Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Kampala, Entebbe diaries


A woman rides on a boda-boda in Kampala.
JACK ZIMBA

Kampala

 

THE flamboyant crested crane may be Uganda’s national symbol, but it is the sad- and ugly-looking marabou stork that dominates the east African country’s capital, Kampala. The large scavenger bird – also known by its derogatory nickname “undertaker” – can be seen in many open spaces around the city, or perched on streetlight poles observing the chaotic traffic below.

And yes, Kampala’s traffic can be crazy as I discovered on my recent visit.

I arrived at Entebbe International Airport on May 10 as part of a 13-member team of journalists from Zambia to cover the inauguration of Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni, who was re-elected last February.

And, of course, we had to shadow our own President Lungu, who was among heads of state invited to attend the investiture ceremony.

We checked in at the Entebbe Flight Motel, five minutes’ drive from the airport. It was not the nicest of places around, but it was a convenient place to stay.

The multi-storey building had no elevator and my room – 524 – was located on the fifth floor.

A couple of times I forgot my key in the restaurant located on the ground floor, and I had to walk back all the way down, cursing myself, to fetch it.

The building had a maze of stairs and corridors that were confusing to a new guest. The corridors, which had exposed plumbing work, reeked of dampness, and my window overlooked a pile of rubble where a building once stood.

On the other side of the building, the staircase had no guardrail, it was like a death trap. But for US$30 per night, we couldn’t have asked for a better place than the Entebbe Flight Motel.

And whatever the motel did not offer in comfort, it made up in the culinary delights served in its restaurant. I’m talking here mainly about a variety of traditional dishes - matooka, peanut butter sauce and fish from nearby Lake Victoria.

Inevitably, some of my most memorable moments at the motel were created around the dining area. I gorged myself on the matooka (cooked plantains mixed with beef), which I enjoyed thoroughly.  

Back on the streets, Kampala could very well pass as a perfect candidate for the Discovery Channel reality show “Don’t Drive Here”, in which producer Andrew Younghusband drives in some of the world’s most challenging cities, traffic-wise. 

There were many oops moments as we drove into the heavy traffic of the city with its ubiquitous motorbikes operating as taxis, commonly known as boda-boda.

The two-wheelers appear from nowhere, weaving through endless queues of cars and buses, and people crossing the road. In the inner city, the motorbikes buzzed around our vehicle like bees, usually overtaking us.

One estimate puts the number of boda-boda in Kampala alone at 300,000.

Some motorbikes carried as many as three adults, with some passengers carrying big bags or building materials.

A large number of the passengers were women, some dressed in office wear, perched on the back of the motorbikes facing sideways.

But I also saw some voluptuous female figures straddled behind male riders in a rather seductive manner. 

With Kampala’s grid-locked traffic, the boda-boda is the quickest way to get around the city, but it is also dangerous.

According to Uganda’s Injury Control Centre, there are up to 20 boda-related cases at Mulago National Referral hospital in Kampala every day.

Hence the boda-bodas are also known as the silent killers or death trap.

And as I observed one night as we drove to our motel, a good number of the two-wheelers had no tail lights or reflectors, and only came into view within a few metres of our car’s headlamps.

Notwithstanding their bad reputation, I could not have left Entebbe or Kampala without riding on the boda-boda. And on the last day of our visit, I did just that, ignoring all the discouragement from my colleagues.

I jumped on a boda-boda operated by Emmanuel Magezi.

We cruised on a wet day halfway across the city of Entebbe, past the heavily guarded State House, the official residence of President Museveni.

I had no helmet on and life flashed before me. I kept looking over my shoulder; I was particularly scared of the speeding SUVs transporting departing VIP guests to the airport a day after Museveni’s swearing-in.

Emmanuel’s motorbike only had one side mirror and I thought I could help by looking out for the cars on the other side. It was no use, Emmanuel has been at his business for a long time. 

TIGHT SECURITY

Security in Kampala was such a big issue and the security personnel were as uncompromising as they looked.

