Talking about the journeys from Kenya to Congo in 1983, however, reminds me that you had to go through the whole expanse of Uganda. The same Uganda that had been our nightmare from 1971, when the soldiers hijacked it and made it a torture chamber. From Kenya through Malaba or Busia border points, you made your first acquaintance with a military roadblock at Busitema.
I still shudder today, when I recall that infamous Busitema Forest roadblock of the seventies and the early eighties. This was in Tororo District of eastern Uganda, a few kilometres from the border town of Busia on one hand, and Malaba on the other. In the seventies, it was during the reign of the late H.E. Field Marshal Al Haji Idi Amin Dada, V.C., D.S.O., M.C., Life President of the Second Republic of Uganda, King of Scotland, Conqueror of the British Empire, Former ‘Current’ Chairman of O.A.U., etc. The roadblock was set up to check the flow of Ugandans into exile, in Kenya. This route posed the danger of becoming a conduit for potential rebels, who fled Uganda en masse to join Obote in Tanzania. Amin ousted Obote in January 1971. The roadblock also aimed at checking smuggling activity that threatened to completely abolish formal trade. The soldiers, therefore, had a wide operating dominion in which to place you. They had the power to brand you a rebel, rebel-sympathizer, subversive element, smuggler, carrier of currency-ya-inje or just a ‘westerner’! All of them sins punishable by death.
Apart from subversive activity then, smuggling across the Uganda borders was rampant as a result of the success of the three phases of the ‘economic war’! Idi Amin Dada, Big Daddy, launched the economic war with the noble idea of empowering the Ugandans economically. The results were disastrous, but first things first. The first phase of the economic war involved expelling Asians who, according to Amin, controlled most of the businesses in the country. This grand vision came to Big Daddy through God’s inspiration. While sleeping in the northern town of Moroto, on August 4th 1972 at five in the morning, Amin got a dream in which God directed him to dismiss Asians in not more than ninety days, Britons and Jews later. He jumped onto his jeep and drove to Kampala, passing through Tororo briefly to reveal his dream to his army commanders. He announced it officially to the country at State House, Entebbe, the following day, concluding with: “The Asians, they milks the cow, but never feeded him!”
The second phase involved allocating the businesses to Ugandans through the ‘Business Allocation Committee’, composed of senior officers in the army. At first ministers did the job, but due to the pressure of work, which mostly meant following the big man on his numerous tours of the country, they were relieved of the task. The army personnel did the work at such a marathon speed that they were also instructed to suspend the allocation till a future date. Amin himself was ousted, in 1979, before the committee could resume its work. Phase three of the economic war was termed the ‘Mafuta Mingi Operation’, meaning an operation to create a lot of fat fellows, or rich Ugandans. This involved setting up commercial and development banks that dished out loans to these new businessmen. In the end, of course, they only managed to run down the industries and other businesses, what with getting free things totally unexpectedly. I remember one shopkeeper asking a customer if what was written on a shirt-collar was the price or the size of the shirt. “The price,” came the expected answer. It was size 16.5, so our lucky customer bought the one-hundred-and-fifty-shilling shirt at Ushs.16.50!
To cut an extremely long story very short, everything crumbled. By 1978, there was no order at all of any form: economic, social, educational, military, etc. And yet somebody had dared write so gloriously about Amin thus, in part: “… because the former corrupt regime failed to rectify the situation, the military government of the second republic of Uganda decided to break the impasse by applying a surgical solution. Some people have referred to it as a military solution. Whatever it is called, it produced the results all ten million Ugandans needed most.” The writer, poor moniker, talked about this and much more in the early years of the coup and was not to know that this ‘surgical solution’ would mean bringing the country practically to its knees. To buy anything, from salt to Sanyo televisions, you were required to join a queue that snaked its way to the shop for sometimes over two miles! After the Tanzanian-led invasion and the successively faltering regimes, by 1985 Uganda was damaged goods!
Everybody was hungry and angry, especially the soldiers. It was through this total anarchy that sometimes we had to force our way. So, if you survived the Busitema Forest roadblock with some of your Kenya currency, then you would have to bribe the taxi-bus driver so that you could pass through Tororo town. The reason being that you needed some loose Uganda currency so as to buy your way at the numerous roadblocks on your route. You did not want to make the Busia or Malaba mistake of losing your money to a con man, so you opted for the second best alternative. Check out a fellow passenger with an equally harassed look (you looked as if you had given up the hope of ever living again!), preferably a fellow teacher from Kenya, and find out if he/she has a relative in Tororo town. That relative would always be more than willing to help, if not freely then for a small fee. The rest was to pray that the myriad roadblocks awaiting you would be ‘currency-note compliant’, that the soldiers would be willing to take money and not insist on your blood or both!
Even then, your miseries were only beginning! As I said, you lived like a fugitive where you were teaching in Kenya, and like a convict on death row, when you returned where you had studied in Uganda. In Zaïre, Mobutu Sese Seko wa Zabanga’s land, where your parents lived, you were ‘mu-anglais kutoka kule mu ba Est-Africains’, completely unrelated to your Zaïrois parents. If you were caught on their soil and you were not able to bail yourself out, the berets verts, green beret soldiers, would dump you in a cachot, jail cell, where you would rot for good. Give them a little of that Ugandan currency you despised, however, and you will be the patron of all the Zaïrois in your region! In Rwanda, your motherland where you had hardly ever lived, you were an inyenzi- nyangarwanda, enemy number one of the state, wanted dead or alive. So, in Kenya your ‘aliens’ card’ quoted the number of your Ugandan passport, and there was no better opportunity of renewing this passport than when you were in Kampala.
But lo and behold! The chief immigration officer had been changed and now the new fellow was the selfsame childhood rival, the Munyankole boy who used to go to our primary school in the refugee camp, the thug who had coined that abhorrent phrase, “empungi zikija aha waya!” Many actually believed it. That like electrical current, we had flowed through electric wires on those wooden poles by the roadside, as we fled from Rwanda into Uganda, in 1959 and the early sixties…!