Angus Calder, a visitor to Uganda in June, gives his impressions of the life he found in Kampala on the eve of the country’s latest coup
A fat old goat lords it over the compound of the Uganda Club in Kampala. Once the preserve of colonial officials, now that of MPs and other top men in Milton Obote’s ruling Uganda People’s Congress, the Club has residential accommodation for official guests, of whom I am one. The goat totters about, browses the lush grass, chomps mango leaves and pieces of paper, or sprawls against a wall, jaws slowly working over (it seems) nothing, its hard-boiled yellow eyes suggesting mystic withdrawal. Its grossness, in profile, makes one think of a cow. But when small boys or bored askaris tease it, it is transformed, it is doglike.
One takes evasive action as it sprints past to pose, ears cocked horizontally, staring at its persecutors, on the bank by the clubhouse steps; one expects it to bark. It is said that, before he fell in 1979, Idi Amin used to feed it by hand. One afternoon, the very model of a modern African Minister is getting into his car after a lunchtime beer-drinking session – three-piece woollen suit, gleaming spectacles on gleaming face. A grizzled old man in a Kaunda suit (I’m told that he was latterly a UPC official in charge of youth; as the Club cuisine sometimes attests, ‘lamb’ can live to a great age here) hails the Minister across the compound. ‘Hey! Chief! This goat! When are you going to do something about it? It has been here for more than five years. Some people do not like it!’ But the goat was still there when I left days later, scraping its horns on the wall, not yet a scapegoat.
Ugandan guerrillas have made a strategic westward withdrawal towards the border with Zaire, through which they are getting arms, apparently from Western bloc sources. Obote’s army, underpaid and demoralised, doesn’t want to fight them. Instead it goes into areas where the rebels have wrested food from the villagers and accuses the latter of supporting them. Peasants are beaten up. ‘Scorched earth’ methods are applied. Starving the guerrillas means starving villagers, who are herded into camps. Misery spreads further. A Makerere University academic has just been out west to collect his father. This man of 80 was farming near Kasese. Rebels passed by a few miles away. Other human beings rippled away from their path. The old man suddenly found that the people around who had formed a cordon of protection were no longer there. Robbers attacked him and broke his arm. Father and mother are more mouths for this academic to feed; he has four children. His salary would keep the household going for about five days. Since he bravely came back from a job abroad a couple of years ago, he has been living off his savings. Now that these are running out, he is planning to keep chickens in his garden. His colleagues have the same problem, which they share with everyone paid by the Government. You simply can’t afford to devote yourself full-time to your academic job. One professor owns two maize mills and runs a taxi service. One lecturer has a bar, another deals in second-hand Peugeots and is owed millions of shillings by the Government for the hire of one of his cars. Assistant lecturers struggle along by working part-time in several schools at once, and giving private coaching to the sons of wealthy families.
For there is a small minority who are somehow wealthy. Uganda Airlines, flying out from Gatwick, are besieged by customers overweight in their baggage, who are taking back washing-machines, hi-fi, fridges and televisions. Ugandan shops are quite well stocked with imported goods, so that Kenyans, who find it harder to get them, cross the border to buy. Behind high fences, dogs, and armed askaris (you hear gunfire every night in the centre of Kampala), rich citizens must be enacting fantasies of Western ‘good’ living. In a city where water supplies are erratic the fire service will call to fill their tanks.