Saturday, 24 October 2009

Uganda…a fragile country coming to terms with its past

For the last couple of days we’ve been staying on the outskirts of Jinga – Uganda’s second largest city and the place where the country’s most infamous dictator, Idi Amin, grew up. It was here Amin’s mother came when she was displaced from her home in the north and where Amin grew up, joined the military, was promoted on independence from the Brits and finally became the dictator and butcher the West came to know. It is in this very country, in the areas we’ve travelled through that Idi Amin and his army massacred countless Ugandans. Indiscriminate killings, rape, pillage, torture – for eight years he ravaged the country.

The scars of Amin and Uganda’s bloody past are all too clear. The country is fragile, ever teetering on the brink of a coup, of a guerilla attack, of peasants taking up arms on the whim of the next politician, of inter-tribal disputes, of riots. Uganda also shares borders with Rwanda, Sudan and the DRC 

– all countries where civil war and instability reign. You travel here with the feeling that chaos could break out at any time!

Security in Uganda is tight. Outside every hotel, campsite, bank, even certain shops, a man in uniform with an AK47 sits and waits. Sometimes you see them texting on mobiles, chatting to friends or just sat in the shade out of heat of the sun. There are gates, intimidating walls with broken glass cemented into the top, barbed wire and, rather surprisingly, bougainvilleas (they plant these beautiful flowers in front of walls. Whilst they masquerade as a nifty piece of landscape design, they have very sharp thorns and grow in thick bushes which are great for preventing people getting within reach of said wall).

When we went gorilla trekking, we had armed guards front and back not because of a particularly feisty mountain gorilla but because of the risk of guerilla warfare overspilling from Rwanda and the Congo – the borders of which were only a couple of kilometers away. Apparently a few years ago this happened and a group of tourists were shot. Our guide was very keen to allay any fears we may have had by explaining that the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, which runs the national parks, is in fact a paramilitary organization with ties to all the Ugandan security forces and hence we were in safe hands (allegedly!).

Whilst Uganda may be considered instable, it doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a truly beautiful country with an equally beautiful people – the true garden of Africa. It is clean, welcoming and non-threatening (once you get used to seeing AK47s on every corner). The people here realize the value of tourism to this country. 

Everyone here is extremely friendly. I walked around Jinga on my own and felt completely safe. Everyone is at pains to tell you about their country and to ask you to spread the word back home of the experience you’ve had here.

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