Army trucks with red flags, an indication that they were carrying live ammo, could be seen parked at strategic places in Kampala. In some places, the menacing trucks were used to form barricades across access roads.

At the Munyonyo Commonwealth Resort, where most of the presidents invited to attend the ceremony were staying, the prying media was under the gawking eyes of the men in executive suits with coils plugged in their ears.

Nothing was being left to chance.

A sniffer dog was introduced into a room where Uganda’s Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda was to meet President Lungu.

And at the venue of the swearing-in ceremony, Kololo Independence Grounds, stern security men and women carefully examined every bag, camera, laptop before sticking a pink sticker on it and allowing guests in.

“What is that in your back pocket?” a man asked me after I had passed through the metal detector, without a bleep, I must add.

“My wallet,” I said, as I removed it from my pocket.

“Let me see,” he demanded.

I handed him the wallet and he leafed through the wad of business cards, as I stood by, obviously flustered.

And then there was the 24-hour shut down of social media – Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp – ordered by the security forces on the day Mr Museveni was sworn-in.

The following day when I visited a local shopping mall, a hand-held metal detector was run across my body before being allowed in.

DEFIANCE

Of the 14 African presidents who attended the investiture ceremony, one man stole the limelight - Sudanese president, Omar Hassan Al-Bashir.   

Gen. Al-Bashir’s presence at the ceremony was a clear show of defiance against the West and the International Criminal Court (ICC) which issued an arrest warrant against him in 2009 for crimes against humanity.

Inevitably, the Sudanese leader was the most protected person at the venue, aside President Museveni himself. The general made a grand entry into the arena in a stretched Mercedes Benz flown over from Khartoum.

But Mr Museveni was not to be outdone in defiance against the West. He launched a scathing attack against the ICC, dismissing it as “a bunch of useless people.”

He also made disparaging remarks about the USA, prompting a walkout from the American ambassador and European Union delegation.

On the other hand, President Museveni showered praises on Russia and China for their military help.

The climax of the inauguration was a show of power by the Ugandan air force, which displayed Russian planes, including the Sukhoi Su-30, a fear inspiring war machine.

Mr Museveni unveiled his plan for the next five years, promising to turn Uganda into a middle-income economy.

After 30 years in power, it is hard to imagine Uganda without Museveni, but there is talk of who will succeed the 71-year-old once he leaves office.

A day before the swearing-in ceremony, I had met a tall, handsome, mustachioed man dressed in smart military uniform at Entebbe Military Base. He acknowledged me with just a little nod as he passed by.

“That is Museveni’s son,” whispered Bernard, our driver.

Major General Muhoozi Kainerugaba (I don’t know why he doesn’t use his father’s name) is the head of the presidential guard and is believed to be the one being groomed to succeed his father.

But in a country with many dissenting voices, such a succession plan may not go down well.

A day after the inauguration, one of those voices – Kizza Besigye, the leader of the Forum for Democratic Change – was arrested and charged with treason for having a private swearing-in ceremony.

As we left our motel for the airport, a Sukhoi Su-30 whizzed across the sky with a thunder so loud, it sounded like bombs dropping on the city.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Between a rock and hard place




Refugees seek shelter at Kalemba Hall, St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Lusaka.
JACK ZIMBA

