Kenya and Uganda might as well be one country, or maybe not
In 2009, I had the honor to pass myself off as President Mwai Kibaki’s son, and in a foreign country as well. But before Mlolongo Police detectives get into the cars and head towards my residence at breakneck speed, weapons and handcuffs ready, let me explain.
I was working for an international NGO at the time and we were on a trip to Uganda to, uh, inspect development projects. Our host, a head of state agency, tasked one of his deputies to chaperone our delegation, which made us feel like crooks because we were certainly not VIPs.
Worse yet, our chaperone kept us strictly in the posh ends of Kampala where we sipped choice drinks and burped English cuisine, a huge nuisance because our intention was to rummage through the sordid parts of town, which, as you know, are more lively and exciting if you like to watch birds. And being young wildlife professionals then, birding, especially the nocturnal type, was firmly anchored in our DNA.
Fortunately, just as we were about to die of boredom, we were directed to northern Uganda to, uh, find the source of the Nile. This is how we ended up on a long, picturesque bridge over the Nile. Two of my companions got out of the car enthusiastically – the cameras are ready. But after hammering the biggest fish you’ve ever seen, I was in the state of a python and had no desire to disturb the enzymatic processes that swarmed my stomach with the slow, lazy load of a old steam engine.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a weirdly out of place mud hut sitting dangerously close to the river bank. But before I could shout a warning to my comrades who were already walking away, two men armed with jungle fatigues and rubber boots walked around. In a flash, my colleagues were under arrest – for photographing a bloodied bridge!
Our attendant, a seasoned bureaucrat, swore and got out of the car. From a distance, I watched him engage the soldiers in a heated discussion punctuated by gestures and shrugs. After three tense minutes, he released the “dissidents”.
“How did you do that, sir?” I asked.
He smiles. “I told them that you are Kibaki’s children and that I have orders from above to take you wherever you want. Why else would a senior government official escort three young foreigners all over Uganda? We all had a good laugh because the closest we have ever seen to the President was on TV.
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But think about it. No sign prohibiting photography. An endless bridge over one of Africa’s longest rivers; a tourist attraction that should never be photographed for “security reasons”. And a hidden mud hut where armed soldiers hide in camouflage uniforms, ready to pounce. Sounds familiar?
Most things about Uganda are strangely familiar to a Kenyan. Chaotic elections where journalists, opposition leaders and their supporters are arrested and beaten like dogs. Power outages and traffic jams. Corruption (oh yes, their bidders also sucked Covid-19 funds like nectar) and a policing system where ‘orders from above’ can get in or out of serious trouble. And, of course, a noisy parliament where the opposition howls like a weaver bird while the tyranny of numbers slumbers on the front bench.
Culturally, our people are so in sync that even before our presidents signed memoranda, we’ve always been through one country or another – trading each other, loving each other, cheating each other and sometimes killing each other without either government has recourse to burning chicken. Heck, it is safer for our herders to graze their cattle in Uganda than to venture into the pastures of the neighboring tribe in their own country.
We only differ in two ways. Ugandan bartenders, at least those in Kenya, speak better English than the customers (here). In addition, the chances of the police rushing on Opoda Farm to beat up opposition leader Raila Odinga and smear pepper in his eyes.
Not because our politics are more decent. It’s just that the powers that be know that if they attempted a Besigye on the Right Honorable, that choice would have very serious consequences. But if, on the other hand, an indescribable governor or senator got too big for his boots and insulted the president, they wouldn’t know what hit them!