A JOURNALISTS’ DILEMNA – TO HELP OR NOT TO HELP

this article fist run in the New Vision of December 4th, 2020

You’re a journalist and are the first on the scene of an accident; do you do your job, take pictures and gather information for a story, hoping someone else will help the victims? Or do you help the victims, and thus not do your job? It is a dilemma that is usually encountered in Journalism 101, to show aspiring journalists how not straightforward their work is going to be.

This came to my mind when someone tweeted recently about the trauma journalists go through while covering tense situations like demonstrations and riots, and the lack of assistance in dealing with the ensuing Post Stress Trauma Disorder (PSTD). This Ugandan journalist wrote how he quit being a journalist because he couldn’t deal with the stress and trauma.

There has not been a major war in Uganda for a while, so the closest today’s journalists have come to major stressful situations are probably when politicians campaign for office every 5 years. The recent riots are a case in point, when security forces used live ammunition to restore order, resulting into the deaths of several dozen civilians.

That relatively young journalist probably had the right to fear for his life, and the shock and trauma that comes with that. But maybe he should take a moment to think of others that have come before him.

The film We Were Soldiers (2002) is about one of the first battalions of the US Army to fight in Vietnam, against overwhelming numbers of Vietcong. Imbedded (the word did not exist then, of course) with the US soldiers was TV reporter Joe Galloway, who eventually wrote the book on which the film was based. He survived the series of battles that pitted more than 4,000 Vietnamese against the 400 US soldiers. Wonder what he would think of Ugandan journalists traumatised by the campaign riots.

Nearer home, many of my colleagues at the New Vision covered the last stages of the Rwanda War in 1994, and the genocide that preceded it. In fact one of them, the late Cranimer Mugerwa, was the first to take pictures inside the Presidential palace after the fall of Kigali. There are tales of how so eager he was to take pictures of the live action that he was assigned a full-time RPA soldier, to pull him back when he got too eager. Those colleagues told of literally wading through human bodies, victims of the genocide.

In the late 1990s, the Allied Democratic Front started a series of bombings in Kampala. For some reason, they would throw a bomb or two somewhere in Kampala every Saturday at exactly 8pm. To be ready to ‘cover’ the action, the New Vision formed a ‘bomb squad’, of which yours truly was part of. Our job was to be ready every Saturday night, and at the first reports of a bomb we would be there in minutes, to capture the scene as it was.

I forget how many bombings we covered, but the 1999 Valentine’s Day bombing in Kabalagala was probably the most gruesome. There were body parts everywhere, and I vividly remember a colleague pointing out, “there’s a foot, photograph that.” And we moved on, looking for more body parts to take pictures of.

It wasn’t till much later, after we had developed and printed the pictures, and then submitted them for the next day’s paper; while I was having a beer in Wandegeya, when all that had happened hit me. The unforgettable stench of human blood stayed with me for a long time after that, and that was the last time I covered any such disaster.

The ADF was soon defeated and the bombings stopped, only for Somalia’s Al-Shabab to carry out twin bombings during the final game of the 2010 Wold Cup at Kyadondo Rugby Club. I was supposed to be at Kyadondo that night, but finished work late, the match had already started, and I knew I wouldn’t get a good seat. So I decided to watch the game at a pub in Ntinda.

But my colleague Norman Katende was there, with his camera, and the images he captured won him the CNN/Multichoice Press Photographers of the Year award in 2011. Katende, who was nominally a sports photographer, is somewhere in Australia, but I don’t know if he suffers from PSTD as a result of the Kyadondo bombing. I don’t think I do, from all those torn bodies I took pictures of.

An example cited in any journalism class is that famous picture taken during the Ethiopian famine of 1993 by South African freelance photographer Kevin Carter. Dubbed ‘The vulture and the little girl’, it shows a naked and emaciated girl, curled up into herself, with a lurking vulture in the background.

Published in the New York Times, it won Carter the Pulitzer Prize for photography. But it also caused uproar in the public, with many wanting to know what happened to the little girl. Carter was bombarded with accusations of being selfish, of using people’s misery to earn himself accolades, in spite of explanations by the New York Times that the girl reached the feeding station, and eventually survived. Carter could not take the criticism and committed suicide, just 2 months after receiving the Pulitzer Prize.

But times have changed, of course. These days no more pictures of torn bodies or people in distress are published in the newspapers. Readers of Bukedde especially used to love those gory images, and anytime there was a bad accident and the pictures were put on the front pages, Bukedde would sell out.

Times have changed so much that a Daily Nation editor that run the picture of a woman screaming in agony after the Westgate terrorist attack was subsequently fired. But the picture went on to win the World Press Photo of the Year award for the photographer.

So I have no idea what could have traumatised that young journalist so much that he quit the profession. He also said that there was no help in dealing with all that he went through, which is fair enough. We guys also never had any of that help, guess each one managed to find a way to deal with it without losing their marbles. And then went out to look for the next war or the next terrorist bombing.

So back to that question from Journalism 101, what would you do? The answer is, you take the picture or gather the information you need for the story. So that female journalist complete with body armour photographed helping victims of tear gas in last week’s riot would have probably lost her job. But I guess not these days.

WHO’S AFRAID OF THE BIG, BAD NIGERIANS?

this article fist run i n the New Vision of Friday December 18th, 2020

I had no idea who Omah Lay or Tem were, until early this week. Turns out they are two ‘up-coming’ Nigerian musicians that performed at a show in Kampala over the weekend. First, the idea that there was an actual concert with foreign artists was treated with disbelief, which quickly turned into shock when the pictures and video clips made the rounds.

In these days when if a police patrol sees more than 3 cars parked at a place at night they come to investigate, and many times arrest the people inside (in Kenya they fire tear gas inside pubs to literally smoke people out), an actual concert took place in Kampala? Complete with screaming fans parked shoulder to shoulder? Who let it happen? What corrupt official and security operatives received envelopes to look the other way?

Of course there was a public outcry, and the pictures and videos quickly became viral. While crowds attending political campaigns were being tear-gassed and at times shot, how could a Nigerian guy be let to perform at a concert?

So the police, probably with copious amount of egg all over their faces, took action. The Nigerians, the organisers and owners of the venue where the concert took place, and the police officers in charge of the area were arrested. And that’s when the real party started.

