Vol. 7 No. 15 · 5 September 1985

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

2773 words

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.

But their ease is superficial. A Kampala story, told as true by an African, recounts how a man hears and sees suspicious characters surrounding his house. He rings the local police. ‘Yes sir. We have no transport sir. If you get in your car and drive to us, we will come with you and deal with these robbers.’ Even in the Uganda Club, the lavatories don’t always flush. And one night amazed Big Men turn up to find that the Club has No Beer. I watch as MP after MP retreats to his Mercedes shaking his head, and experience a mild schadenfreude: beer in this place is usually cheaper than in bars frequented by poorer persons.

A Ugandan literary critic tells me how much he admires Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. ‘I am like Kurz. In another situation, Kurz might have been the great man others thought he could be. But he went up the Congo. When I was a student here, we really thought liberal democratic institutions would work. Now we know they can’t. What is the point of studying literature here?’ Indeed, what am I doing here, in my third and last year as external examiner in the Department of Literature? Flying in, I was reading Francis Mulhern’s The Moment of ‘Scrutiny’. As I first looked over the students’ scripts, I thought of the Leavisite insistence that literature was the queen of all arts disciplines, the key to survival of national culture and international civilisation, and wondered if it was less preposterous than I used to think. Surely it must be good that in sad Uganda young people are carefully reading Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal’, and Animal Farm, and Dickens, and the angry recent books of East African writers – Okot’p Bitek’s Song of Lawino, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood? Surely this reinforcement of humane values and radical thought will bear fruit. But I hear that the Ugandan poet who, while still a student here, wrote eloquently about the hypocrisy of the rich in stanzas which appear on one of the exam question papers, but who has long been an exile in Nairobi, now drives a Mercedes there. For him, as for other young writers, the Big Man’s Mercedes used to be the prime symbol of flashy corruption. Another, some of whose writings we use in an Open University course on ‘Third World Studies’, has recently got a job in the Republic of South Africa.

Kurz sees, at last, ‘The horror, the horror’, and literature graduates selling out this way or that will at least be aware of the irony implicit in the resounding name of ‘Dr Apollo Milton Obote’, will perceive the Kurz-like tragedy of a very remarkable man doomed to failure a second time round. But what good do perception and sympathy achieve? Isn’t it rather the humane communal values of ordinary villagers which will rescue Uganda? These are infused in what is called ‘Oral Literature’ or, as a Ugandan, Pio Zirimu, had it, ‘orature’.

The department library, where I work on the scripts, has pinned on the wall book jackets and photographs which must all have been up when I visited the campus in 1971 just after Amin had taken power. C. Day Lewis and Stephen Spender beam down, as does a young man then called ‘James’ Ngugi, the pride of Makerere, from which he had graduated as the first published East African novelist. This freezing of time has occurred, although (or because) the department was run by British expatriates into the 1980s. Something snapped. The library tells the same story. Up to 1971 it was buying current books: there is almost nothing on the shelves published since. Such new African literature as has come in has been stolen, with the connivance of staff.

So the library is wondrously Pompeiian. Makerere was built up from the 1920s to be the first university in British East Africa. The generation of Africans which still dominates the ruling élites of Uganda and Kenya was taught here by expatriates in the Fifties about the British Constitution, British Law, British History, and, of course, English Literature. The library had, for instance, acquired over the years three complete sets of Ruskin’s works, all the novels of Meredith, the poems of Wilfred Scawen Blunt. Then as the booming Sixties came in and brought Uhuru, a last round of buying brought in such expensive specialities as a complete modern edition of Milton, and the plays of Shadwell. Even, in French, Jacques Derrida. An inquisitive African linguist of philosophical bent might have set off on a deconstructionist course long before most British academics had heard of such things.

Came 1971. Came world-wide recession. Came war and pillaging troops (who mercifully couldn’t read and left the books). The Halls which had once had High Tables were wrecked. The lawns remained green, but no croquet or cricket was played. Now academics who suffer from low salaries, high inflation, set books not arriving this year till the third term, are plagued also by memories of the Good Old Days.

At the University of Nairobi, where I taught literature from 1968 to 1971, we were well-aware that Makerereans looked down on us in our younger institution as rude upstarts. But when I first went to Makerere – to a Writers’ Workshop, then to teach for a few weeks on exchange – I sensed insecurity. Obote’s troops, in that phase of his duel with the Baganda who live in and around the capital, were already capable of arbitrary violence. Armed robbers already roamed near the campus. However, in that heyday of Black Studies, Development Studies, Western cash and African aspiration, Makerere was an impressive university. Brilliant Africans taught alongside expatriates who were often of the highest quality. The Travelling Theatre took plays out to the countryside. A young generation of local writers were becoming famous, and not just in Uganda and East Africa. Techniques of oral history were opening up the hidden African past. Ali Mazrui’s gadfly intelligence made the study of politics seem fun. I think of the writers I used to argue with over beer into the small hours. Timor mortis conturbat me. The explosive Okot and the gentle Pio Zirimu died in their prime, as did the playwright Serumaga, who kept oppositional theatre going under Amin. David Rubadiri, then exiled from Malawi, left for Kenya and is now in Botswana. Okello Oculi, poet and political scientist, is in Nigeria. Not one well-known Ugandan creative writer now lives in the country. The Kenyans whom they mixed with at those heady workshops, conferences, festivals are now mostly in exile or silent at home.

