KAMPALA— There is something eerie about Lake Victoria these days. It may be its receding shoreline which has witnessed a mysterious two meter drop in water levels since 2003. Maybe it’s the Speke Resort Munyunyo built a few years ago by Indian tycoon Sudhir Ruparelia on the shores of the lake that British explorer John Hanning Speke named after his Queen. Or maybe it’s simply the US military that convenes at the Resort that showcases East Africa’s only Olympic size swimming pool.
I am given one of the best rooms in Munyunyo, with a small terrace overlooking the lake with a few boats sitting on its dry shore. The saag paneer at the restaurant is perfect and the Ugandan waiting staff are almost too friendly. The week-long training I am organizing for African media regulators on broadcasting diversity and pluralism is going smoothly. The participants coming from all over the continent seem satisfied with their per diem and hope to strike my patriotic chord by chanting the merits of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Uganda is in the middle of a tense electoral campaign and the conference rooms next to ours are filled with US army officials and American Embassy staff.
Two months before my stay in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni had thrown in jail his main political opponent and former personal doctor, Dr. Kizza Besigye, on allegations of rape and treason. Considered to be part of what Bill Clinton once called the “new generation of African leaders,” Museveni has been lauded for his successful HIV/AIDS policies. But Dr. Besigye’s arrest which was followed by violent riots deeply troubled the international community. The Commonwealth even threatened to cancel its summit which is due to take place in Kampala in 2007. Almost two months after being jailed, Dr. Besigye was finally released following a few appearances in court. Still, Uganda remains one of the United States’ main allies in Africa. Entebbe airport a few kilometres outside Kampala is one of the US army’s “lily pad” bases in Africa, while Museveni struggles to bring peace in Northern Uganda where the terrorizing paramilitary group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) operates with no clear political agenda but simply in the name of the Bible. The LRA was once sponsored by the regime of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in order to destabilise the Southern Sudanese rebel movement who also has close ties with Museveni. Although a peace agreement between North and South has been signed in Sudan, the LRA still kills and kidnaps in the region while Museveni has become one of the US’ anti-terrorism ally.
It’s Thursday, January 26th—the 20th anniversary of Museveni’s presidency and a national holiday. We decide to take the afternoon off from our training at the request of our Ugandan colleagues who may want to celebrate. On my way to lunch, I pass by one of the conference rooms where outside a few American soldiers are chatting with their Ugandan equivalents. Since I arrived, I have been one of the only white women at the Resort and everyone thinks I’m with the American Embassy. As I walk by, no one seems to notice me as I overhear one of the Ugandan soldiers laughing about the American drawl, which for so many Africans is incomprehensible. “Are you sayin’ we’ll have to speak real slow when we train ya’ll?” says an American soldier, laughing. I can’t help but shudder. At lunch, the tables in the dining hall are almost all occupied by overly muscular white men with clean shaved heads and by only a few Ugandans in camouflage army gear. As I walk by one of these tables, I can feel the stare of a few soldiers. One of them holds a cigar and greets me: “how ya’ doing?” I stop for a second, wanting to interrogate him on the true reasons why they are all here but something in me tells me not to. As I look back at the soldier, his head in a cloud of smoke, I begin to think that perhaps what I don’t know won’t kill me. Only a few minutes later, a feeling of guilt overwhelms me. Have I become a new Canadian advocate of conspiracy theories about our controversial neighbour?
In the afternoon, I head to the pool where I read Aidan Hartley’s Zanzibar Chest about his Reuters days in war-torn Africa. I feel like I’m sitting on the set of Gil Courtemanche’s A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali. The pool deck swarms with what East Africans call mzungu, or foreigners— not so attractive young white girls with beautiful black men, a few expatriate families and some old hippies. My good Zimbabwean friend Tawana Kupe, a Professor at Wits University in Johannesburg who is facilitating the training I organized, comes to sit next to me. “Look at this neo-colonial set up,” he chuckles. In awe, Tawana observes the snazzy Indian managers who are walking around the 50-acre property while watching closely their Ugandan staffs’ every move. “Idi Amin must be screaming in his tomb,” he whispers, thinking of the infamous barbaric dictator who in 1972 expelled 70,000 Indians out of Uganda in hope of making it “a black man’s country.” I think of my Canadian-Indian friend Ami whose father fled his native Uganda years ago. In 1986, Museveni welcomed back Indians and gave them back thousands of properties that were sequestrated under Amin. Still, Ami’s father stayed in Canada where he has found a new home. Next to me, Tawana keeps joking about our CIA and Indian hosts.
After dinner, on my way to my room I come accross a Ugandan soldier guarding the entrance to a few luxurious huts. The local gin I had with my meal is untying my tongue and the Swahili I learned in College pours out of my mouth. Very few Ugandans speak the East African lingua franca despite it being one of the country’s official languages—most see it as the army’s language and associate it with the horrors they once suffered. A smartly dressed man is standing next to the soldier, and the three of us chat in Swahili. Suddenly, I ask the soldier what he is doing here as I have not seen him there before. “I am here every night, bibi. You simply haven’t noticed me before,” he replies. I still insist that he has never been here before. “Who are you guarding?” I ask bluntly. He becomes silent and looks the other way. A few days later, the Resort’s shuttle bus I take to the airport is filled with US soldiers heading back to their base in Djibouti. They claim they work on development projects such as “building wells.”
When I return home I keep a close watch on the news coming from Uganda. On February 7th, a special report published by The Guardian says that a US official “spelled out the American military\’s plan to ‘reposture’ its forces over an area stretching from Egypt in the west to Pakistan in the east, and from Kazakhstan in the north to Uganda in the south.” On February 20th, three days before Uganda’s first multi-party elections, President Museveni warns that 12,000 army reservists have been deployed across the country to deal with threats of violence coming from opposition supporters. On February 25th, Uganda’s population remains calm as Museveni is re-elected for a third term. There is something eerie about Lake Victoria and I’m still not sure it has anything to do with global warming.