Since March no local artist has been allowed to hold a concert, so basically all these musicians have not been working. So you’ll imagine they would be up in arms demanding that they also be allowed to hold concerts, since a Nigerian so-so artist was allowed to do so.

But no, they instead went to town demanding that the Nigerians be released. They all took to social media voicing their outrage that foreign artists had been arrested on Ugandan soil, that it makes us all look bad, and that for the sake of Pan Africanism (and the Mama Awards that are scheduled to take place in Kampala in February) the Nigerians should be freed and allowed to go leave the country. Just a week ago those same artists were blasting the MAMA Awards as being inconsequential, go figure.

We will come back to the merits and demerits of this, but first the real battle was waged on Twitter. Now, you have to know that the shadowy group known as Ugandans on Twitter (UOT) regularly wages war against other countries, but rarely ever wins anything (a colleague said they took down the Rwandans, but this would probably start another Twitter war).

UOT took on the Kenyans, and lost. They tried Zimbabwe, and also lost. Even lowly Malawi bragged on taking down Ugandans on Twitter. And these folks thought they could take on 200 million Nigerians?

Let me tell you something about Nigerian and the Internet, they make a living out of it. While most law-abiding folks go to offices to work, Nigerians take to the Internet. And what they do there is a big and important sector of the Nigerian economy, and probably contributes quite a bit to their GDP.

All those emails and Inboxes you get about a billionaire that died but you can help recover the money, and your account number is needed to make it possible? That’s Nigerians at work. And when they are not searching for old widows whose money they plan to steal, they spend their time on social media. And poor Ugandans fell into the trap.

Every time Omah posted a Tweet (how did he keep his phone while in jail?), thousands of idle Nigerians would reply, vowing to send thunder and fire and Boko Haram down on Uganda. A few Ugandans tried to fight back, some asking the Nigerians to write English so they can be understood. But they were quickly swallowed up by 100m Nigerians writing very bad English.

screenshot from Twitter

It was all quite funny, except for the fact that many Ugandans actually took the side of the Nigerians. Some comedians on radio even demanded that Uganda apologies to Nigeria, the cheek; and suggested that Juliana and Kenzo be sent to deliver said apologies. Bah, humbug!

What came out is that Ugandans behaved like that kid bullied so much at school that he thinks if he tries to be very nice, he will be left alone. It’s the mentality of a beaten down slave that thinks the more subservient he is to the master, he might just get a smile.

The UCC is coming out with draconian rules and regulations that threaten the very fabric of the entertainment industry, local artists haven’t worked for practically the whole year, police are routinely arresting people found in pubs, and Ugandans are busy kowtowing to Nigerians. Y’all wimps, I say; and yeah, mental slavery is real.

Who’s afraid of the Nigerians? And maybe if Ugandan artists stopped copying and aping Nigerian music, this infatuation might stop. The Nigerian lad complained on Twitter that he was handcuffed, has he seen the way Ugandan police arrest people here? He’s lucky he wasn’t put in a choke hold. But, like Ugandans say, go eat your chicken. But being Nigerian you’ll probably put a tonne of pepper on it, and hope it chokes y’all.

At the end of the day, the Nigerians were released and are probably now back as heroes in their country. And Ugandan artists have gone back to begging the UCC to let them have a life. Again, bah, humbug!

MODELLING IN THE TIMES OF COVID-19

this article first run in the New Vision of Friday August 28th, 2020

One was in Cape Town, another in Dubai. Three were in New York, and a few others were in Europe. All of them had major jobs coming up, and 2020 was looking to be the kind of year they will write home about with a smile. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit the globe, and just like everybody else, life changed for them.

But these are not ‘everybody else’, they are Uganda’s international models strutting their stuff on the world’s runways. Aamito Lagum is in New York, as is Patricia Akello and Aketch Joy Winnie. Mitchelle Daka is in Dubai, and Patricia Laloyo in Cape Town, South Africa. They spoke to Kalungi Kabuye about where they were when covid-19 struck, how it affected them, what life was like under lockdown, and what life after covid-19 could be like.

AAMITO

Aamito shot for Victoria Secrets after the lockdown was lifted

Aamito Lagum, winner of the first ever Africa Next Top Model talent search, was in New York, and the busiest part of the fashion season as set to begin. For the last few years it has been a hectic schedule for her, flying from one job to another, from one country to another.  Then covid-19 struck.

“For the last few years I’ve always been on the go, from one job to another, often from one continent to another on the same day. It was always hectic”, she said. “But all of a sudden there was nowhere to go and no plane to catch. For a while I was in a state of shock, I couldn’t remember the last time that I had nothing to do and nowhere to go. And then when it finally sunk in, I went into a mini depression. It was just bad news on the TV all the time, people dying, loved ones couldn’t go for burial, and it seemed no one knew what to do.”

Many of her planned shoots were either cancelled or postponed, depending on when the restrictions would cease. Any prospective assignments were also put on hold. In about the four weeks that she did no work, Aamito says she did a lot of reflecting. With nothing to do, and nowhere to go, she was forced to think about what he life was like, and what she really wanted to do with it.

“During that time everyone was trying to navigate the new normal, and so was I,” she said. “I did a whole lot of reflecting . With no plane to catch or no project to look forward too, that forced me to look inwards a lot and really dig deep.”

But after four weeks, the powers that be in fashion worked out a way to keep the industry going, with ‘at home self-shoots’.

“How it worked was that the agency would send to a model the brief of what was needed, plus clothes or whatever item they wanted to be shot, and you do the shoot yourself at home” Aamito said. “It was a huge challenge because you have to be the model, the hair stylist, the make-up artist, the producer of the shoot, the lighting technician, and the camera person. I found a new appreciation for everyone in the production teams, all their roles are very important for the final product to come together.”

Of course that only worked for video shoots, still photography required real professional people, so that had to wait till restrictions were lifted. And when that eventually happened, all the standard operating procedures (SOPs) were followed to the letter.

“All the shoots I have been on, your temperature is taken as soon as you get there, all the production team wore gloves, face masks and protective shields,” Aamito said. “The only person who can walk around without a mask on is the model.”

