Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Rest Day in Mbara

Friends: At first glance Mbara would not seem a particularly appealing place for a rest day, a ramshackle city still showing the scars of having been invaded by Tanzania in 1979 in retaliation for Idi Amin invading it. But for my purposes, Mbara is just fine. It has Internet, a restaurant that serves pasta and no tourist attractions to distract me from giving my legs a full day off.

I tried to make my last three days on the bike recovery days, limiting my mileage to 50 miles a day, but the steep hilly terrain has made each day as demanding as an 80 or 90 mile day, further depleting my legs. I am counting on a full day of respite to restore their pep.

Mbara has the cheapest Internet I've encountered. There are Internet cafes all over advertising twenty shilling per minute rates, sixty cents an hour. But those cheap places have been so painfully slow and erratic, some not even allowing me access to my email, I upgraded to a 30 shilling a minute computer store outlet. Its still very slow, but I eventually get what I want, though I can still wait a minute or two after clicking for the website to turn up.

I don't need to spend all day on line, as I have more than ample reading material between the books I brought and four national English newspapers to peruse. I plopped down in front of CNN in my hotel's TV room with two of the papers for a couple hours this morning. The anti-gay bill a Uganda legislator proposed a couple months ago, requiring gays to register and establishing a death sentence for gays who seduce boys, continues to be an off-and-on story, one day front page news and then days with no coverage at all.

Both the country's Catholic Church and Anglican Church have come out in opposition to the bill, though without acknowledging that gays deserve full rights. President Obama has declared the bill "odious." Uganda's multi-term president acknowledges the world furor the bill has caused and urges no action until it has calmed down.

The bill hearkens back to the crazy days of Idi Amin, a man famous for reckless and provocative comments and actions. Shortly after he seized control of Uganda in 1972, when the president was out of the country, he evicted all Jews and Israelis, and a year later all Indians, even though the Indians owned the majority of the country's shops. Amin applauded the Palestinian massacre of the Israeli Olympians in Munich the summer of his coup. He proposed building a park honoring Hitler.

He banned beards and flip-flops. Police could make anyone caught wearing flip-flops eat them. The US withdrew its embassy less than a year after Amin took over. Nixon referred to Amin as a "prehistoric beast." He murdered 300,000 of his citizens during his seven years in power. It is hard to imagine how he could find enough people to assist his butchery in a country of people who seem so docile and cordial.

The last movie I saw before leaving for Uganda was French director Barbet Schroeder's much acclaimed 1974 documentary on Amin, a somewhat collaborative effort between the two of them. Audiences found it hilarious. It ran for over a year in Paris. Amin brought further attention to the movie when he demanded three cuts--one of an execution scene and another of a letter Amin sent to Tanzania's president saying that he loved him so much he would want to marry him if he weren't a man. He didn't object to any of his anti-Semitic or pro-Hitler comments.

When Schroeder initially refused to make the cuts, Amin took some 100 French citizens in Uganda hostage until he complied. Schroeder gave in, but indicated in the film when a cut had been made and had them available for audiences to see in the lobby after the screening.

The movie portrayed Amin as an affable, fatherly figure treating his countrymen as if they were children. It may be this seeming child-like nature that makes Ugandans easily controlled and accepting of their lot. Uganda is the only country in the East Africa coalition with Tanzania and Kenya that does not have a minimum wage, and it is in no hurry to establish one. A government minister was quoted in a recent newspaper article as saying it would take 40 years to enact such a law. A few years ago the government came up with a plan called Vision 2035 to transform Uganda "from a peasant to a modern and prosperous country" by 2035.

The vast majority of its 31 million citizens are just scraping by. I see very little of the industriousness that was so evident in China. People don't have much to occupy themselves with. Villages and cities teem with people just lingering about. One of the few non-laboring jobs is providing transport on the back of a motorcycle. Clusters of such guys are one of the common sites of Uganda. The country would like more tourist dollars, but only twelve flights a week arrive from Europe and none from the US or Asia, just another seven a week from Dubai.

One growth job that has a lot of takers is working as a security guard in Iraq. US companies actively recruit here in Uganda, as they can pay Ugandans considerably less than their American counterparts. There are 10,000 Ugandans in Iraq earning $600 a month, compared to the $15,000 Americans are paid. Up until recently the American contractors paid the Ugandans $1300 a month, but realized there was enough demand and qualified people, they could get away with paying them less than half that. That $600 is still a mini-fortune to the Ugandans, most of whom are lucky to earn a dollar a day--$300 a year.

My reading presented a less rosy picture of the country than what I've been seeing. Stories on rape are common, though instead of using the word rape, it is referred to as "defilement." One town was happy that there had only been 23 defilements in the past month, down ten per cent.

The papers use the word "Kandahar" in place of "vagina." A political candidate was recently detained for defaming his opponent in a public confrontation, saying she had "a huge and smelly Kandahar." The front page headline of one of yesterday's papers was about a man accused of murder running mad in prison haunted by visions of the women he murdered.

Life expectancy for Ugandans is just 52 years. About 300 people die a day from malaria, mostly children under five and pregnant women. Only 60% of children complete primary school. Corruption is rampant. Letters-to-the-editor decry the waste of tax-payers money. A couple days after a road contractor put some paint down, a surprise rain in the dry season washed it away. Most politicians live by the "rule of the full-belly," taking care of themselves first, then their relatives, then their tribal brethren before considering the public good.

I will be happy to be back on my bike tomorrow so I don't have to fill my day reading about such things.

Later, George


Unknown said...

Yikes...scary news on the wires there. Interesting to see what happens with a dramatically dangerous proposal of legislature against gays and the response of the Church in Uganda. In spite of a (likely welll-earned) negative reputation on gay rights in the west, it seems that the Catholic Church in this case might be one of the best defenses standing to protect gays in Uganda, a nation that you say is 90% Christian.

Stuart said...

An alarming trend in Uganda is its population growth. The growth rate is well over 3% per year and Uganda is projected to have a population of 130 million by 2050. The average number of children a Ugandan woman has is 7. The reason? Lack of access to contraception and complete indifference to the problem by the government.