Where Hope Thrives
“I better know what I’m doing” was the alert that ran through my head as I sat with my back up against the cold, corrugated metal wall. I was inside a dark and musty shack in the middle of one the poorest ghettos in Kampala, Uganda, surrounded by 23 African men. All eyes were trained on me, the only white woman ever to enter this inconspicuous enclave. The lack of available electricity kept any visible definition at bay; therefore, their faces were not distinguishable, yet I was greatly aware of their stare. My next move would be critical. The young man closely positioned next to me whispered, “You must greet us all, Madam.” Mechanically at first, I rose, found my footing and did just that.
I shuffled along the dirt floor, fist in front, bumping each hand one by one. Repetition was relaxing and I gave to a huge smile and uttered a “Wud up?” with each bump. They loved it and said so through their laughter and the questions they soon were free enough to ask. Especially noticeable was the feel of complete surrender that permeated the air. Inquiries came flying at me, expressed in soft tones and broken English. Most members of this delightful and eclectic group were casting personal beliefs, aside from the steady stream of questions. Stock comments were plentiful as well, and the usual explanation of where I was from and why I was in Africa was addressed early on.
This particular ghetto lies on the highway between Kampala and Jinja and is within a thriving metropolitan area inundated with industry from all levels. Known as Nakawa, it is the Headquarters of Nakawa Division, one of Kampala’s five administrative divides. Besides hosting institutions such as Ugandan Revenue Authority, a major quality shopping complex, farmers and central markets and a well-established rugby club, Nakawa lies adjacent to Ntinda, one of Kampala’s more affluent sections of residence.
Marginalized communities such as Nakawa are pretty much common throughout Kampala, but none have history quite like this one.
President in the 1970s, Idi Amin remains the most notorious of all Ugandan leaders after ruling for eight consecutive years. Ousted in 1979, he then fled the country and died in exile in 2003 while residing in Saudi Arabia. During his presidency he referred to himself as The Hero of Africa, His Excellency President for Life, and even Lord of the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea. State officials from around the world, particularly in the West, nicknamed the man “Butcher of Uganda” in reference to his taste for war and horror, adding up to a half a million victims by the time he was removed. Known for his tribal ancestry, Kakwa, Amin hailed from Western Uganda and the West Nile area where he is loved and honored until this day.
Adoration for such a flamboyant, evil villain seemed implausible and I was more than amenable to visit his homeland during my trip to Aura, West Nile region of northern Uganda, and ask a few questions. The car ride took eight hours and the visit encompassed four days. The town of Arua lies just a few kilometers from Amin’s hometown, Koboko, as you head north toward South Sudan. There in his town his name is common to see, as establishments were named after him, including a club that sported city officials and local residents. Indeed, Idi Amin Dada, named so as the father of the country, had quite the following in the northwest of Uganda and it surprisingly left a trail all the way back to the Nakawa ghetto.
As it turns out, this maze of living quarters, shops, food vendors and hordes of residents in the middle of Nakawa was settled by second generation Idi Amin warriors. The families of these fighters were allowed to make a home on this land and have never been charged a penny for any of it. Kakwa exist here, too, and most have relatives in the West Nile area as well.
Penetrating the seldom-heard accounts was stirring, at the least. Most of the men in our gathering were forthright with nothing to hide. Command of rudimentary English kept their exchange easy to follow and they readily understood any replies that were warranted from me. Vivid acclamations ruled as they paid tribute to the “only man that loved Uganda more than himself.” Some of these narratives did ring with truth, for Amin was originally well liked by the West and applauded by the British. In point of fact, the man began his military carrier in the British army. More fetching was his devotion to his country. It was Amin that served as a great ambassador and worked tirelessly to promote Uganda around the world. Even when he died the offer to bury him “in state” was given to family. In fact, if it had not been for this tyrant, perhaps Sir Winston Churchill would have never originated Uganda’s nickname, “The Pearl of Africa.”
Perhaps it was the history of this village that helped to create the quality of conversation that we maintained that evening. Perhaps it would have been the same in any ghetto throughout the city. Nonetheless, the caliber and incomparability of what I learned from those men that night brought me back on several more occasions. One evening the electric light bulb that hung in the shack was pumped with energy and I could easily see each one of them. In fact, that night we even had a radio and a local station was playing Reggae music to the delight of my newfound friends. Limited space prohibited much dancing, but on occasion one or two would slink into the middle of the floor and move about quietly to the beat. Others would sing a few lyrics, but most were up for conversing.
The best of all was the heart-to-heart accountings concerning the spirit of hope. In that the participants were always coming and going, the crowd was usually fresh and each story or statement was authentic. One evening a doctor replied to my inquiry about hope and happiness. His convictions were rousing and I made effort to memorize his every word. This man was married and had been the father of two children. Both of his babies had died from Malaria, despite their receiving the antidote during the course of their illness. In both cases there wasn’t enough money available to treat their disease early enough.
Of all the men in the crooked, thin-sided, makeshift enclosure, this man gave the most passionate of speeches. His idea of hope was simple and was defined in one word…tomorrow. He honestly believed with all of his strength that tomorrow would be better. As the testimonial continued, others would engage. Before night’s end even I began to buy into their theories that tomorrow HAD to be better. This and only this made the most sense and not a soul in the room disagreed. “How could things stay same?” questioned one young man. “Just as you came as a stranger, you are now our trusted friend. How did this happen? See every day is better,” was the chronicle of another.
For the past seventeen years I have either lived in or visited the country of Uganda. In addition, I have traveled to well over fifty countries, many of them on the continent. At no time have I ever been engulfed into the devotion to believe in hope as when I am in this country. The overwhelming and alluring display of happiness coupled with the dependence on daily aspirations is extraordinary if not unearthly. Indeed, I am a dutiful student of “The Pearl of Africa” and know without any doubt whatsoever that I am a better person because of these specially chosen people.