Since then Aamito has so far shot for two major campaigns, Victoria Secrets, and for Bobbi Brown Cosmetics.

“Other shoots haven’t yet been released, and since all models sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA), I can’t talk about them. But I’ll let you know once they are out.”

PATRICIA LALOYO

Patricia Laloyo in an outfit by Maxhosa Africa at AFI Fashion Week, Cape Town, March 2020

Based in Cape Town, Patricia Laloyo had just finished this year’s edition of the AFI Fashion Week, when a lockdown was ordered by the South African government. The last few shows were interrupted, and had to be streamed online instead of having a live audience.

“Of course it took us all by surprise, just like everybody else,” Laloyo said. “We knew covid-19 was out there, but it hadn’t touched us personally. So it came as something of a shock when we were told the last shows of the Fashion Week would have no audiences.”

She had about three jobs that were scheduled for the end of March and early April; first they were postponed because it was thought the lockdown would last for about three or four weeks, but they were eventually cancelled.

“When the lockdown happened, I did what everybody else did and stayed home,” she said. “I filled my time with books, learning Italian, painting, spring cleaning, exercising and other personal projects I had long been putting off.”

Laloyo did some ‘at home self-shoots’ castings, but so far they have not yet yielded anything substantial. The lockdown in South Africa is still ongoing, and until it is eased, she does not expect anything much happening.

“Fashion shows won’t be happening anytime soon,” she said. “Advertisers are holding back because of safety and budgets concerns. So there isn’t much happening in the industry at the moment.”

Even when the lockdown is eased and some sort of normality returns to the industry, it will take some time before the industry becomes robust again.

“I am hopeful that once the curve flattens and we are eased onto Level 2 and eventually level 1, production on TV commercials and adverts will resume,” Laloyo said. “As will travel across provinces and boarders, thus allowing for international clients to fly down for the Cape Town summer season, and for us models to travel for work.”

But she is aware that things won’t be the same and the industry will shrink in terms of job creation.

“Some fashion shows and events may become a thing of the past,” she said. “People’s livelihoods have taken huge hits due to the lockdown, as has the companies that sell to these people thus directly affecting advertising. Advertising budgets have been downsized or completely cut out. So all is not well. We just have to wait and see what will happen.”

AKELLO PATRICIA

Akello Patricia at an earlier fashion show in Cape Town

Akello had just returned to New York from a shoot in Los Angeles, had a Sunday off, then woke up to realise things had changed. What really miffed her off, though, was that she had shut down all impending jobs, and was due to return for a holiday in Uganda.

“It had been a busy and hectic year, so I was looking forward to spend a month or two with my family in Uganda,” Akello said. “I had already checked out of any contracts and had informed the agency, so nothing was interrupted. Except my holiday, of course.”

Stuck in her apartment in New York, Akello first ‘chilled’, just eating, watching TV and thinking about life in general. But then she decided to get busy, and do the things she had always wanted to do but did not have the time.

First she enrolled for an online course in strengthening community health work at Harvard University, which she duly completed. Then she put final touches on her company Pakello Swimwear, which will soon launch her line of swimwear on the market.

But when the lockdown was eased, work started coming in almost immediately, including some campaigns, catalogues, magazines and e-commerce. And she feels blessed for it.

“I’ve been very lucky and blessed, work came in immediately the lockdown was lifted,” Akello said. “I shot a major campaign for a make-up brand, and others I can’t really talk about because of NDAs, but I can’t wait to see the pictures. I’ve been blessed, and thank God for it.”

And the future?

“I’m a very optimistic person and believe in the future I’ll be running my own businesses, and also running the world ha ha.”

AKETCH JOY WINNIE

Aketch Joy Winnie on an earlier shoot, before covid-19 struck

The lockdown found Aketch Joy Winnie (she insists on all three names) also in New York, and had several potential jobs cancelled or re-scheduled. Unlike Aamito or Akello, she didn’t have much to say about how it affected her personally.

“Most of the jobs I was going to do were postponed, or even cancelled all together,” Aketch said. “So I spent the time under lockdown establishing and steadying my emotional self. I also used the opportunity to create more content for my social media platforms, and did some courses online.”

One of the online campaigns she worked on was the H&M Summer Try-on Haul, which she filmed herself at her home. She set up her cell phone, tried on different outfits, and posted the clips on her You Tube channel.

She expects things to pick up soon, has done a few jobs, but due to the NDA, she couldn’t say anything about them.

WHO WILL TAME THE POLICE?

this article first run in the New Vision of Friday December 4th, 2020

These are anxious time in the Pearl Africa; as the day for the next general elections comes closer, tensions are rising higher and higher. Every other day clashes are reported between the police and demonstrators, at times even rioters. People have died, and chances are very high that more are going to die.

What is happening? What is making normally friendly and docile Ugandans take to the streets, and stream into campaign rallies venues in spite of heavy police presence and strict instructions from the Electoral Commission not to do so?

It might be that they are just about tired of everything, and want ways to vent their frustrations at what has been a really crazy year. Covid-19 has affected everybody in various ways, the low income earners probably a lot more than the rest. They have lost their jobs, have watched bills pile up and no sign things are about to improve.

Worse still, the usual ways that folks can release stress, especially entertainment, are still very restricted. They can’t go to bars, which are still closed; they can’t dance or go to bibanda to watch endless Nigerian movies; they can’t even go to bet on soccer matches a thousand kilometres from home, because all betting houses are closed. So any excuse to vent their frustrations will set them off.

But there is also another reason, an explanation why Ugandans are so eager to break laws and ignore lawful instructions from the authorities. Again, it has to do with the Ugandan police. If you look at our law books, you would be excused to think that Uganda is a very orderly society. There are laws just about everything, and more are being made each day.

But the reality is that Uganda is descending into an increasingly lawless society; why? Because the police are letting it do so, by not enforcing the very laws they are sworn to do so.

If a police officer on duty ignores that boda guy that rides the wrong way down the street, makes U-turns where he pleases, rides over walkways reserved for pedestrians, and ignores traffic lights; why they would that boda dude accept the word from the police that he should not join a campaign rally of more than 200 people?

