I find myself sat in the Acacia Mall. For me, there is something deeply un-African about it. It sits uneasily within the world outside, a world that the mall seems built to prevent from permeating its high walls. But tonight I’m escaping. Not from the African or Ugandan city, but from any city. Kampala may be more on the scale of Sheffield than London, but I’m no lover of cities. I’m restlessly awaiting my flight to Kigali tomorrow. It’s another city, yes, but in going there I become temporally closer to my trek along the rural shores of Lake Kivu.
Of course, malls haven’t always been escapes: I remember the Kenyan mall bombing a few years ago and a girl at my hostel tells me that this mall was also attacked. I don’t condone such acts, yet the bizarre construction of such extreme wealth in an area of relatively great poverty is surely a cause for tension. I say relative because everything about Kampala seems easier than everything I have come across in Dakar or Lomé or Cotonou. This East African city simply does not seem as poor.
But then perhaps that’s because I’m not here for long, or because Kampala is more spread out than, say, Lomé – making it easier to be a segregated Westerner. For East Africa has some of the world’s biggest slums, such as the Eastleigh area of Nairobi.
My excellent motorcycle tour guide whisked me around the edge of Katwe, Kampala’s slum made famous by the recent heartwarming biographical drama Queen of Katwe, which made it onto mainstream cinema screens in Sheffield. He tells me that the Queen of Katwe ‘doesn’t stay there anymore’, a fact revealed in the film when the young girl wins so many chess championships that she is able to buy her single mother from the slum a family home. It’s a lovely story, and true, if sadly not representative of the possibilities of life in Katwe. At least it’s more hopeful than the other well-known film to make it from Uganda to UK cinemas: The Last King of Scotland.
I was taken to the beautiful Baha’i temple, which aims to promote world peace by considering all religions as true forms of spirituality. Yet the tour took a disappointing turn as an uneasy silence fell between my guide and I in the ‘Gaddafi Mosque’: He told me that Idi Amin had ‘run out of money’ when building the foundations, so Gaddafi had later donated the recently completed mosque. Amin seemed to be the undiscussed white elephant in the room, as did the awkward renaming of the mosque to the ‘Uganda National Mosque’: The new Libyan administration has refused to maintain it unless it be dissociated with Gaddafi’s name.
Yet the tour on the whole was excellent, to return to ‘The Last King of Scotland’. It turns out my guide had a lot of historical and linguistic knowledge up his sleeve. I’d always wondered how the film came to have such a title. Well, it turns out a Bugandan (the biggest tribal group in Uganda) king a couple of hundred years back had visited Scotland, liked the Royal Mile, and decided he’d create his own Royal Mile and parliament building in Kampala. So he created the ‘New Scottish Parliament’ – a powerless if imposing structure given that no Ugandan parliament business was intended to take place there.
Later on, in the Palace of the Bugandan Kings, my guide tells me that Mobote had sent Amin to massacre those inhabiting the Bugandan palace. He did, and there was lots of bloodshed. Mobote therefore began combining the Bugandan Kingdom with the newly independent Ugandan presidency. When Amin decided he didn’t have enough power as army general under Obote, he simply started killing Obote’s supporters. As soon as Amin’s nine-year rule of terror was over, Musevini declared peace.
So – and this bit is me putting two and two together and possibly making a massive mistake – as a political leader who saw a constitutional-like kingdom (with its own Scottish-parliament-style building) as part of his power, Amin was effectively ‘The Last King of Scotland’.
Before I turn to the tour’s unflinching and brutally honest engagement with Amin, the guide had two other linguistically superb revelations: Uganda, and Kampala. Uganda stands for Unity of the Bugandan people (the dominant tribal group) with the other fifty-odd tribes that make up the nation. Kampala comes from the hill of impalas where the British camped.
Amin’s rule is within living memory for many Ugandans, so they could be forgiven for avoiding talking about it. But my guide at the palace of the Bugandan kings is a truly emotionally strong and honest man. He walks me through the grass and down to a tunnel under the land of the palace. There’s a small, concrete space with four cells arranged alongside a trench. It’s dark. He tells me how Amin drove people he disliked, or those who betrayed or fought against him, around Kampala several times so that they thought they were in rural Uganda and lost hope. He then unloaded them here and placed them in the trench filled with water. His men intermittently electrified the trench, torturing the men and women and extracting information from them. Eventually, they could crawl into the adjacent cells to die. The next day, when a new batch of live bodies was brought, any survivors in the cells were tipped back into the water trench for repeated rounds of electrification. Some of their handprints, painted to the wall because their hands were so dirtied by the filthy water, remain as evidence of the massacres that took place. Most of their bodies were dumped in Lake Victoria and have never been found, for they became food for the crocodiles.
It’s a brutal story, and an upsetting one: many newly independent African nations emerged full of hope, only to go through horrendous periods of unrest and darkness, before emerging as the nations they are today. Some, like the DRC, CAR, and Burundi, remain deeply troubled. The story also seems a fitting introduction to Rwanda, where I fly tomorrow. From what I can gather, Uganda has tried to forget: There has been no truth and reconciliation process here. Rwanda, by contrast, has tried to move on through remembrance. It is not my business to judge which may be a better or worse approach, but it will be interesting to see how the nations differ.
On a lighter note, the Western mall cannot fully escape its African-ness. I ordered a red wine with my meal, and the attentive waiter advised me that the red wine was sweet. Not knowing what this was, and open to new experiences, I ordered it. I’ve basically drunk a large wine glass of port. Somehow I’m still sober. Time for some pudding. It serves me right for trying to escape the city for an evening.