The pearl and the grit

Winston Churchill described Uganda as the “pearl of Africa” and having seen a fair bit of the country now, I see what he means – from the lushly forested volcanic mountains of the south to the Nile-threaded parks further north, the country is dancing with primates (the highest concentration in the world), with other large mammals from hippos to lions, and feathered with birds of every description, from the pretty, delicate humming birds and kingfishers, to the dinosaur-like shoebill storks.

The people we meet here are exceptionally friendly and, because English is so widely spoken, we are able to enjoy much fuller conversations here than elsewhere we’ve been in Africa. But despite the progress made in eliminating the hateful Lord’s Resistance Army and in disarming civilians, the north-south divide remains strong and the potential for conflict is bubbling away. Tribes in the north are, I’m told, organising themselves in preparation for the next election in 2011, when the reluctant-to-leave President Museveni (he changed the constitution to allow himself more terms in office in true African-leader style) is likely to remain in office for another term. Museveni talks of ‘retiring’ in 2015, and many believe that he is eyeing up a new position thereafter as leader of the newly formed East African nations government.

With tribal tensions, drought, terrible roads (contributing to an appalling RTA rate), a land reform bill and other governance issues to hand, it would seem Museveni would have little time on its hands for the trivial. And yet, the government is currently embroiled in some sort of bizarrely hysterical homophobic hate campaign. Most of Africa (South Africa’s anti-discriminatory constitution is a notable exception) forbids homosexuality, and Uganda’s existing laws already outlaw gay sex and any overt gay behaviour – making the current obsession redundant and even more peculiar.

The new anti-homosexuality bill, which is likely to be passed, expands the existing law to include: life imprisonment for being gay; execution by hanging for anyone with HIV who has gay sex; 5 years’ imprisonment for anyone who speaks up for homosexuals and their cause; and 3 years in prison for anyone who fails to report within 48 hours a homosexual to the police.

Is this the sort of nasty nonsense that a country bent on developing, improving infrastructure and encouraging investment should be wasting its time on?

In his 1908 book on Uganda, Churchill also remarked that there were “sinister aspects” to Uganda that were not always easy to see. I fear their eruption now.

One theory explaining the strange obsession with homosexuality here, is that it is a kind of anti-colonial thing – being gay is better tolerated in the West and is an example cited by some high-profile Africans as one of the ‘evils’ of Western culture, along with drug-taking, promiscuity etc. Whatever the reason, discrimination of this kind against any tribe, religious group, sexual type, gender etc is unacceptable, and the genocide that occurred so recently a few kilometres away in Rwanda should be lesson enough of where this could lead.

We travel to the source of the Victoria Nile in Jinja, and take to the waters in an inflatable raft, paddling furiously for along the river with four fellow rafters on an exhilarating 3- kilometre-ride down class 5 rapids. For those not versed in rapid terminology, class 5 = very very scary indeed. We topple out of the boat a few times in high water, Nick gets sucked into a powerful vortex for a few frightening seconds before his life-jacket bobs him up again and he’s rescued by the ever-present crew of safety kayakers. It’s great fun and very fast and wet. I try not to think about the bilharzia in the water here, and the occasional hippos and crocs – really the white water is scary enough. But of course, the moment we’ve finished, we want to start all over again!

It’s all changing here, though. A semi-built hydropower dam – to be completed in 2012 – has already raised the river by 4 metres, causing one of the rapids to vanish completely. When it is finished, the dam will drown all of the first few rapids as well as villages that have been relocated elsewhere. It feels like a shame in this beautiful area, where we spot a fish eagle eating a large fish, storks and water monitors bathing, but in comparison to other hydrodam sites I’ve seen, this is far less socially and environmentally expensive.

Further down river on its 6700 journey to Egypt’s delta, is Murchison Falls, a spectacular 6 metre-wide gap between the banks where the world’s longest river river must squeeze through before crashing hundreds of metres down in a deafening explosion. It’s one of the most powerful surges of water found anywhere and an amazing Rift Valley site in a beautiful national park. It was here that Bogart and Hepburn filmed The African Queen, that Earnest Hemingway broke his arm and almost died (in fact the newspapers prematurely reported his death) in a Cessna plane crash, and it was here that during Idi Amin’s reign of terror, most of the animals were poached out of existence.

We stay in a lovely spot overlooking the mighty river, where hippos and warthogs roam through our camp (bring a torch if you visit the toilet in the night, we’re advised), and we can see elephants from afar. The next day, we go on a boat ride down the river and see globules of bathing hippos, herds of elephants including a tiny (it’s all relative) baby suckling from its mother, rather too many massive Nile crocs and plenty of other game including antelopes and bufallo. There is an 18 metre crocodile here with a taste for humans, which gets villagers who bathe or collect water from the river. Two months ago it ate one of the rangers, who had not tied his boat securely to the bank and waded in to get it. That’s what happens if a man is more scared of losing his job (because of a lost boat) than he is of being eaten by a crocodile.

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