Trouble in Kampala

Everyone has heard the stories of problems in Africa. Sometimes I think it is all we think of when we hear about this continent. One of the questions that makes me internally roll my eyes is, "Africa, isn't it dangerous over there?"

What we fail to consider is that Africa is a continent, not a country. It is very large, more than three times the size of the USA, and very diverse. There are politically unstable areas and peaceful areas, as there are in most parts of the world. There are certain themes, however, that emerge when one analyzes troubled areas and situations around this vast continent. The riots that just broke out in Kampala highlight one of the primary issues that continues to cause problems in Africa. It's no secret by now that I love Africa so it shocked my idyllic travels when trouble broke out in Kampala. Although Uganda has suffered ongoing violence in the Northern part of the country, the Central and Southern areas have experienced relative peace for quite awhile. Tribalism, the stimulus behind so much of the trouble that continues to haunt Africa, has struck again.

In the mid '90s the Ugandan government restored the traditional "kingdoms" and gave the hereditary chiefs a degree of sociocultural leadership that was not meant to extend into the political sphere. Perhaps it is easier on paper than in reality to tell someone that although in the past they would have exercised complete control, they are now limited by the authority of the central government. Much controversy has surrounded one particular King's insistence that he be granted a federal administration that would restore his political power. The government has refused this idea of returning to what would seem to be an older form of tribal governance.

Watching the action in the streets from the wall of our compound.

The trouble escalated when the King, or "Kabaka" as he is known, of Buganda, the largest traditional kingdom in present-day Uganda, declared his intent to visit the Kayunga district. This area claims to have seceded from his kingdom amidst complex political maneuverings. Fearing a backlash to the Kabaka's visit to this controversial area, President Mussevini forbade him to go. Not only did he proceed with his plan, the Kabaka requested that the government provide him security.

Since it is apparently against the law to arrest the Kabaka, the government arrested another prominent Baganda leader. Two days before the Kabaka's planned visit, violence broke out in the streets of Kampala. In an apparent effort to protest the government's interference with the Kabaka's plans and to protect him on his upcoming trip, Baganda youth began starting brush fires on the roads, burning cars, and looting.

I arrived back to Kampala late on the first evening that the violence broke out. Shocked by what had transpired, I watched the news and the President's press conference to try to make sense of what was going on. The following day everyone in our hostel stayed inside the compound. We were warned to not go out and about. From our wall we could see the smoke from fires going up throughout the city. Gun shots rang out throughout the day as the military patrolled the city attempting to squelch conflicts.

Many of the Ugandans I spoke with seemed more concern about the military presence than about the rioters. Mixed reports indicated that around a dozen people tragically lost their lives that day. I visited the home of a friend that evening for dinner and he recounted seeing a woman shot before his own eyes that morning as he was shopping for groceries.

Scheduled to leave the next morning, I was not sure what I should do. Most of the locals I spoke with strongly suggested that I stay in safety and wait out the violence. There was some fear that perhaps the Kabaka's visit was the prelude to something larger. When he backed down that evening and agreed not to take his intended trip, it restored hope for many that things would calm down quickly.

Since people would be waiting for me in Kenya, I thought it best to go if I could but wanted to be careful in light of the advice I had received. Just before going to bed the night before, one of the ladies at the hostel insisted that I leave the next morning while it was still safe and before the riots broke out again. She called the taxi for me before I had time to object and it was settled. We drove to the bus station at 6 AM the next morning and my bus left by 7. Several hours later I received a text message saying that the trouble had broke out again and it was good that I had left.

It was a sad way to leave the country that I had grown to love so much over the past few weeks. I hope that things stabilize quickly and that the Kabaka and the government make peace soon, preventing any further unrest.