Was it really so good in those days? asks a young assistant lecturer who’s never been out of Uganda, as he kindly walks me back to the Club one evening (I must not lose my way and be out in the streets after dark: no sane person, black or white, who can avoid it, walks after dark). I say: ‘Yes and no.’ Insofar as Makerere’s luminosity depended on Western cash, it would have dimmed anyway, without Amin. Universities everywhere have got less exciting, and Makerere’s pretensions were never fully justified – our Nairobi students were just as good. But in those days, Ugandans studying at home could get first-class degrees. Now the Arts Faculty Exam Board jubilates over the rare upper-second.

But what does that really matter, in a country where appeal court judges are rumoured to hear no appeals – many of these are made, but they merely pile up in an office – where soldiers pillage drivers at roadblocks on the main roads, where patients have to buy their own surgical supplies before they can be treated in the once excellent teaching hospital, where inflation is rocketing? It matters insofar as brilliant Ugandans now work in other countries, won’t come back, and can’t be replaced. It is not at all funny that Makerere’s chemistry practicals had to be postponed for weeks because there weren’t any chemicals; that, in a potentially rich agricultural country, the university’s Department of Animal Science does no research into livestock breeding. If Makerere goes under, Uganda will cease to have any potential for educational self-sufficiency. Its present total dependence on foreign institutions will be perpetuated.

The Club’s other residents, apart from Makerere ‘externals’, are World Bank employees: Americans who are investigating the prospects for tea production, a Chilean computer programmer who is helping set up a questionnaire survey into living standards, a French Canadian just arrived to spend two years sorting out the Government accounts.

The Government has been privatising state-owned enterprises – thus the breweries have been returned to Ind Coope, who owned them before nationalisation. In any case, capitalist control of the country was and is assured through the International Monetary Fund. Uganda’s economics are Swiftian. The shilling is ‘auctioned’ at intervals to establish its rate against foreign currencies, and officially is now at 800 to the pound. But persons dealing with Dubai, to which Uganda Airlines fly regularly, will pay double that, and everyone from the President’s Office down goes for the black-market rate, at which a small tin of imported salmon costs only four pounds, not eight pounds, and some whisky drops to below its British price. However, a bottle will still cost more than the official minimum monthly salary, on which a man could barely feed a family for three days, on local produce.

How do people manage? In contrast with Nairobi, Kampala has almost no beggars. Its people do not hustle and hassle. But in their diffident way they are pedlars. The main street’s pavement is lined with newspaper sellers, second-hand booksellers, kiosks where individual cigarettes are purchased. The old bazaar area gives an impression of unquenchable human resilience. With the expulsion of the Asians, Kampala lost its commercial middle class, and this has no doubt caused many problems. A few Asians are back although some may be enterprising newcomers from the Indian sub-continent. However, the shops are mainly African-run. Some are amazing. One goes into a sizable store which sells cloth and the first impression is that there is a grotesque number of assistants. Wrong. Maybe twenty or thirty African women have clubbed together to pay the rent, and each sits behind her own few rolls. Elsewhere, tiny booths are crammed with women, in a narrow alley, deeply potholed and rutted, down which an adventurous driver tries to nudge his car past people carrying steaming bundles of food on their heads, for sale to stallholders. A cobbler sits on the pavement surrounded by old shoes, fashioning one which looks like new. Some shops have stereo speakers out on the pavement, blaring pop music at full volume. The fruit and vegetable stalls in the covered market are sheer delight. Everything looks magnificent – chillies and ginger root, okra and beans, pineapples, bananas, fine local potatoes. You can grow almost anything in Uganda, and three crops a year of some plants. The country could feed itself twice over. But Makerere’s leading social scientist, Mahmoud Mamdani, has just had his passport withdrawn while abroad for saying that the long-standing famine in Karamoja in the North-East is a political, not a natural disaster. Insecurity elsewhere means that a tract of land which could support 2000 cattle is stocked by its owners with only 500 – why hand out more free meals to the Army?

Compared to many other Third World countries, Uganda is rich, naturally rich. It has not suffered, like Kenya, from excessive attention by white exploiters. Its problems have been primarily political. Its post-Independence leader, Obote, a Northerner, could not come to terms with the numerous, advanced and well-educated Baganda. To call this a ‘tribal’ matter is to fall back on racialist cliché. It was a clash of wills, rooted in geography and cultural traditions, which was comparable to many in modern European history.

Ugandans are commonly quiet, kindly, humorous people. Those I know best find it as hard to understand why murder has followed murder as I do myself. A mad world economic system, and a very unlucky political history, have left them in near despair, sick of the past and fatalistic about the future. Economic policies pursued by Western governments which are designed to control labour in ‘developed’ countries have caused unspeakable misery in Uganda and no doubt in many other ‘underdeveloped’ countries. We in Europe are inspired to sympathy when natural disasters strike, but spare none for people who are victimised by the policies of governments we elect. As Conrad knew, the heart of darkness is here.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences