Jan 28 2008

While Kenya burns, Uganda waits …

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 12:53 AM

I spent the past two weeks in East Africa. I landed in Nairobi, intent on meeting friends in the city, but no one would trouble themselves to visit me at the airport. The protests against President Kibaki’s stolen election victory were too violent. Even in the best of times, Nairobi is a daunting city, but the police are shooting protesters to kill, even felling children with their real bullets.
I waited in the Nairobi airport, then flew on to Entebbe, the international airport in neighboring Uganda. Here the Kenyan protests are watched with great interest, and not academic interest either. Because of problems moving goods out of Kenya’s Mombasa port, the inflow of goods into landlocked Unganda is more difficult than usual, causing shortages (especially of gasoline) and surging prices on some essentials. Uganda also harbors its own ethnic grievances, which hide under the surface of an impressive sense of national unity, one of the achievements of the country’s president, Yoweri Museveni.
After 20 years in power, Museveni’s ability to inspire and lead Uganda’s people is increasing challenged. In the north of the country, a restive ethnic group, the Acholi, fitfully seek greater local autonomy while at the same time trying to cajole and prod an infamous rebel leader, Joseph Kony, into disbanding his terror army for good, turning a temporary cease fire – now in its 18 month – into a permanent peace. The Acholi are only one source of ethnic tension. Another flash point involves the very successful Indian community, which dominates retail and light manufacturing businesses in Uganda. And then there are the “westerners,” ethnic groups related to Museveni’s own tribe. Westerners – a significant minority — are widely resented by the rest of the country, and Museveni is routinely accused of promoting members of his own group, while excluding others, especially Northerners and Easterners.
In addition to the recovering North, I visited Uganda’s Eastern region, spending time with the Arabica coffee growers of the Mount Elgon area. The mountain, known as Masaba in the local patter, is the result of an ancient volcano. The soil is rich, and the elevations are ideal for Arabica growing. In Kapchowra, at about 6,000 feet, I spent a few days visiting with farmers in their coffee gardens, joined by agriculture extension workers (whose salaries are paid, not by government, but by multinational coffee brokers and the U.S. government).
Back in Kampala, where I write this post, the tension over the continuing unrest in Kenya, weighs heavily. Last night I dined with one of Uganda’s finest literary writers, Doreen Baingana, who splits her time between the U.S. and Uganda. The author of a wonderful collection of short stories, “Tropical Fish,” set in her home town of Entebbe, Baingana is at work on a novel about troubled northern Uganda. In a favorite local Indian restaurant, Masala, we gamely tried to discuss personal literary pursuits, but Baingana kept coming back to the subject of Kenya’s ethnic battling, asking the question, “Can it happen here?”
All Ugandans wait for the answer.

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