Daniel Kalinaki's weblog

A commentary on news and events in Uganda and elsewhere


Just an ordinary bloke.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Down memory lane -- and Nile Avenue

KAMPALA - I had not walked along the streets in a long time, save for the ocassional forays from the office into the town to pick up my mail, get my hair cut or meet people close to the CBD. With the traffic jams in Kampala, you either walk or crawl along in the car, feeling stupid.

Anyway, I am talking about walking home from town. When I was much younger, one of our favourite holiday pastimes was walking. Just leisurely taking in the five kilometres from home into the city centre to window shop and immerse ourselves (me and my big brother -- not he of the House) into the hustle and bustle of the city.

The walking had to be calculated to take advantage of short cuts, such as that through the golf course, that offered good scenery and the chance to pick up goodies like stray golf balls (which we'd try, unsuccessfully, to crack open). The walk also had to have strategic resting points, preferably relatives, close and otherwise, who were gainfully employed and who, as we hoped, would be willing to offer lunch and some pocket money. Two such relatives worked at the UTC bus terminal near Owino market so this was a popular stop for us. One a good day, you'd be taken inside the giant garages and offered lunch, usually large chunks of meat, which you ate close to the parked buses, the acrid diesel fumes mingling with those from the giant saucepans as the afternoon heat sent streams of sweat down the neck and beyond.

After lunch there'd be pocket money and a free ride home on the bus -- you only had to tell the conductor 'I am a staff member's son' and in most cases you'd have been introduced beforehand.

Other days were not so lucky. You'd arrive at the bus terminal only to learn that John, one of the two, was away in Fort Portal or Mubende and would not be back for at least two days. A frantic search would then ensue for Stephen, the other, only for you to learn that 'he's just left on bus number 5 for Ibanda (or some such place).

It was on one of the good days that we were "shown Kampala" as we say in, well, Kampala. Sweaty but well-fed and armed with a stash of cash, we descended on Owino market to buy swimming costumes (no sniggering in the back; most of the shops sold bitenge anyway, and I have not seen kitenge swimming costumes -- although as I have not been to DR Congo.....). Anyway, on the way in, we encountered a small crowd and, naturally curious, drew closer to see what the fuss was all about. A man, seated on a stool, had a small table infront of him on which he'd lain a large piece of cardboard and had three poker cards; two black, one red.

He would lift one of the cards, show its face the crowd, turn it back onto the board and shuffle them around. "Throw your money onto the red card and I'll double it," he shouted above the market din. By this time we'd squeezed through the crowd and were now right in front of the action. A man to our left threw some money onto a card.

The 'dealer' lifted it, turned it round and it was red. He reached into his pocket, counted the money the man had thrown and gave him back twice the money. Our minds were now racing. We could double our money instantly! Imagine the endless possibilities; not one, but two -- no; make that three -- swimming costumes each, houses in Kololo, etc.

Making sure our eyes did not leave the card last identified as red, we watched the shuffling intently until the dealer called for the ante. We both agreed it was the middle card and threw our stash on the card. In a flash, the dealer reached down, grabbed our stash of cash and put it in his pocket. Then he picked up the card to the right and showed us the face. It was red. Like our faces. We tried to appeal the decision. We demanded to see the colour of the card we'd picked or else...

He quickly shuffled the cards and muttered under his breath: "mwagala tulemesa kunywa butunda?" which translates easily to 'f*ck off you tw*ts'.

I remembered that story and other childhood moments as I walked out of the Crested Towers into the fading afternoon sunlight. I remembered, vaguely, coming here when my dad still toiled away as a civil servant. I remembered the brown and ugly facade of the building which reminded me of Buganda Road primary school uniforms and the precarious lifts. I wondered about the renovation that turned the brown into blue, the time bombs of the lifts into swanky and efficient machines, and wondered to myself whether anyone would ever investigate the renovation, whose costs were more than double by the time they reopened the new building.

I walk down Nile Avenue and look across to where Shimoni Demonstration School and Teacher Training College once stood. The students were thrown out several months ago to make way for a hotel that was, some reports claimed, supposed to be built to host CHOGM delegates. I can see white tents in the distance and there is frantic activity. CHOGM has come to town, all right, but this is just an exhibition. The hotel will or will not be built at HRH's pleasure. After all, HRH is the fifth richest man in the world and he just bought himself an Airbus380 Jumbo jet. I wonder why the kids had to be dislocated, so to speak, before the hotel plans were ready to go.

As I walk down towards the Garden City round-about, I notice that at least the 'other hotel' right next to Garden City, is going up in the wetland. Did I say wetland? Yes; there once was a wetland there and I remember, as recently as three years ago, playing football in this park on Sunday afternoons. Most of it is now gone, its legs forcefully spread open to allow concrete pillars and coffee parlours.

Across the park, I notice that the trees that lined the Shimoni fence have been cut down, allowing muddy sludge to spill over into the newly-paved road. Were the trees not ready for CHOGM? Does development always have to come at environmental cost? I am lost in thought and almost get run over by a truck as I approach the Kitgum House junction.

To be continued...

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Asking for long-overdue credit

THE TOWER - A month ago, Ben Oluka, a brilliant young journo on my team brought a shocking story. Uganda's Attorney General was asking to write off 1.2 trillion shillings (more than half a billion dollars) that Govt had lent, lost, or just could not recover. The sum was staggering and my cautionary radar went off. But little Ben is brilliant and rarely gets it wrong. Plus, he had a good set of sources and a chunk of the holy grail: the report itself, exclusive.

So we did the story, a brilliant cover piece. Two weeks later, the dailies, one after the other, carried the same story without any credit to the good old East African, or young Ben for breaking one of the biggest stories of the year. It is not the first time the dailies pick up the pieces after we've rammed first into a story, but this was one of the bigger ones and I felt rather shortchanged, on behalf of paper and boy, that not a line of credit was given. When we quote a story carried exclusively by the dailies, we always, to the best of my knowledge, to give them credit for breaking or scooping the field. That should be reciprocated. Sadly, the peculiarly adversarial nature of Uganda's journalism industry means the occasional tipping of the cap for the competition is unlikely to happen soon.

Anyway, the story has since filled column inches in all papers and save for an agonised response from Keith Muhakanizi at Ministry of Finance, it is business as usual in the Govt of Uganda. It is this indifference, this lack of public anger, this absence of civic or bureaucratic responsibility, that irks more than any missing compliments. How many stories have we (and I speak for the industry) done showing graft, incompetence, ineptitude or human rights violations? With the exception of the Mabira stories, how many outpourings of anger/concern/advice have we seen? Next to zilch. But then someone returns from the big brother house (without even winning the money) and people pour out into the streets to catch a glimpse of her, the Ethics Minister addresses the press on the matter and a celebrity is instantly born. I wonder how many people would recognise young Oluka on the streets.