Notes on Uganda and Kenya for My Father

Ideas and Issues

            Frankfurt        In what has become a tradition, visiting a new country requires making some notes on the experience to mark the place in our minds and memories for the future by noting some things that were distinctive. 

Uganda is not a destination country.  Perhaps it’s best that way.  Kenya has become one. 

Talking to Ugandans, I only found one person who had crossed the border, and none that had been to Nairobi.  His father was a truck driver in his youth and used to take him along as a helper in his teens, so he was rare in having visited all parts of his own country and a sip of another.  In Kenya, there was interest, but also no experience of Uganda when I would ask around. I found one woman native to the county who had gone with a friend to Kampala on an errand to pick up a car that her dad had bought at a ridiculously low price and been stuck there for two weeks trying to get the paperwork together sufficiently to bring the bargain over the border.  She told me that Jinja, eighty kilometers from Kampala was one of the most beautiful towns she had ever seen, especially where Lake Victoria met the source of the Nile. 

Yet traveling between the two countries even by bus it would hardly be an eight-hour ride, and less than an hour by air, though that would be way too expensive for most.  I always find this level of isolation surprising since all my life I have been insatiably curious about what is around the next curve, across the lake or around the river bend, and over the mountain.  Eight hours seems a small stroll to see another world? 

The airport is in Entebbe, as is one of the two President’s statehouses with the other in the capitol city of Kampala.  The grounds surprise you on your right as you drive to the airport; I almost missed it trying to see Lake Victoria as it comes into view until the taxi driver pointed it out up the hill as we passed.  The President’s view of the Lake must be magnificent.

The airport is small, but curiously organized in a way uncommon in the current century and amazingly well-ordered if I compared the experience to other African airports, especially the total chaos of Lagos or Accra.  Coming in from the drop points everyone is segmented in different ways.  There is a covered tent for drivers from hotels and airport rides in one section.  There is another covered tent on the other side of the walkway with rows of chairs filled with people under a sign that indicates it is an area for relatives and waiters.  There are no elevators, so to get to departures you carry your gear up several flights of stairs passing the hand lettered sign that says “help in carrying luggage is available,” though it was nowhere to be seen as people lugged overstuffed cases up, one by one.  Crossing to the airport, the door to the right leads to security for another section of people waiting which seems curious, until you are pointed to the other entrance and the baggage scanner for passengers. 

            Unusually, there were three separate kiosks that were solely dedicated to taking the passports and documents for United Nations personnel. I asked someone why there was such a strong UN presence everywhere around the airport.  I was told that there was a significant logistical supply area for UN operations that was located in Uganda.  Trying to find out more, there seems to have been some “reform” the UN visit in the spring by six different agencies trying to work out a model internal UN coordination project, but this will have to be a mystery as well.

            Once you emerge from customs and more security, there is only one cafeteria where anyone can rest and eat but a very relaxed set of duty free and souvenir offerings.  The Nairobi airport is still remarkable, even with its new international terminal in having one local duty free and related shop after another lined along the concourse for the kilometeror so it takes to walk from security to the first gates. 

            I’m starting to believe that one marker that gives a clue to a country’s status in the modern world of globalism, free trade and the rest is how they handle twenty dollar and other denominations of US currency.  I recently saw this in the visa line with the Organizers’ Forum delegation in Paraguay where the customs agent returned one twenty dollar bill to me after another claiming they were imperfect in some small way and would not be accepted without a better exchange.  I had only encountered that previously in Egypt in the year of the Arab Spring. When it came time to pay the bill at the hotel in Kampala, contrary to their website and other instructions to me, it turned out that their credit card machine had broken and been returned to the bank for repair and weeks later had still not been able to find its way back home again.  After some tense back and forth about how –and whether — the bill would be paid, I finally asked what the amount would be in USD to see if I could scrounge up the money in the recesses of my bag and the various hidey-holes that I had created for just these eventualities.  The amount was $238, but upon finding twelve twenties and needing to get going to the airport so ready to call it a deal, then the clerk, now aided by the hotel accountant, began minutely rejecting twenty-dollar bills for reasons invisible to me until I had dredged another five from my pockets, exhausting the last of my stash that they accepted in exchange, claiming their superiority. There was one more that they would have liked to return, but there were no more soldiers available to fight this ancient war. 

            In the modern banking systems around the world, this is ludicrous of course,especially since the yellow phone booth-sized kiosks for money transfers are ubiquitous in Kampala, but it speaks to a second-rate status where central banks are being bullied by other banks around the world in their transactions and they in turn bully any other than the local currencies where they have confidence and the ability to fix problems. 

I could say more about the distinct lessons I learned over ten days in these two countries, but for international travelers and would be tourists, I will leave all of you with the words of advice and warning my favorite auto mechanic, Charlie Anderson, in the 20th century used to tell me when I would inquire about the status of a repair and my hopes to rescuing some broke ass vehicle of mine or my family’s.  He would simply say, “Don’t bring twenty, bring plenty.” That’s good advice around the world it turns out as well.