Location: Kampala (Mengo and Bugolobi districts), Uganda
Saturday, May 27, 2017
Today was a day of tourism and relaxation. We ate breakfast at the hotel — which, by the way, is as standardized here (the Namirembe Guest House) as it was at the JENGA guest house in Mbale. Breakfast here consists of hard-boiled eggs, bread to toast, mango juice (not like the stuff in more rural areas, I’m sad to say; I think it’s watered down to make it stretch), coffee (soooo strong), African tea (yum!), fruit, and these muffins that remind me of a semi-sweet cornbread. Might actually be semi-sweet cornbread, since they grow a lot of maze and sugar cane, and while I’m no gourmet chef, it seems like that gets you a long way toward “semi-sweet cornbread.” But I digress. The secret to breakfast at Namirembe is the “spanish omelet.” I heard another guest request one, so I tried it too. It’s simple: a couple of eggs, scrambled, with a few pieces of bell pepper stirred in, then … “omleted” (told you I wasn’t a chef). But it was really good!
After breakfast, we piled in the bus and headed into town. One of our number was sick, so our group leader (Amanda) took her to the doctor. Kira, another student who has been on this trip 3-4 times before, led the expedition into town. Thought you might appreciate a view of traffic in Kampala. Note the absolute lack of signs, lines, lights, signals, etc.
We started by visiting Mengo Palace (also called Lubiri Palace) on the outskirts of Kampala. The palace is technically located in Mengo, adjacent to Kampala proper. The palace was built by Mwanga II, the 31st king (or “Kabaka”) of Buganda, in 1885. He conducts some official business, but will not live there, because so much killing has occurred on that site (keep reading, I’ll get to that), and the Baganda are suspicious about such things.
BTW, “the Buganda” is how locals refer to the people of Uganda. There is a pattern of prefixes used in the local language to construct words related to nationality. Uganda = nation; Baganda = people; Luganda = language, etc. The Buganda is the largest, most powerful tribe in Uganda, and the reason for the country’s name, but there are also the Batooro, Banyoro, Bakiga, Bafumbira, and many others. Note the “Ba-” prefix. Each of those too are subject to the same construction. The Batooro people form the sub-nation of Utooro and likely speak the language Latooro. Etc. I’m a Muzungu (“white person”). So, “my people” are collectively referred to as Bazungu as well. You get the idea.
Okay, back to our tour…
There is a bunch of history at Mengo Palace – kings who overthrown and their successors tortured and killed tens of thousands of people out of paranoia and fear as they labored desperately to hold on to power. Mwanga II, who built and lived initially in the palace, is the same king who tried to wipe out Christianity and the original Catholic and Anglican missionaries. We visited the Okuzimba museum honoring them a few days ago.
So, Mwango builds this palace, gets all uppity, has a bunch of Christians killed, and creates huge problems for himself. He has a long, sorted history with the British, who were in colonization mode concerning all of East Africa, as well as the East India Trading Company. He was deposed twice, brokered power with the British multiple times (bleeding power from the Buganda to hand it to Britain to keep himself “in power”), was imprisoned and escaped multiple times, led rebellions, declared war on Britain once, etc. Colorful guy.
Eventually, the Brits kicked him out for good and placed his 5th son by his 4th (of 16) wives, Daudi Chwa II, on the throne. His reign was comparably unremarkable, but he was succeeded by Mutesa II, whose reign was anything but. During Mutesa’s reign as king, the British floated the idea of federating the East India Company. Mutesa, and the Buganda, hated that idea, fearing it would bring them under white control, as had occurred elsewhere (e.g. Kenya). So, they rebelled, demanding independence for the Buganda kingdom from the Ugandan nation. Instead, in 1962, Uganda became an independent nation from Britain under the leadership of Milton Obote, as executive Prime Minister. Under the country’s new constitution, the Kingdom of Buganda became a semi-autonomous tribal region in a new Ugandan federation. And the post of colonial “Governor General” was abolished and replaced by a non-executive President, a post first held by the King.