That boda guy is probably not wearing a helmet or mask, carries more than one passenger at a time, and is still working past the curfew time of 9pm (they are supposed to stop operating at 6pm) in full view of the police. And remember that ridiculous directive that every boda rider should register their passengers? Totally ignored by everybody, including the police.

So if that boda guy and most of his countrymen and women are used to always getting away with not observing law and order, why should they start now? Why should they even care?

I knew there would be unrest when the Electoral Commission announced ‘scientific elections’, and declared that only up to 200 people could attend rallies. Who were they kidding? Did they really believe that Ugandans, who largely take the wearing of masks a necessary evil and only when they go into supermarkets or banks; and would rather wear them hang around their chins, anyway – did the EC think these would be so afraid of covid-19 that they will stay away from political rallies?

That covid-19 might kill them would have been the only reason Ugandans would have not gone to rallies, and not because the police told them not to. And in spite of record numbers of people infected, and with deaths rising each day, some will still look at you funny for wearing a mask. So yes, they will go for campaign rallies, whatever the police will say, or do.

Whoever planned this year’s campaigns did not really think things through very well. In ‘normal’ years, campaigns are times for the common folk to let loose and let their hair down. They like the processions, especially the boda guys, who get to break even more laws than they usually do.

The people love the huge campaign rigs with powerful music systems blaring out music, and they dance in the streets and drink cheap alcohol provided by campaign teams. It’s like carnival time, it happens only once every five years, and they love it.

With the way 2020 has unrolled, did the EC really think that people all of a sudden have become law abiding and will observe SOPs? When the carnival has finally come to town? The joke really is on EC.

And it must have been obvious that over the last decade or so, the opposition’s strategy to gain votes from the ruling party is through defiance and causing chaos. Remember the walk to work days and subsequent riots? The ban on big campaign rallies only handed the opposition the largest defiance opportunity they have ever had.

Which brings us back to the police. When this thing is all over (and it will eventually be over, whichever way), the Uganda Police will still remain the largest law enforcement authority in the country. Someone should insist that it does the job it was mandated to do, and not just react (and most times it is an overreaction).

Someone really needs to tame the police.

HIKING MOUNT KEI IN KOBOKO

this story first run in the New Vision Friday November 20th, 2020

Members of the Mountain Slayers of Uganda at the peak of Mt Kei in Koboko

Last weekend, I took on a mountain. And it almost won. Almost but, thanks to the selfless dedication of members of the Mountain Slayers of Uganda (MSU), I came out on top, literally, of the first mountain I’ve ever climbed.

I have read accounts of people climbing mountains, and how they always go on about how the descent is always tougher than the climb. Yeah right, I always thought, just being dramatic. But they were right, and coming down that mountain is the toughest thing I have ever done.

But first, the mountain. Among the league of mountains, Mount Kei is not a spectacular member; in fact my friend Suzan referred to it as a ‘baby’ mountain. Situated on the border of Koboko and Yumbe districts, and stretching to the plains of South Sudan, it rises to the modest height of 1,275 metres above sea level (by comparison Margherita, the highest peak of the Rwenzooris, rises to a majestic 5,109 metres).

But it is still a mountain, it can get quite steep, and estimated time of the climb was about 8 hours to cover a distance of 15kms.  It was considered an ‘intermediate’ hike by the MSU, and it was my first attempt at climbing a mountain.

According to a flyer issued by MSU, legend has it that there was once a village where the mountain now is. One fateful day, the mountain appeared and buried all the inhabitants of that village. There were only two survivors, a couple of young men who had gone to a nearby village to woo girls. It was then left to these two survivors to carry on the name of their clan that had perished. The area was also once a sanctuary for the Northern White Rhino, but insecurity and poaching had done for those animals, and now it was just a forest reserve.

So last weekend we went to climb this mountain that had buried a village. We left Kampala on Friday morning in two UWA buses (SOP things), and arrived at Camp Ludaville in Koboko at about 10pm. The last time I had gone camping was when I was still with the Boy Scouts in high school, so I really knew nothing about pitching a tent, especially in the dark. But MSU members came in to help, and within 10 minutes my tent was up and ready for me. It is quite easy to set up a modern tent, but it will take me time to get in and out as smoothly as those guys were doing it.

my tent all ready, but getting in and out was a challenge

Next morning, after a brief n the dos and don’ts of the hike, most important of which was that it was easy to get lost in the tree cover that goes right up to the peak, we set off. I had my camera bag with me, plus 3 litres of water in a bladder on my back, and a lunch pack.

The first 5km were an easy stroll, and the MSU guys were taking pictures like it was on a beach, which gave it a holiday atmosphere. It wasn’t till after about 2 hours that we started the actual climb, what mountaineers call the ‘bamboo’ section of the climb. This is when you leave the foothills and get to the actual mountain.

Three hours into the climb and it was clear I had underestimated what it takes to climb even the ‘baby’ mountain that Mt Kei was. Soon the jolly girls taking pictures while climbing left me behind, and I was left with two village kids, one that wouldn’t, or couldn’t talk, and the leader who was obviously a deaf mute. The plan was to wait for Team Sloth, the guys who are always take their time and are in no hurry to get to the top. So the jolly girls found me a nice shade where I could wait, and said see you at the top.

on the hike up Mt Kei, Koboko

So I waited, and waited, but Team Sloth never showed up. It turned out that they had inadvertently taken another route, and here I was, midway up a mountain with tree cover all around me, no telephone network, and with no idea where to go.

I had two choices – I could go back the way I had come, and explain that I had got lost, and no one would blame me for it (the night before at the camp fire, stories were told of first-timers that had taken boda bodas when the going got too tough). But I had not gone all that way to climb just half a mountain, so I decided we would try and follow the trail left by the others, and hopefully my village companions had an idea where to go.

To get to Mt Kei proper, you have to first climb another very steep hill. By the time were done with that one, my 30-kilometres-a-week legs were complaining. And it didn’t help that we couldn’t ask for directions; the only homestead we met, the folks there didn’t speak English, Swahili or Luganda, and my companions couldn’t talk.

The result was a lot of trial and error, we doubled back a few times, and my companions had to help me up the steeper parts. This was the time I asked myself time and again what the hell I was doing there, tired and lost in a forest up a mountain, hundreds of kilometres away from home. Lord if I get through this, bring me back to my senses and not try it again.

