I fell in love with Uganda about twenty years ago. It was the first country in Africa I visited. I was setting up a partnership between the Scouts of the UK, the Uganda Scouts and Unicef that was going to focus on peer education, child immunisation and HIV awareness. Visiting this country I knew almost nothing about, except for tales of dictators and forced emigration, was an exciting, slightly frightening adventure.
I remember that we flew into Entebbe by KLM. At that time British Airways didn’t fly there. It was considered too dangerous. The airport terminal had broken windows. There was no baggage carousel. Luggage was brought into an empty shell of a building by hand. Heavily armed guards patrolled the building.
I remember the journey from Entebbe to Kampala. It was early in the morning. Children were on their way to school, so, as we drove into town , we passed waves of brightly coloured school uniforms. First a sea of pink shirts, then blue, then purple, then yellow. There were very few vehicles on the road and almost all of them were carbon copies of the white UN liveried vehicle in which we were traveling. I remember the children grinning broadly waving at us as we passed. The constant chant of “mazungo, mazungo!” I remember experiencing that humid equatorial heat for the first time; that amazing smell of richly fertile earth, with overtones of charcoal smoke. I remember thinking to myself, in my slightly befuddled, jet-lagged state, “This is Africa. I am in Africa.” And I realised that I had fallen in love.
Kampala, then, was a city that was yet to awaken from the nightmare that had been induced by poor and corrupt governance of many years. Traffic lights and lampposts stood at strange angles, empty of light bulbs and waiting to straightened by engineers who didn’t exist. Lines of bullet holes were evident in the walls of Barclays Bank in the centre of town – a reminder of why there was a six o’ clock curfew. There was a telephone in my room at the Speke Hotel, but it had no cable to connect it. When I shut my door, the handle came off in my hand and I ended up having to shin down from my balcony to reach assistance.
But the people I met were amazing, committed to the development of their country. As we travelled around the country – into remote village communities as well as small towns – I encountered universal optimism and enthusiasm. There was a relatively new president in power and he was rooting out the corruption of the past. The support of the aid agencies was really going to help eradicate the major diseases of childhood. Clean water would come to rural areas soon. Primary education would be available to everyone. As my friend Gabriel told me, “I guess we might not see a complete transformation in my lifetime, but my children will enjoy a completely different life to mine.”
I have been back to Uganda on many occasions since. I spent one summer training primary school teachers in Jinja; another working in a refugee camp on the Rwanda border. And I recognised very quickly that Gabriel’s prediction was incorrect. Transformation was happening much faster than either he or I could have guessed. Petrol stations began to appear everywhere. My friends got cars, mobile phones and computers. There was still a massive disparity between the lives led in slum and rural communities by the majority of people and the urbanite middle classes of Kampala. But the country was transforming. And it was Gabriel’s generation, as well as his children’s one, that was benefiting.
I have just spent three days in Uganda – my first visit in ten years. The transformation continues. There is still an enormous gap between those who have much and those who have little, but the gap is beginning to narrow. Rural communities are now using mobile phone based banking to do business, selling their produce directly, at fair prices, to customers, rather than relying on the middle man who would always cream off the bulk of any profit. Literacy and numeracy levels are rising around the country as the quality of primary level teaching improves. Vocational training is much more readily accessible, leading to the growth of a skilled working class.
Challenges remain. I continue to find some attitudes impossible to condone even if I strive to understand them – Uganda, for instance, remains the most homophobic country in the world. It remains difficult to get a loan to grow a business – microfinance companies charge crippling rates of interest. Far too many children still die before reaching adulthood. It is Malaria that is now the killer that has to be beaten ; (immunisation against the major childhood diseases is much more widespread than twenty years ago). And the scourge of HIV is ever present.
As I chatted with the comparatively privileged students at Uganda Christian University, the Scouts in Kampala and young secondary school students in Lugazi, I sensed that development is accelerating. The natural Ugandan reticence and politeness is still there. But cut through the veneer and you find young people who share aspirations that are ambitious and centred firmly within a 21st Century culture of pride and confidence. This is no longer a country that expects hand-outs or even a hand up. This is a country that is tackling its challenges with alacrity and determination.
My love affair continues.