by Bob Baker
"Don't worry about the upsets in Kampala, Bob," my new boss in Africa wrote reassuringly in 1967 before I left Washington, D.C, "It's more like gang warfare in Chicago than a real war and has already calmed down."
In fact, about two thousand had been killed by Ugandan Army shelling of Rubaga Hill in Kampala a couple months before I arrived on my first Foreign Service assignment. Most of the dead were women and children. The Kabaka, King of the largest and best educated tribe in Uganda, the Baganda, had fled his Rubaga stronghold and palace, to exile in Britain.
Ugandan President Milton Apollo Obote, had broken the major traditional tribal kingdom in Uganda by his attack. During the next couple years, Obote moved fitfully but steadily against the major opposition political party. He wanted to consolidate his power before an upcoming election. He expected to lose that and so had begun to dismantle Uganda's democracy, most potently by creating an unchecked, brutal, secret police. The press remained free but largely self-censored.
As I settled into my job, Uganda was still prosperous, peaceful, had a lively press, an independent judiciary, an uproarious political life and a small, but well-educated African elite who ran much of the civil service. Britain and the U.S. were major donors of economic and military aid designed to help Obote maintain Ugandan unity in the face of ancient tribal rivalries.
Unhappily, the shelling of Rubaga Hill, in hindsight, unmistakably marked the end of political solutions to Uganda's problems, and its slide into corruption, despotism and chaos. Shortly after I left, Uganda's lovely people were dragged into more than a decade of tribal warfare, costing hundreds of thousands of lives and general ruin.
Here is how Uganda looked to an innocent abroad, just as it began to slip over the precipice in 1966. It was green, lush, peaceful, and even cool in the shade when the sun was hot. Kampala lay almost on the Equator but was at about 4,000 foot elevation. Flowers blossomed year round, scarlet, yellow, pink, white, on the rich volcanic soil. The staple food, mashed green bananas, also turned into beer if left in a dugout with a bit of yeast or if left longer, could become waragi, a kind of tropical vodka. If you broke off a three foot sprout from a banana tree, scuffed out a hole, stuck it in and tamped the dirt down around it, you got a week's supply of food in the form of small green bananas a couple months later.
Women did nearly all the work; most men, including even some Christians, had several wives and numerous progeny. The prosperous African tribal nobles and even some peasants hired laborers from nearby countries to pick cotton and coffee in their fields. About 200,000 harvest workers came annually. The extended family and tribe were still mostly intact. They provided care for children, the sick and old, and money, comfort, warmth and reassurance to all members.
Britain's initially ferocious rule begun about 1894, brought peace, trade, prosperity, medicine and education, including Makerere University. Makerere trained African civil servants for all East Africa. The British stamped out both internal and for export slavery, and public human sacrifice. They had less success against witchcraft and private magical murders. More than most of Africa, Uganda seemed ready for independence when it came in 1962. Even after the British left, a second free election saw the ruling party defeated and Obote win control. That was Uganda's last free election. Nobody knew when I arrived that it would be, though it was tense and the portents were ominous.
En route from the U.S. we over- nighted for our onward flight In Cairo. We had been utterly delighted at nightfall to have the lights suddenly go on below our balcony of the Hilton overlooking the Nile where we sat with drinks. They illumined a stage where I saw my first belly dancer demonstrate why Muslim men prefer their wives to be secluded. That dancer was what the Jesuits called "a proximate occasion of sin," something so sizzling and sinuous I had never seen. She was much more sexy than the only other stripper I ever saw.
I also booked, next morning, the wrong Cairo bus tour. We became the only American tourists never to see the pyramids. We wound up instead at King Farouk's tacky palaces, probably my punishment for lusting after the belly dancer. I was glad when we caught the plane to Nairobi and then on to Kampala.
I arrived exhausted in Uganda with my pretty wife and two small children. I was sodden from the two year old's upchuck. She sat on my lap and gave back the breakfast I had just fed her, two eggs and toast. I recall vividly Sasha's radiant smile and beautiful shining eyes, tired from the night flight, just before the eggs spouted out of her little mouth and onto my tie and lap. She was as surprised as I, and burst into tears. I dried her tears and dabbed my shirt with the edge of her security blanket.
Our flight from Cairo to Nairobi then Kampala on Royal Ethiopian Airlines had made an unannounced overnight stop in Addis Ababa. The pilot used the excuse that there were too few passengers to justify keeping the scheduled onward flight to Nairobi. In fact, Emperor Haile Selassie had commandeered the plane for a trip he wanted to make. As absolute ruler, he did that occasionally. You land at Addis by flying straight on the level as the mountains rise to meet you. We had been bussed from Addis airport into a bitterly cold, cement block hotel. It stank of wet cement. The kids and we were groggy with fatigue. Son Toby, just a year old, caught a strangling cold in the chill Addis hotel and was shivering when we landed the next day in Kampala after transiting Nairobi.
As our plane approached Kampala airport, a stewardess in a neat blue uniform came down the aisle behind us with an old fashioned, hand-pumped, flit gun. She sprayed a puff of bug killer just over the head of each passenger. It settled down on your hair as the dew from Heaven falleth upon the flower. I did not realize what was happening until my own delousing had happened and I saw her move on to the passengers in front of us. It was standard practice to prevent bugs from entering the country. I believe the spray contained pyrethrum, an extract from an African plant that killed bugs but was fairly harmless to people. The treatment was almost certainly a hold-over from British colonial days, not an African innovation.
Thank heaven, the Public Affairs Officer, my new boss, met us at the airport in the post station wagon, got us through customs and drove us to our temporary house. He was a warm and sympathetic guy who gave us the name and telephone number of his competent Indian pediatrician. Sick little Toby saw the doctor and got antibiotics that afternoon and was soon well.
The Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Embassy was about 55, gray and balding, wore rimless glasses with silver earpieces, slacks and bright, open-necked shirts. He was sturdily built, very kind and glad to help. His wife gave us dinner that first night at their home and next day showed my wife around town for shopping, etc. I was expected at work the next day, while my wife went shopping and our new African nursemaid cared for the kids.
Kampala was gorgeous with flowers everywhere, blazing hibiscus, bougainvilleas, deep green palms and magnificent banana trees in gardens next to African huts or houses. The sparkling clean main street was planted down the middle with flowers. It was only 26 miles from the Equator but at almost 4,000 feet, you stepped out of hot sunshine into the shade and at once it was cool. The town was built on seven green, gentle hills sprinkled with beautiful homes. Downtown, if only a couple blocks long, had excellent shops for food, clothing, furniture, and a couple outdoor bars with Africans and Europeans sitting alongside one another enjoying a beer or coffee served by waiters in white gowns and red fezzes. Wow! I loved it.
Our house was under construction, but we moved into it within a couple weeks. The barren red clay garden all around our new house became verdant within two weeks of planting the grass. Kampala was as Winston Churchill said, "the pearl of Africa." Before construction was completed, I went to see the house. Next door to it another was being built on a hillside. The hillside cut twenty feet deep revealed dozens of termite tunnels swarming with busy bugs. Their tunnels went down into the volcanic soil and disappeared into the earth where the cut ended a full twenty feet down. In the tropics, ants never freeze and just go on forever multiplying and digging. I imagine now many years later, they are somewhere near the surface of China. However, Kampala was wonderful for us.