But eventually we got to where we could hear the voices of the other climbers that had reached the peak, although we had no idea how to get there. Thankfully because it was very high up, there was network, so I called the Chief Slayer, Gerard Iga, and he sent down two guides to show me the way to the top.

And so I got to the top of the first mountain I had ever climbed. It was supposed to be euphoric and a moment to savour for a lifetime, but I was too tired to really take it in. So I just sat down to catch my breath, and soon it was time to make the descent.

catching my breath at the top of Mt Kei, before the descent

I have been in tough races all my life, played some very difficult basketball games, and fought in very tight martial arts contests. But they were nothing compared to the descent down Mt Kei. To make it short, I fell quite a few times, twisted my ankle at least three times, and pulled both my hamstrings.

But for those MSU members that stayed with me and helped me down, I would probably still be somewhere up that mountain, wondering which way to go. They have my everlasting gratitude.

The MSU folks talk about the ‘peak’, when you finally get to the top of a mountain, as a sublime moment that is indescribable. But for those of you planning on climbing mountains, you would well to keep the words of Ed Viesturs in mind: “Getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory.”

Now I’m back home, waiting for my hamstrings to heal, and will start getting ready for the next mountain. And this time, I will be ready.

MEMORIES OF JOURNALISM THEN AND NOW

this article first appeared in the New Vision of Friday October 30th, 2020

Someone posted on Twitter the other day that journalists these days do much more investigate stories than say, in the 1990s. I’m not sure what brought up this comment, or if it was part of an ongoing debate I joined late. But it brought back many memories, and how journalism has changed since the days of the typewriter and the fully manual cameras.

New Vision editors planning meeting in the old newsroom sometime in the late 90s. In the background are the first 2 computers in the newsroom

But first, there’s a story I like to tell anyone that asks me how journalism was ‘those days’. In 1998 President Bill Clinton came to Uganda, and a team of ‘elite’ journalists was chosen by the New Vision to cover his visit and tour. One leg of the tour had Clinton visit Kisowera Primary School, Mukono, where he would make an address o the country, and indeed to the world.

The plan was as soon as he was done speaking, we would jump in the waiting office van and rush back to office, dash into the darkroom, develop and print the pictures, ready for an early edition of the paper. The driver outdid himself, and we reached the office in record time. Only to find that foreign photographers covering the visit had used satellite connections to send pictures to Reuters, and the photo editor had already chosen what picture to use on the front page.

We sat down in that warehouse-turned-newsroom, out of breath, looked at each other, and wondered if we were really journalists. In a way, that young journalist that posted that tweet was probably thinking the same thing, and many others that call themselves journalists probably also think the same way.

But we were young, we were brave, and we had a passion for what we were doing. In ‘those days’ passion was often all you had to go on, because we had very little of anything else. If today’s freelance journalists think they are poorly paid, they have no idea of what poor pay really is.

There was a time when a freelance was paid for ‘inches’ when your story was published. That’s right, they literally measured how much space your article took in the paper, and then multiplied that by some miniscule factor. This of course encouraged some to just write endless frivolities, just to get more inches.

Journalists were generally at the lower end of the pay scale, which also went with respect. As some government official famously said at a function when directing where lunch was to be served, ‘drivers and journalists’ were to be served last.

I don’t remember when the New Vision finally broke down it’s dark room, must have been when the new building now housing the newsroom was to be built. Maybe just after the year 2,000, when technology finally caught up with Uganda, and we started using digital cameras. Before that, it was all manual.

New Vision Photographers in the 1990s (l-r): Mpalanyi Ssentongo, Martin Obbo (RIP), Henry Bongyereire, Jimmy Adriko

Today’s journalists probably do not understand or appreciate what it was like to use a fully manual camera, which means there was nothing automatic about it. You had to figure out what exposure you were going to use, what shutter speed and the aperture. You didn’t have histograms to show the exposure is good. And then manually focus on the subject, all this while stuff was happening very quickly in front of you.

And since we were using film, which cost a pretty penny, one couldn’t shoot just fwaaa. A film roll had maximum of 36 exposures, you had to use it for several assignments, so you had to pick your shots properly. The average was about 12 shots per assignment, and you never knew you got the right shot until you delivered your camera to the darkroom, where the film was developed and you finally got to look at the negative, and choose which ones to print.

In most instances the film was ‘cut’ so only the exposed part was developed, and the rest loaded back into the camera for the next assignment. This was possible because the exposed part of the film was fed onto a roll to the right of the camera.

One wonders what today’s press photographers would do if they could not review every shot they make. In fact many miss ‘the shot’ because they’re too busy reviewing what they had just shot, for they are not confident they got the right shot. ‘Those days’ you had to be sure of every shot.

Anyone that did this has a very good understanding of the fundamentals of photography, and makes them inevitably very good photographers.

That young lady mentioned in her tweet how these days journalists do more investigative stories, which is really hogwash. These days, picking up a phone and calling someone for a comment is usually taken to be investigative.

‘Those days’ every story, even a news story, was an investigative story. Because you had to go out there and find it. Telephones were few and far between, so you had to go and search out where the sources were, and actually talk to them. The ‘noble tradition’ of the press release had not become common, which now makes it easy for lazy journalists to churn out stories with no effort. There were no ‘newsroom journalists’ then, as are so common these days.

I still remember when the first two computers were introduced into the New Vision newsroom, but before that we all had to use typewriters. Each reporter had a quota of A4 paper sheets to use, so before you actually typed anything, you better have a very good idea what it was. On a good day, I can still hear the thunder of more than a dozen typewriters going at full speed as reporters tried to beat the evening deadlines.

Oluchi and the 2nd Face of Africa winner, Benvinda Mudege, in New York 1999

As a footnote, one more story to tell. In 1999 I won the M-Net Africa Photographer of the Year award, and part of the prize was going to New York to photograph the new winner of the Face of Africa, Benvinda Mudenge, as she started her international modelling career.

Along with me was a ‘professional’ South African photographer, who I later understood was paid $3,000 a day, while all I got was room and board. He had all the latest equipment, while I still had my fully manual Nikon. But at the end of the day, it was my pictures that were used in magazines spreads and billboards. Yeah, we did know something. But sadly, M-Net kept all the photos and their negatives, so I do not have those photos anymore. Apart from one they rejected.

