Within 5 minutes of walking into a hotel bar, the name of which I can’t remember in another part of bustling Kampala I wasn’t familiar with, I was sitting across from a stranger with a cold beer clasped in my hand. The only other person in the bar that afternoon was the bar lady, who cleaned glasses with a dirty rag while amusingly eyeing the strange lunch duo as they became acquainted with one another.
“Can I buy you a beer, my man?” I asked, expectantly, before I had even learnt his name.
“No no no, not to worry. I will have a coke!” My new friend with no name laughed. I suddenly felt self-conscious of my assumption that beer was always a good way to break the ice as the bar lady obediently poured a coke into one of the glasses that she hadn’t cleaned yet.
I decided on a more natural approach. “What is your name?” I asked.
“My name is Ibra! What is yours?” He added in a toothy grin for good measure. Ibra, the man with a toothy grin who didn’t like beer. Or just didn’t want beer that particular afternoon. I never asked.
“My name is Simeon. What do you do Ibra?” The beer was flowing easily down my throat into my empty stomach – I had ordered a rolex, a local Ugandan ‘delicacy’ of sorts, which had yet to arrive at the table.
“I am a businessman of course! But we have a lot of them here in Kampala. I sell used Subaru car parts with my brother. He is there at the shop now. Business is good, but I also do other things. We like to do many things here. It is important to keep busy!” Ibra spoke easily, eagerly, rapidly. He launched in a naturally talkative manner, telling me more about his business and his brother, and the entrepreneurship spirit of Ugandans. At some point, my rolex had arrived, which basically consisted of wraps filled with what I hoped to be chicken. To be fair, at that point, the beer had been flowing such that anything would have tasted good.
Ibra then wanted to know about me. “Where are you from?”
“I’m from Cape Town in South Africa.” I responded, keeping it short and to the point, using continuous mouthfuls of chicken and wrap (or something) as an excuse for him to keep talking and me to keep listening. I preferred it that way. In any case, Ibra had refused my offer of some piece of the rolex.
“Ah! South Africa! Can I tell you – Uganda looks up to South Africa. South Africa is second world, it is good for Africa. South Africa looks up to the first world, and Uganda looks up to South Africa.”
He spoke of South Africa in fond terms, though he had never been there himself. He believed that South Africa is a leader of Africa. I thought about this some time later – South Africa is seen as a place of progression, and a place of opportunity. It is seen at the forefront of the African drive on the global game of inter-state relations. I wondered if we saw our country the same way? Would we believe it? Or would we just continue to concentrate on the problems that we face?
“Everyone knows what is wrong with Uganda,” Ibra stated thoughtfully. “The government care about themselves only. The President just thinks of himself. He is grooming his son to takeover. There is nothing for the people. That is why so many people have to be businessmen! There is nothing else! But everyone knows these problems. But we ask, what can we do? What can we do but just make sure that we are OK?”
It was a depressingly generic yet nonetheless accurate reflection of what faces not only Ugandans but so much of Africa as well. Those in power abusing their positions, in turn leaving those on the ground to fend for himself in whatever way they can.
It was a slightly resigned end to an absorbing conversation – Richard, my boda boda driver, had come into the bar to whisk me away on another reckless race through the busy streets of Uganda’s capital city. Before I left, however, Ibra had one last anecdote for me:
“Simeon, before you leave – take my phone number. I know you are leaving soon but I believe that you will be back! Uganda has got you. I will see you again.”
It was true, in many respects. Uganda had ‘got’ me. In my short time there, I met the most friendly and accepting people, those who wanted to meet you with no agenda other than simple yet engaging conversation.
As my first attempt I realise that there are many shortcomings with this series. But, as a concept, I am still completely intrigued by the idea – travel stories told through the conversations I have on the way. There will be plenty more series to follow this one. Who knows – we may meet Ibra, Edgar, Norbert Mao, Jesse, Joseph and Ibrahim in Uganda again.