Uganda is a challenging country to visit. It is beset by poverty, inequality, conflict and numerous health issues. It is also a country with which I feel a strong affinity. Maybe it’s because just outside Kampala they named a town, Port Bell, after me. Maybe its because one of it’s most famous beers, Bell Lager, is also named after me. Or maybe, just maybe, it is because Uganda wins the award for producing the most attention grabbing radio advert I’ve ever heard.
It was up against some serious competition, after all, I once sat in a bar in Belize listening to calypsos promoting the use of condoms by advising the men of Belize that women were conniving and devious harlots, hell-bent upon trapping innocent men into relationships. Give them a chance and they’d deliberately get pregnant…or so the jaunty calypsos would have us believe.
In the end, Uganda’s radio advert won by a country mile. I was sat in the back of a taxi in Kampala, the radio was loud enough to be heard in a neighbouring country, and the driver took delight in drawing my attention to the advert. In a country blighted by HIV, unwanted pregnancy and a miserable record on women’s empowerment, the advert was intended to put an end to the phenomenon known as “Sugar Daddies”.
“Sugar Daddies”, older men who use money and power to extract sex from young women and girls, are a major societal problem. The advert was blunt. Essentially, two girls are at university. One has a Sugar Daddy who gives her a mobile phone and clothes, the other has no Sugar Daddy and is poor. The girl with the Sugar Daddy arranges for her friend to meet another Sugar Daddy so she can have nice things as well. The man is waiting in a car on a darkened street. She opens the door, the interior light comes on to reveal…her father.
The moral of the story is obvious, but still quite shocking. I had come to Uganda for work, and, after a couple of days in Kampala, I was driving north on a pot-holed road to the benighted region of Gulu. In this vast and lawless area, which has the misfortune to border Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kony’s Lords Resistance Army has waged a brutal and terrifying war against the people of this region for two decades.
Kony’s story is well known. A man with messianic tendencies, who believes he is the instrument of God on earth. He has adopted a particularly perverse Christian fundamentalism to achieve his goals, including mass rape and murder, torture, decapitation, kidnapping male children to be child soldiers, and female children to be sex slaves. His militia have run rampant across this region, killing thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands.
The human cost of Kony’s delusion is incalculable. Kony insists that he is fighting for the Ten Commandments to be fully imposed in Uganda, but he forces children to murder and mutilate their own parents; orders whole villages to be burned to the ground and the inhabitants killed. Very Old Testament. This has been going on for over two decades. It wouldn’t be inappropriate to ask why the International community has done so little to help?
It was a period of truce and faint hope when I arrived. I spent a week in the region meeting people living in the Internal Displacement Camps, getting their stories and venturing into the countryside to see progress towards rebuilding villages and communities. After returning to Kampala, I decided to go and visit some different areas on my own time. I particularly wanted to see some of Uganda’s fabled wildlife.
Despite huge environmental degradation, intense pressure from population growth and agriculture, Uganda has some amazing wildlife to offer. I headed east to the Kibale National Forest, a wonderful region where it is possible to see lots of primates, birds and other wildlife, but which is most famous for chimpanzee tracking. Returning to Kampala, I went to Lake Victoria to try to catch a glimpse of the illusive Shoebill Stork (a pre-historic looking giant of a bird).
Despite all the challenges – and they are many and severe – faced by Ugandans, this was to be an amazing introduction to a beautiful and fascinating country. People are really friendly, and it is a country that deserves to see more international visitors – although if you’re gay it is unlikely to top your list of holiday destinations.