WANTED – A MANIFESTO TO SAVE THE SILLY SEASON

this article first run in the New Vision of September 26th, 2020

This week Italians took the very unusual step (in the eyes of the developing world) to approve a referendum that reduced the size of the country’s parliament. As far as news in Europe go it was not even ‘breaking news’, what with the covid-19 second wave and the continuing campaign against racism taking centre stage.

But I bet several, if not all sitting and aspiring Ugandan MPs must have looked at those Italians with shock and disbelief – how could they vote to reduce the size of Parliament? In Uganda, and probably many other developing nations with developing democracies, Parliamentary seats are a very big part of political patronage, the more the better.

we need a leader that will promise to reduce the size of Uganda’s Parliament

Forced to be ‘democratic’ and unable to use the preferred ‘rule by decree’, many African strongmen increasingly need Parliament to not only sustain them in power, but to pretend they are actually carrying out the duties of governing the country for the betterment of its citizens.

But first, back to Italy, which at a total of 951 members is the largest parliament in Europe. So one of the parties in the ruling coalition (the Five-Star Movement) decided enough was enough, and pushed for a referendum to reduce the size. The referendum was subsequently held, and over 70% of voting Italians approved the move to cut Parliament by almost 40%.

Which brings me to debt-ridden Uganda, with its overblown Parliament of 425 members, and counting. Almost everyone agrees that there are too many MPs, and that the country can ill afford that huge number. But no one has ever come out to effectively move to reduce that number; on the contrary, the executive seems determined to increase the number of MPs  any time it feels like.

Which begs the question, is there a politician worth his free iPad to make a move to reduce the size of Uganda’s Parliament? Is there a political party that is going to announce that it will move for a referendum to reduce the number of those lecherous MPs?

It is election time again, and we are being inundated with promises from aspiring candidates. They are all coming out with varying manifestos promising all kinds of things, most of which are obviously unfulfillable. There are tales of an LC 1 candidate that promised unbelieving villagers that he will get their main road tarmacked. Dude can hardly speak English, but he promised to influence the government to work on the village roads.

I find manifestos boring documents, most people do and very few actually read them. Politicians will always come out with grandiose descriptions of what they are going to do, but very rarely walk their talk.

Since the country changed to a multi-party democracy, the opposition’s main platform had been one –‘agende’. All they have tried to sell to the country is the notion that the only important thing in this country is that the ruling party must leave office.

Not since the Reform Agenda of Betty Kamya’s days had an opposition platform spelt out what they really want to do to change the fortunes of Uganda. I vividly remember their promise to abolish Graduated Tax, which had been the bane of the common Uganda since colonial times; and spelling out by what means a Reform Agenda administration would manage the revenue shortfall.

But RA then morphed into the FDC, realistic and meaningful manifestos went out of the window, and they went back to the politics of agende. Obviously that has not worked very well, because they have lost each and every election since then.

We are a few months away from another election, and no party is telling us what they are going to do different from what the ruling party is doing. Corruption has become such a common occurrence in Uganda that it is increasingly becoming accepted as a way of life.

Apart from slogans printed on their posters, no one has spelt out how they are actually to fight and reduce corruption in this country. I want a leader who will stand up and say, as the first thing to do once in office, that they are going to release the reports of all the commissions of inquiries that have been held in this country, but are probably gathering dust on some shelfs in State House.

I want a leader that will stand tall and tell us how they are going to fight and expose the mafias, which everyone is talking about. Of course in order to fight them this leader must first tell us who these mysterious and shadowy people are.

I want a leader with a manifesto that spells out how they are going to reveal who stole the money for the village road, and who sold the village swamp that used to prevent the flooding that now happens every time it rains.

Is there a leader brave and genuine enough to declare that the first order of business will be to hold a referendum to reduce the size of parliament, and stop those lecherous malefactors from voting to give themselves money the country does not have?

Recently that abominable bunch of miscreants gave themselves money from the covid-19 supplementary budget. Afraid that someone will take it away from them, they quickly had it wired to their accounts before you could even say ‘For God and my country’. But it looks like they did not follow the right procedure, and the President even called it illegal, since he had not assented to that particular bit of legislation.

Where is that genuine party leader that will swear in their manifesto that not only will they make those MPs pay back that sh20m, but throw them all in the jail they deserve?

I am tired of politics of just ‘agende’ and ‘it’s my turn to eat’. We as Ugandan deserve a whole lot better than that.

THE DAY UGANDAN RUGBY CONQUERED AFRICA

This article first run in the New Visio n of Friday October 2nd, 2020

It seemed all odds were against the 22 players and officials who took on the best of African rugby in September 2007. First, like many sports teams in this country, the Rugby Cranes that took part in that year’s Africa Rugby Cup (now known as the Africa Gold Cup) were broke, and there was no indication that they would get the funds needed. The government was definitely not forthcoming.

The Uganda Rugby Cranes after winning the Africa Rugby Cup in Antananarivo, Madagascar on September 29th, 2007.

“The government treated us really badly,” Yayiro Kasasa, one of the coaches, remembers. “To this day the rugby fraternity do not want to hear anything about the then Minister for Sports, Charles Bakabulindi. He totally ignored all our pleas; but to rub it in, when we came back after winning, he was there on the tarmac, all smiles, ready to welcome us.”

But the team had more to contend with that just an uncooperative government. After somehow raising the funds needed to travel to Madagascar for the finals, they had to spend a night in Nairobi, and catch a connecting flight to Antananarivo the next morning. But when they got to the hotel where the teams (Kenya and Cote d’Ivoire) were housed, there were not enough rooms, so some of them had to spend the night on couches.

The flight from Entebbe was an evening flight, and by the time they got through the crazy Nairobi traffic, dinner had already been served, and eaten. Team officials had to go into town and buy whatever food they could get, which mostly was chicken and chips. A rugby team can eat a whole warehouse of food, so the boys more or less slept hungry that night.

But it was to get worse because when they came down for breakfast the next morning, the Cote d’Ivoire guys had eaten all the breakfast. That’s right, there was no breakfast and the hotel owner refused to provide anymore till he was paid extra. A few phone calls soon fixed that, and a rudimentary breakfast was served to the Ugandans.