These two men — Mutesa as king and president, and Obote as Prime Minister, who is the true head of the government — quickly came to be at odds on a great many issues. The conflict came to a head in 1966 when Obote was implicated in a gold smuggling plot, together with Idi Amin, then deputy commander of the Ugandan armed forces. When Parliament demanded Obote be investigated and Amin be fired, Obote suspended the constitution and declared himself President, disregarding the King and allocating to himself almost unlimited power under a series of emergency rulings. When I was listening to the guide describe this, scene after scene from Star Wars came to mind. I kept looking around for Anakin Skywalker.
Ultimately, Obote’s and Amin’s forces attacked the palace, captured it and sent Mutesa into exile. Over the next couple of decades, 25,000 people were then tortured and killed on the grounds of the palace. Here is a picture of the torture chamber (started out as a weapons armory). People were herded into this main long hallway area. There are five 20x20ft (or so) rooms to the left, each of which used to be closed off by a steel door. Imagine this room with about a foot of standing water in the main hallway. In order to torture or kill those in the chamber, the water could be electrified at various levels of intensity. Our tour guide said that they would torture people by turning the juice on low for 30 min at a time, shocking them in a way they couldn’t escape, letting them rest for an unpredictable (but short) length of time, then cranking the juice back on. Then, when they were done for the day, they’d herd them into the rooms on the left, lock the doors, and let the crowd thin by suffocation, before the let them back in the water for more torture. Highly disturbing.
In the end, the nation established a new constitution in 1997. They started out with a more balanced system, but the President now has nearly unlimited power (the current guy —Yoweri Museveni — is effectively a dictator, who has been in power for over 30 years and ignores much of the constitution). The King is a very influential figurehead, who appoints a very weak parliament. And the people are frustrated, because they (of course) want more ability to directly affect their own lives.
As fascinating as it was at the palace, I think I was the only one on our team who was really into it. Everyone else is (much!) younger, and they don’t remember who Idi Amin (or his buddy Muammar Gaddafi) was. To them, it’s theoretical. To me, it’s actual history. The other thing they seemed to struggle to grasp is that this kind of bloody transition of power is normal. Heartbreaking, but normal. It’s us in the US … who peacefully transition between leaders every few years and whose leaders actually respect the constitution to some degree … we’re the weird ones. It’s the US who is radically unusual in all of history, not Uganda. In most of the world and in most of history, the guy with the biggest stick is in charge. Period. And he typically, frequently, and with impunity kills lots and lots of people with smaller sticks. Sad, but nonetheless true. Come quickly, Lord Jesus!
So, anyway, moving on…
After we left the palace, we ran around town a bit. We exchanged more money for a few team members, then came back to the hotel for lunch (an amazing Mongolian BBQ; SO good!), and then went shopping in a local (rather touristy) marketplace in the afternoon.
At the market, the shop owners were a bit pushy and aggressive, but they were nothing like those I encountered in Israel. There were no prices on anything, so you always have to ask what the store owners want for whatever you’re looking at. Then, you haggle your guts out, until you land on a final price. Our guide recommended that we start the wrangling by cutting the stated price in half right out of the gate. I’m not the best at this game, but I did end up getting got 3 dresses, 3 shirts, and a bunch of other smaller souvenirs for less than $100, so I don’t think I did too badly. It helps that the exchange rate is ~3,500 UGX (Uganda Shillings) to 1 USD. To give you a frame of reference, the average Ugandan salary this year is about 45M UGX (~$13k), a gallon of gas costs about 14,000 UGX (~$4) (1), and a loaf of bread costs about 3,000 UGX ($0.85) (2).
Having done our souvenir shopping for the trip, we spent the rest of the afternoon at a resort in Bugolobi (a district in Kampala). We swam, some folks played cards, and generally relaxed on a beautiful afternoon. Check this out…
And after that, it was dinner at everybody’s favorite place to eat in Uganda (*wink*): Café Java. Then we retired back to the guest house for cards and then sleep. All in all, it was a very interesting, educational, and fun day.