Sunday, March 21, 2010

Entebbe, Uganda

Friends: When Ingo and I arrived at the World Heritage Kusabi Tombs on the outskirts of Kampala yesterday morning, I was surprised to notice guards frisking people as they entered. As we paused, looking for a safe place to leave our bikes, a guard told us we could bring them inside an enclosed side entrance.

Our entrance fee of 10,000 shillings each included a guide. It was only after we had entered that he told us that the tomb we had come to see had burned down five days ago in an act of arson, explaining the frisking. If we had been paying attention to the headlines in the newspapers, we would have known. It was a huge national calamity. A seven-day period of mourning had been declared.

All that remained of the grass-thatched structure was a crumpled mass of steel girders that once supported a roof that spanned about fifty yards over the tombs of the last four Buganda kings. It was built in 1882 and declared a World Heritage site in 2001. The tombs were not damaged, but the many artifacts in what was the world's largest hut were destroyed--spears, medals, stuffed animals and more.

The fire was set at eight p.m. and flared up from several spots. When the fire brigade arrived, it was not properly equipped to put out the fire. The next fire truck did not arrive for over an hour. Our guide said that the locals were so upset that when the second truck arrived way way too late, they threw stones at the crew and wouldn't let them in. Police were called and three people were shot dead.

The guide said that some people suspect the fire was a government plot, as the current Buganda king had been demanding billions of shillings in rent from the government. The king is just a figure head, but he is the leader of the largest tribe in Uganda and is the country's largest land-holder. Since the fire, the president of the country had been to the tombs and all the religious leaders, calling for calm. The fire could have easily set off rioting and looting.

The site was mobbed with mourners. Ingo and I were the only whites and the only ones being charged an entry fee. The Buganda tribe is the largest in the country. The tomb is ringed with huts of relatives of the present king. It will be rebuilt, but where the funds will come from is presently uncertain. Our guide hoped we would stir interest in our countries for fund-raising, though it is an important enough site that one would think the many thousands of Bugandas would rally around this cause and could raise the money on their own.

It seemed just another example of these Eastern Africans having become accustomed to aid coming their way that they don't care to take the initiative to take care of themselves. Such an attitude was much much more pronounced here than in the four countries I traveled in southern Africa a year ago. Paul Theroux, who spent four years teaching English in Uganda in the '60s, and knows Africa well, is among those who says it is time to stop giving so indiscriminately to Africans and let them take care of themselves.

So many people asking for money, and not beggars, and others overcharging whites, seeming to think money grows on trees where we come from, has undermined the great friendliness and warmth of so many. People continually tried to short change me. Hotels and campgrounds frequently would say they didn't have enough change and to come back later for it, hoping I would forget, or that it wasn't worth the bother.

Yet people regularly thank me for coming to their country and hope I've enjoyed my time. People go out of their way to be helpful, but all too many expect some compensation for it. It wasn't like that at all way south. People were genuinely helpful, especially in Lesotho, without wanting or expecting anything in return.

This will not rank as one of my favorite trips, but certainly not one that I regret. I now know this region of the world and have also made an exceptional bicycling friend. This tour has had more than its share of hard days. It is said that each Tour de France a rider completes takes a year off his life. The same might be said for this Tour.

It is five miles to the airport. I'm hoping my stitched up and bulging rear tire can make it. I noticed another bulge this morning and inserted my last dollar bill inside it to keep the tube from breaking out. It joins three others. I am eager to show this tire to Joe and Craig and Aaron. I will not throw this one away. I will find a place to hang it.

Later, George


Yonder Vittles said...

geeorge: thanks for the brilliant dispatches from africa. while this ride may not rank amongst your favorite trips, it provided your readers with a wealth of cultural insight and drama. i am looking forward to seeing your four dollar tire.

Ishkadebble said...

I am curious too... And now I know what to get you for your belated birthday present. Tires. Your current tires are supposed to be top of the line... the last set fared much better and they were almost top of the line. "Terrain or tire?" is my question. You will have to advise me on the brand/make of your new set given this set's sorry state!!!!

Andrew said...


I read Theroux's Dark Star Safari a couple of years ago, and thought that his descriptions of Africa had to be over the top, the rantings of a grumpy and bitter old man.

But now I'm not so sure...



Stan said...

I think I read a short article in the New Yorker by Theroux about an experience he had in Uganda. If I remember the story, he described the mistreatment a Black maid was getting from her European employer. Along with her household duties she had to serve her employer in the bedroom. One day her employer announced he had gotten engaged and would have to fire her. One of the fired maid's household tasks had been to iron the shirts that were delivered by a local laundry service. The European decided he could dispense with ironing. It turned out in Uganda there was a common waterborne parasite and ironing was vital for killing any eggs that might cling to the clothes washed in the local water. The European soon was covered with these parasites living just below the surface of his skin and was in a great deal of pain. Theroux and his readers had a good laugh about this "poetic justice."

Stan said...

How about a final rap-up on your thoughts about Eastern Africa, the highlights and lowlights of your trip?