Then when all the teams got to the airport, the Kenya Airways flight to Madagascar was first delayed, and then cancelled for unknown reasons. Eventually the President of Madagascar sent a plane to ferry the rugby teams. Madagascar is a rugby mad country, and there was no way they were going to miss hosting the finals.

But before they could even think about the finals, the Rugby Cranes had to qualify, and in their way were the mighty Namibians. Apart from South Africa, Namibia was the best rugby nation on the continent, and had qualified for each and every World Cup. After the 20-19 victory over Namibia, Ugandans started to believe that they could actually go all the way. The final qualifying game against Zambia seemed almost a by-the-way.

And then many of the team members were due to graduate that September, and were in two minds whether to stay and celebrate all the years they had been in school; or travel to Madagascar with the team. To Tonny ‘Stone’ Luggya, Alexander Mubiru, Roger Rukundo, Denis Etuket and Timothy Mudoola the decision was easy, they travelled with the team. It was much later that they confirmed, via the sketchy Antananarivo Internet, that their names were actually on the graduation list.

Before heading to Madagascar, the Rugby Cranes had camped in South Africa for an intense training session, which had helped greatly. A partnership with the South African Rugby Union meant coaches like the late Chester Williams, and later David Dobele helped in shaping the team.

So they arrived in Antananarivo, and the hosts started playing games. Training sessions and venues were changed at the last minute, and drivers very often disappeared with the vehicles supposed to transport the team. On the day of the final, the vehicles did not show up at all, and team officials had to hire a fleet of those small Renault 4s to take them to the stadium.

A Renault ‘Roho’ 4 taxi, the Ugandan rugby team hired several of these to get to the stadium in Antananarivo for the final game

All that frustration, right from the government officials that had ignored them, the Ivoirians that had eaten their food, and the wily Malagasy that couldn’t stop playing tricks; all that frustration was meted out on the pitch, first onto the Kenyans during the first semi-final, and then onto the Makis (the Madagascar national team) in a lop-sided final.

As evening fell on the very quiet streets of Antananarivo, history had been made. The Uganda Rugby Cranes became the first national team to become champions of Africa. The She Cranes, the nation’s netball team, would later also become African champions; but also had to go through the same kind of hell to get there.

But the plaudits of being Uganda’s first Africa champions belongs to the Uganda Rugby Cranes of 2007, and every 29th day of September, they remember and celebrate that day. I know this story well because I was there with them, and indeed recorded history.

Bu there’s a sad and unfortunate footnote to this story. While other sportsmen and women that have brought accolades to this country have been rewarded for their achievements, the 2007 Africa Rugby Cup champions are still waiting for theirs.

Athletes have been given hundreds of millions, even the soccer Cranes that have never won anything comparable are routinely rewarded for the little they do, and get the lion’s share of government funding.

But the Rugby Cranes have got nothing, not yet. Not even a dinner at State House. Someone should make amends to these brave lads that brought so much glory to the country. Amen.

HIKING THE KAMPALA RAILWAY LINE…

This article first appeared in the New Vision of Friday September 4th, 2020

HIKING THE KAMPALA RAILWAY LINE…

I cannot remember the last time I was ever last at anything, and when I signed up to join the Mountain Slayers of Uganda for a 17km hike along the railway line in Kampala last Saturday, I told myself no way was I going to come in last. I may have been one of the few njukas (freshers, if you please) to show up for the hike, but I was determined to give it my all.

Hiking the Kampala Railway Line

But I soon realised that it was not going to be as easy as I had imagined. Meeting time was 10am at the Total Nateete, and by 9:15am I was already there, guided by my colleague Suzan (actually she acted more like a chaperone, making sure the njuka came to no harm, the fact that I had almost a foot and a dozen kilos on her notwithstanding).

As they trickled in ones and twos and threes, the talk was inevitably of old hikes gone by. There was this woman, must have been all of 5 feet tall and about 40 kilos, who gleefully talked about running up Mt. Elgon. And that was her first hike! Another (again female) narrated how her first hike was up the Rwenzoori mountains, and how she got sick on day one, but managed to last all 7 days and made it to the top. These were the kind of people I was going to be hiking with, on a trail they termed ‘easy’! The thought of excusing myself to go the bathroom and just disappear did cross my mind.

The plan was to get to the point near Nalukolongo where the railway line ended, then we would follow it through Ndeeba, Kibuye, Katwe, Kampala Industrial Area, Namuwongo, and end up at Port Bell.

First was a pep talk by the ‘Chief Slayer’ Andrew, who described in general terms what the route would be, and warned us about observing SOPs. Then Sarah, who was in charge of safety and first aid, spelt out the dos and don’ts.

Sarah gives a briefing on safety before the hike

After the pep talk and safety instructions, Andrew declared that it was time to walk to the starting point, which turned out to 3km away from where we were. I was told that no, the 17km hike does not include the 3km to the starting point.  I had my camera bag on my back, and I had felt its weight during the 3km to the starting pit, which left me wondering what it would weigh after another 17km!

The plan was for Suzan to take point, Sarah would be somewhere in the middle, and Andrew would be at the back, making sure no one was left behind. So off we went, in bright Saturday morning sunshine.

The first obstacle came after about two kilometres, where we had to cross a ditch that was full of water. Suzan somehow skipped over it, followed by a few others. Some just splashed through it, but others found a way around it, and those were the ones I followed.

skipping over the first obstacle, a ditch full of water

By the time I got cross, Suzan was a few hundred feet away, but I thought I would soon catch up with her. Uh, brave last words. You know when you’re doing roadwork, and you see someone ahead of you, and you plan how you’re going to overtake them? But however much I tried to stretch my stride and quicken my step, Suzan just kept going farther and farther away.

I soon gave up on catching up with her, and in any case there were plenty of fellow hikers around, so I was good. But every time I stopped to take pictures, the group I was walking with would move on ahead, and I failed to catch up with them. I soon gave up and concentrated on my own walk.

The only problem was that as a first time hiker I did not know the route, and very soon I could not see any hiker either in front or behind me. I had to wait for some others to catch up with me, which meant I was not the last person, at least.

