Kampala, 2012

On my last morning I have a few hours to pack and send final emails to make sure I leave no loose ends. Just after noon, my taxi arrives driven by Anthony – an accountant turned taxi-driver who’s picked me up from Kisimenti a few times. I say goodbye to the Guest House staff and we set off through old Kampala, past the police station that was once Lord Lugard’s house. It’s not long before we arrive at a junction where a Congolese coach is trying to reverse in the middle of the traffic. There is an unbelievable jam of boda-boda, cars, matatu and lorries, all throwing out black fumes and calmly directed by a policewoman in white uniform and beret.

Eventually we’re on our way again, turning past the Kabaka’s palace, with its gold minarets and perimeter wall like and English country estate, to pick up the Entebbe Road. At the roundabout, we catch a glimpse of the blue windows of the Workers’ Building in the city centre. Anthony is an articulate and entertaining guide and we talk about Ugandan politics as we drive. When I first visited Uganda, the hills between Kampala and Entebbe were still green and sparsely wooded. It wasn’t hard to imagine antelope or bushbuck grazing there – and, indeed, there were long-horned ankoli cattle and goats in abundance. Now, and even since last year, there has been a huge acceleration of the building that began with Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2007, when the Queen visited Kampala.

There are new shopping malls, hotels, and housing complexes beside the road and spreading up onto the hills. It used to be that individuals built their own homes on small plots, brick by brick. Those scattered enterprises have all but disappeared, replaced by multi-storey steel and concrete structures. Anthony tells me that corrupt MP’s and officials can no longer get their money into Swiss bank accounts, so they’re investing it in Uganda. The government is trying to encourage the development of a middle-class, but compared to anyone living in the insanitary shantytowns and shopping in Kampala’s many open-air markets, the glitzy malls and hotels are an impossible goal. Many of the new houses have no proper access roads, sanitation or secure water supply. Others store their effluent and release it into the wetlands below when it rains, flooding the townships with raw sewage. In Uganda, the ‘mobile toilet’ is now in vogue in the form of the ubiquitous black plastic carrier bag.

On this visit people have talked much more openly about corruption and I have a sense that patience is running out. Many officials and MP’s have a vested interest in keeping Museveni in power because if he goes, then their shady deals, linked to investment and development programmes, will evaporate. Moves to restrict the term of the President’s office are afoot, but the ruling party has so far controlled the debate from within and easily outnumbers the opposition. The possibility of serious conflict in Uganda seems very real unless there is a structured transition of power. If the disturbances that have been flaring up periodically erupt through achieving a critical mass, then those hotels and shopping malls will remain empty of their American and European visitors. It’s easy to imagine how quickly the economy here could plummet. Such phenomenal expansion has to be underpinned by long-term political stability and democratic transparency – both are in short supply.

We arrive at the airport and I’m asked to step out of the car for a desultory security check. I could easily have been carrying a firearm without detection as they pat me down and wave me through. I shake hands with Anthony and head for the terminal with my bags. I’ve got a six-hour wait in Dubai, so don’t relish the flight. It’s been a good visit in many ways – especially hospitable and productive at Femrite. But the wider picture of literature development, like the country itself, seems mired in impossible contingencies. But then maybe I wouldn’t still be coming back if it weren’t. What the people have here is incredible patience, optimism and endurance – and that’s something that can’t be legislated for or bought at any price.

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