Sunday, 19 July 2009

A Place of Contrasts

Hi again. I'm writing from Kabale, a beautiful mountain town in southwest Uganda.

Not sure if this post is going to work or not, given the precarious internet situation here. Blogging in Kabale is kinda like writing in your diary on the edge of a cliff. It could work out, but things might go wrong and nobody will ever know what you wrote. So I'm gonna keep it short.

After I finished up yesterday, I went to see the tombs of the Buganda kings, which was pretty interesting. There are basically a bunch of buildings from what used to be the old palace of the Kabakas (kings) before they realized that a villa with satellite TV and a swimming pool was preferable to a giant grass hut. I had a brief history lesson from my guide, George, on the role of the Buganda kings in Ugandan culture and politics. Like many tribes in Africa, the Buganda are composed of many clans and subclans who traditionally specialized in different trades (e.g., milking, fishing, guarding) and recruited actively from other ethnic groups. Although somewhat independent, the different groups all pledged loyalty to the king. In fact, there's still a king today, although only 20% of Ugandans are his nominal subjects and there's quite a bit of tension with the central government. I really don't like monarchy or monarchs really, but it's interested to learn about. Other points of note at the tombs: a stuffed leopard from the late 1800s that served as the king's pet, and a round of a game called Yawezo (I think) that involving dropping seeds in little bowls and stealing the other person's seeds. It's not the best game in the world, but it's ok -- I'd rank it somewhere between Mouse Trap and Monopoly.

Yesterday night, we met up with my old friend Esther from school and a couple of her crew. It was a really fun night out -- we went to get Turkish fare then get drinks at a bar. The Turkish food was probably some of the best food I've eaten in a long time. Although I've only been there for two nights, Kampala really does seem like a great place to live. Unlike in Dar or other cities, where the restaurants are all spread out, Kampala has a number of massive entertainent places with over a dozen bars, restaurants and clubs in one small area. It makes it really easy to walk around different places and try out a few spots. One other thing I've got to point out: the music in Uganda is awesome. The actual Luganda stuff is actually pretty mediocre, but I've heard music from multiple bars that's really great -- blends of US hip hop, Bongo Flava, some classics (read: MJ), and even the more tolerable strains of European electronic. I got a little more good music than I might have liked yesterday, since our hotel room was 7' away from the popular Iguana Bar.

Today has been fun, but totally unrelaxing. I've basically just spent the past 11 hours traveling what was supposed to be a 6-hour trip. To pass the time, I bought a Ugandan English-language newspaper. It was one of the better 45-minute chunks of my day. I'm not sure if this is true of Ugandan dailies in general, but this paper (the "New Vision," I think) devoted its content equally to three topics:
- corruption scandals and government disputes
- religion
- nightlife and sex

The corruption part interests me hugely, but I'm going to leave that for another post. The religion thing is worth writing about though. Ugandans are largely Christian (especially Kampala and the southwest), and have traditionally been Catholics until quite recently. In the past few years, however, pentecostals and other evangelical/born-again/charismatic Christian groups have been flourishing and winning tons of converts from the traditional Catholic congregations. I noticed that the most common billboards in Kampala (after mobile phone ads) show duos or trios of famous preachers giving massive performances in stadiums or concert halls. Most of the posters I've seen feature a prominent Black evangelical preacher from the US, hosted by a Ugandan bishop or pastor. The newspaper article I read today was describing how the Catholic church has been forced to respond to the rising evangelical tide by offering its own charismatic elements (including speaking in tongues, more praise-y sorts of music, etc.). Apparently there are now official Charismatic Catholic priests in Uganda who blend the two approaches together.

The nightlife-and-sex section of the paper was also pretty fascinating. It was pretty news-free, actually, but contained a bunch of columns, op-eds and special features. One article discussed mistresses of married guys -- in other words, women who maintain long-term adulterous relationships with wealthier men in a very overt lovin'-for-financial support exchange. Rather than condemning what seems like a very widespread practice, the (female-authored) column was trying to explain that mistresses fulfill an important demand in the market because many married men are neglected by their wifes and need to feel loved. If that's the women talking, you have to wonder what the men would say. Reading the rest of the section made me realize how difficult the public-health workers have it in East Africa. I have a few friends who work on behavioral AIDS prevention and health marketing on the continent, and it's insanely tough to try and change behavior when hunting for casual love (even paying for it) is so accepted.

Back to Kabale. It's a cool place: leafy, green, and mountainous. I'm staying tonight in a museum and am going to go explore the nearby lake tomorrow. Local tourist info calls this place the 'Switzerland of Africa,' although I doubt I'm going to find any fondue tonight.


  1. Yawezo sounds a lot like Mancala, a game I played when I was a kid in the mother-land (South Texas). Christianity in Uganda has an interesting role in the US, as well, since many of the more conservative Episcopalian Churches in the US have chosen to align themselves with the Dioceses of Uganda, since the American Diocese has gone so far to the left.

  2. True on the Mancala connection. I played that once in California, but I didn't realize it was South Texan.

    Even knowing very little about different Christian denominations, my impression is that church life is very big indeed in Uganda. Are the right-leaning Episcopalian churches in the US actually aligning with evangelical churches in Uganda?

  3. I do *not* think Mancala is a S. Texan game...I think even then I knew it was of African origin. My elementary school just happened to have a board. And yes, I was serious about the US-Uganda church connection: See, e.g.,,8599,1666693,00.html