Road distances always seem to be much farther than they actually are, so in short order we left Nateete, crossed through the backside of Ndeeba, past Nalukolongo and on to Kibuye. This whole stretch seemed to be just one big market, selling everything from flowers to food and clothes.

After Nalukolongo, the railway track was one big flower nursery bed

We were warned against going through the railway tunnels, for the kifeesi that ruled them do not like visitors much. And apparently permission to go through the main railway station was not granted, which was a disappointment.

Going through Katwe with the camera in my hand turned out to be not a very good idea, as some good Samaritans told me. So, trying to look as unobstructive as I could, stopped, took the bag off my back, and put the camera away; all the time keeping an eye on a couple of guys ahead who were also keeping an eye on me. No hikers were visible when I finally looked up, and I obviously didn’t know which way to go; so those guys indicated the direction to take. But of course I did not take their directions, but waited for other hikers to get to me, and we walked on.

By the time we got to the Mukwano roundabout, I knew I was going to make it. My legs felt okay (those weekly 10km walks were paying off), and somehow I had forgotten that I had several kilogrammes of camera equipment on my back.

From Mukwano we went through Namuwomgo, and more markets. I was waiting for the sight of the lake to know that the hike was almost over, and it came soon enough.

But then the going became tougher. Before this, we followed tracks made by pedestrians alongside the railway line, which made for easy walking. But from Namuwongo we had to walk along the railway line itself, which was very, very difficult. The sleepers are about half a metre apart, which meant I could not use my usual one-metre stride, but take very many small steps, which was torture on my now very tired legs. I could see the lake, but it was not getting any closer.

towards Port Bell one had tow alk on the sleepers within the track

But eventually I made it to Port Bell, to yet another market, and found many members of the Mountain Slayers had not only finished the hike, they had ordered for and were already feasting on fresh fried fish.

They all cheered for the njuka, as I finally sat down and took the camera bag off my shoulders, which painfully reminded me of their presence. But no worries, I had finished my first hike, all 17km of it; next hopefully is my first mountain.

As for the Mountains Slayers folks (most of whom are women, by the way), they are off to climb Mt Rwenzoori this weekend. Me? Wake me up sometime in December.

WHEN AMERICA LOST ITS GROOVE

this story first run in the New Vision of Friday August 28th, 2020

Sometime during the late eighties, I attended a get together of basketball players at the home of one of the American Baptist missionaries that had set up camp in Kampala. It was an informal meet, with a barbeque in the garden and plenty of drinks (of the right type). In attendance was a diplomat from the American embassy, and we chatted about everything American.

We all liked Americans, of course; they were a breath of fresh air from the very stuffy and stuck-up up Brits, we played basketball with them, and they made a fantastic barbeque. We couldn’t understand why then, others wanted to bomb them out of existence.

The American diplomat tried his best to explain to his audience of college students the intricacies of world politics. We probably didn’t understand much of what he said, or maybe, being the diplomat that he was, never actually said much. But we had a great time, and went out afterwards and played a great pick-up game of basketball.

Like that bunch of wide-eyed college students, many people in the world loved Americans. Even if Europeans insist Americans are loud, abrasive and talk with food in their mouths, hey, they had saved the world not once, but twice from the Germans and then the Japanese.

America had given us soul music, Motown and the Jackson Five, and we loved it for that. The NBA probably got more Africans liking America than the aid that was given to the countries to fight all kinds of inequalities. Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Michael Jordan – damn, we loved us some America.

We watched the Blaxploitation films with glee, tried to walk like John Shaft, and couldn’t get enough of that poster of Pam Grier in a tight top and an Afro from the film Coffy. And the civil rights movement seemed cool and romantic, even as white policemen broke heads of the then Negroes (they would later become Black Americans, and then African-Americans) as the latter fought for a better life in the supposed land of the free.

African-American actress Pam Grier in 1973

I have lived and travelled widely in the USA, and somehow I have never been subjected to overt racism. Or maybe it was too subtle for me, just a guy passing through, to notice.

But I now regret the numerous arguments and debates I’ve had with African-Americans; and my stance that, in spite of its failing, America was still the greatest country in the world. I knew about the racism, and the inequality that a history of slavery had left. But hey, this was America, land of the free and the brave, surely they will work it out.

When they elected a black man as President, who for eight years was leader of the most powerful nation in the world, our cups overflowed; and we knew, just as those old Negro slaves had sung, that a change was surely going to come.

Then they elected Donald J. Trump, and in four short years, all that we had loved about America has gone sour. If Trump had become a leader of any other nation in the world, I still would have disliked him intensely.

Almost everything I don’t like in a person is enshrined in the personality of the American President. He is a bully, a liar, a racist, a pathological narcissist, not very smart, and tries to influence people through populism. I have never liked people that try to ingratiate  themselves through life; if I meet you for the first time and you’re smiling like we’ve known each other for years, chances are I will not greet you ever again.

So how did he become President of the USA? How did we even get here? This is not the America we had loved and thought was the best country in the world. The America that voted Donald Trump was not the America of those jovial Baptist missionaries that played a mean game of basketball, but then made you sloppy joes afterwards.

To many of us, it was always the greatest and most powerful country in the world, so what other greatness were they looking for in Donal Trump? Sadly, we found out that the greatness some Americans wanted was the preservation of the entrenched white privilege.

It was disheartening to see a country that fought in two world wars to keep the world free, kowtow to the Russians and show love to dictators. It was sad to see the most powerful country in the world lose almost all of its allies, because of a megalomaniac President. And it was most horrible to see a country that built its greatness on the shoulders of immigrants, turn against them and put them in cages.

But maybe we should be glad that Donald Trump showed up when he did. All that nascent racism that had been simmering just under the surface has mainly come out now, and a way will be found to deal with it.

Sad as the death of George Floyd was, it probably was the trigger that will make America truly great; when it finally faces its racist past, and makes the amends that are needed.

Stella might have got her groove back in that 1998 film, but sadly America has lost any groove it had. If I was a religious person, I would say that even God was tired of Trump’s America, and sent the covid-19 to get rid of him. It is funny and ironic that many religious Americans thought that God had sent Trump to lead them to their ‘promised land’ of eternal white privileges. Don’t hold your breath, folks.