa’s top academics.
My conversation with Joseph, however, was the ideal starting point for my Ugandan travel story. It was a conversation from the ground, from the local viewpoint and, clearly, from the heart. Over the next few weeks I will continue telling my travel story from Uganda through the conversations I had whilst there, and I hope this will reflect my time there and, particularly, reflect the unashamedly African country of Uganda.