The mini-bus carrying a clutch of Indian reporters who came to cover the Commonwealth Summit conference in Kampala stopped again. This time at a petrol station. Our guide needed to ask for directions to the Mouth of the Nile. One of our colleagues decided to give her company as she walked down to speak to the manager of the gas station. He needed to know what was going on.
“Just what is he going to do…” someone remarked, a bit of irritation showing in the tone. He was concerned that others might follow him and would lose out on another ten minutes in shepherding everybody back to the bus.
We had already wasted about half an hour with a guide who was constantly in need of guidance. Just a little while earlier, we had passed by a site of an under-construction hydro power station. With that it was clear that the river must be somewhere close by, but then, getting there was the problem. The road to world’s nay Africa’s longest river was turning out to be as long, or almost.
Everyone’s patience already seemed to be running thin. The last thing you expect when you have a local driver and a guide in a foreign land to show you around is to get lost. But then, you also don’t expect a desi hand to turn up to show her the way. Certainly not in a place a good 80 km away from Kampala, the capital city of the east African nation.
As it turned out, the gas station manager was an Indian immigrant and it helped when our enthusiastic colleague spoke the same language. The manager helpfully tasked one of his boys to be on the bus to guide our guide. We never lost our way again.
We just might have if we had tried to survey the Lake Victoria. It was so vast. The lake feeds the Nile with enough water to carry it forward on its 6,000 km journey into the Mediterranean. No one tries to go round the whole lake, the guy steering the motorboat told us. It was not clear if he was trying to impress his present company, or was simply using it as a labour-saving device.
On one of the islands on the far side of the lake was a witchdoctor, we were told. He could exorcise the spirits and rid people of many of their problems (and some of their cash). But, unfortunately, we could not meet him. He had been temporarily packed off for security reasons. The police didn’t want to run the risk of him displaying his black magic while fifty-plus visiting heads of state and governments were around for the Commonwealth summit.
On a hilltop overseeing the lake, stood Speke Point. It is named after John Hanning Speke, the explorer. While on an expedition in 1862, Speke had identified the spot — correctly, as it could be confirmed a decade later — as the source of the legendary spring.
It used to appear as a small waterfall flowing out of the lake. But now, no more so. Like the witchdoctor, it too had been put out of business. It had been submerged by the Owen Falls Dam. The dam is the main source of hydel power that lights up most of Uganda’s power-scarce homes and offices.
Uganda doesn’t really have a manufacturing base; western observers often describe it as an economy powered by international aid. It was not always like that. While on a safari here way back in 1907, Winston Churchill had described Uganda as the “Pearl of Africa”. But that was a good half a century before independence. In between a lot had happened, not the least of which was Idi Amin.
Despite the kind of reputation that Idi Amin gave the country, Uganda remains a friendly place to visit. And most Ugandans appear determined to prove the point. They would walk that extra mile to better the image. It is in response to the changing conditions that some of the Indian businessmen (who had been unceremoniously thrown out by Amin way back in the 1960s) have been coming back. But more than the Indians it is the Chinese who are coming in droves. They are the new entrepreneurs marking the landscape. The best testimony to their presence (and their taste) is the appearance of Chinese restaurants and in some places even the casino sign is written in mandarin.
Kampala has the reputation of being among the relatively safer capitals by East African standards. “You can walk around late at night,” a cab driver later assured us one night. A friend who had taken a similar assessment at its face value and stepped out of the hotel to check out the nightlife did return, and impressed. Of course, the mosquitoes might not be as sparing. Uganda has demonstrated one of the most effective national responses to the HIV/AIDS pandemic on the African continent but unable to repeat this performance in dealing with the blood sucking two-winged insect.
What Uganda is trying hard to be is a touristic economy. There is a good deal for the international tourists to sample in terms of wildlife and natural beauty.
But the infrastructure and the economy is still a long way from coming up. For the common Ugandan, hosting the Commonwealth Summit meant an incentive to improve the infrastructure. Good hotel rooms were in short supply. Some of the conference delegations had to book their hotel rooms a year in advance, many had to book rooms for a fortnight even if they had to be there only for three days. But this was the past. Thanks to the Common Wealth Summit, the hotels are up and running. And the rooms up for grabs.