 EMMANUEL Uwiragire worked hard to rebuild his life after escaping the Rwandan genocide in 1994, which claimed about one million lives. In 2002, he set up a shop in Lusaka’s Zingalume township, which became the family’s only source of income, but he lost all his investment in a violent flash.
Recently, a wave of riots and looting spread across several townships of Lusaka like wild fire as enraged residents targeted shops owned by foreigners, mostly Rwandans and Congolese.
The riots were triggered by a rumour that some Rwandan shop owners were behind the spate of gruesome murders suspected to be ritual killings in Zingalume, George and Lilanda townships since March 16.
In all, seven male bodies were discovered in the three townships with body parts including sexual organs missing. From the last two bodies, the killers harvested the hearts as well.
Police have so far arrested 11 people in connection with the murders, but are yet to reveal their identities.
The rioting and looting resulted in a humanitarian crisis as over 300 refugees and asylum seekers trooped to St Ignatius Catholic Church in Lusaka seeking refuge, while others left the city to hide.
Mr Uwiragire’s family – wife and five children – sheltered with a Zambian family for protection during the riots.
“I have nowhere to go; my family’s foundation has been destroyed. All my children were born here, but now their future has been destroyed,” he says, his voice full of exasperation.
Despite the loss he suffered and fear for his life, Mr Uwiragire does not want to live in a refugee camp again. He says life in the camp is hard.
“I don’t want to live in a camp. How will I fend for my family there?” asks Mr Uwiragire.
He says he would rather be taken to another country than spend life in a camp.
And he is not the only one who hates living in a camp.
David Niyonsima, an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), also says life in the refugee camp is hard.
Three years ago, the 44-year-old escaped from the Mai Mai rebels in Bukavu, DRC. He escaped to Zambia and established himself as a grocer in Lusaka, albeit illegally.
But recently, Mr Niyonsima watched from a distance as his dream was ransacked by angry residents.
And he was faced with the hard prospect of life in a refugee camp.
AT HOME
Many of the refugees consider Zambia as their home and refuse to return to their countries. The refugees hope to be integrated into the Zambian society.
“There is nothing to return to, I have grown up here,” says Pascal, a young Burundian man who came to Zambia when he was seven.
Pascal lost both his parents during the civil war that erupted in Burundi in 1993.
“I can’t go back to Burundi because I have no family there,” he says.
But the rioting robbed Pascal of his livelihood.
“I have nothing left on me except for this phone,” says the 26-year-old.
Frodouald Ntezimana, a Rwandan anesthetist working at Levy Mwanawasa General Hospital, argues that his fellow countrymen could not have been involved in the heinous crimes that shook the city because they are looking forward to being integrated into the Zambian society.
“Rwandans were preparing to be integrated, so what benefit do you get by making the society where you want to be integrated rise against you?” he asks.
“The Rwandans have nothing to benefit out of this, because they are losing their property and they are losing the good relationship they have had with Zambians,” says Mr Ntezimana.
He wants evidence to show that the Rwandans were involved in the killings.
WHY THE TOWNSHIPS
Majority of the refugees live in shanty townships around the city, where they engage in trading. Many of them have been successful at it.
Jean Claude Ntihabose, who is spokesperson for the Rwandan refugees, says the refugees opt to live in the townships because those are the only places they can afford.
“We can’t rent shops in town like our Asian friends,” says Mr Ntihabose.
But what is the secret to their success at trading?
Mr Ntihabose says it is circumstances that have turned the refugees into good traders.
“It is just because of the suffering. You see, when you have nowhere to go, you really have to work hard and work it out because you are avoiding to break the law,” he says.
Joe (last name withheld) was only 17 when the genocide happened. Both his parents were killed and he escaped to a refugee camp in the DRC.
Two years later, war broke out in the DRC and Joe had to make another escape to Zambia.
He spent four years at Meheba Refugee Camp in Solwezi, North-Western Province, where he made and sold fritters to earn an income. He then moved to Lusaka, where he began his trading business.
Today, Joe owns a small but well-stocked shop in Kabwata and was granted a work permit by the government.
There are currently about 3,000 Rwandans living in Zambia, a few of them still living at Meheba and Mayukwayukwa refugee camps.
It is now 22 years since the genocide happened in Rwanda, but most of the refugees still bear the emotional and physical scars of the war.
Joe says the recent attacks reminded him of the wars in Rwanda and the DRC.
“Most of the people here are survivors of the genocide in Rwanda and Congo,” he says. “Most of the people here, 80 to 90 percent originate from Congo, where they were refugees. I’m part of them, and the memories are still fresh.”
Joe lifts his trousers to reveal an ugly scar on the back of his leg inflicted by a bullet from rebel soldiers during his escape from Rwanda.
“You see this?” he says, pointing. “I can’t go back to Rwanda.”