Can You See the Smoke?
“You can burn down the house, but can you hide the smoke?” Ugandan proverb
Tap, tap, tap. “Good morning, Ma’am?” I struggled to wake up, to understand what I heard outside my door at the Lodge where we were staying.
It was the rainy season. The morning’s heavy downpour was beating on the roof of my cottage. I had arrived late the previous night after a meeting with a team from the international NGO (which is purposely unidentified) with which I traveled to meet Ugandan farmers, academicians, and politicians.
The Lodge was a re-created rain forest resort where the sounds of bamboo wind chimes, frogs, cicadas and other nocturnal creatures filled the night when it was not raining. Where monkeys scampered over the thatched and metal roofs, and streams wound between banana trees and under dense jungle foliage, obscuring leaden skies. Where armed guards patrolled the dimly illuminated, uneven rock paths at night and where I could pretend that no teeming city of 3.8 million people was just over the back wall.
Tap, tap, tap again. “Good morning, Ma’am! I have your Dawa tea. Break-fast!” The voice was deep, friendly.
I made my way out from under yards of muslin-colored mosquito netting over my bed, pulled back the heavy drapes in front of the glass door, and opened it cautiously. Standing there was the young man who carried suitcases and served meals, Daniel (not his real name). Handsome, maybe 20, he was slight but muscular, with a huge smile.
“You need to drink Dawa tea. Eat breakfast?” he said, lifting the tray he carried slightly and tilting his head.
I opened the door all the way. The tray had a tall glass of mango juice, a small white plate with thin slices of watermelon, pineapple, and two small bananas, and a larger white plate of long slender sausages, rolled pancakes with no butter or syrup, and a mound of thin spaghetti noodles with peas but no sauce. Next to them steamed a shiny metal pot of tea and a mug.
I had shaken many hands the night before and exchanged hugs. When I told a Ugandan member of the team (team members are unidentified for their safety) I felt congested and planned to stay in my room the next day to rest and write, he asked Daniel to deliver Dawa tea to my room in the morning. Daniel said the hot drink made from ginger, lemon, honey, and other spices would keep me healthy.
“Breakfast looks great, Daniel, thank you. I’ve been looking forward to my tea.” I took the tray, placing it on the glass-topped dining table next to the door.
“I want to tip you. Can I bring it down in a little while?” I asked. “I’m going to write now, and I need to find my money. I’m storytelling, writing about Uganda,”
“Yes, of course, Ma’am,” he said, and then didn’t leave.
Instead, shifting from one foot to the other, he began, “I have a story for you. I was an orphan and am in law school. I care very much about conservation. I want to work in that field.”
Had he Googled me? I worked in conservation too, preserving agricultural and forest lands and natural resources. Maybe not, I admonished myself. He worked for an eco-lodge. It could be true.
“I hope to go the United States one day,” he continued, more confidently, “but for now, I work here part time and as a laborer. I’m trying to make something of myself.”
“Wonderful! I want to sit down with you, hear your story.”
He went back to the kitchen while I sipped my tea, picked at my breakfast, and turned on my tablet to write. I wanted to hear his story but because his job and my schedule didn’t permit us to meet, on my last day at the Lodge he gave me a handwritten note, his story. Under each written word was the hope that I would change the course of his life.
His story tugged at my heart, but I couldn’t help. I was a middle-class Muzungu, a white woman from America, in Uganda only for three weeks. Even if I could, where and how would I start?
I hadn’t come prepared to rescue anyone, although I knew Uganda’s violent, bloody history and its impacts on her people. I knew many were short of resources and rights that I took for granted and that most hadn’t fared well in the protracted political struggles after the nation’s independence in 1962 from Great Britain. Poverty and disease were rampant, I had read, and the government was corrupt and unstable. I knew this before I left the U.S., but I wasn’t prepared for what I found in Uganda. Not for the stories I heard or for the things I experienced.
I had come out of curiosity, to see what had become of Uganda since I lived here as a child. I wanted to see whether traces of a country I barely remembered still existed. My father, a scientist and Fulbright Scholar, conducted research benefitting Ugandan livestock and villagers at the Animal Health Research Centre in Entebbe. We lived in the center’s housing compound in a rambling one-story house. I remembered an emerald-green lawn that sloped down to the shore of Lake Victoria. Vivid red flowers grew among the shrubs and hedges. We had a gardener and a cook. My parents went on safari with expats and African porters. I attended a British school with white children and returned to the U.S. with a British accent. We were privileged.
I was too young to know about privilege or the racial chasm, too young to realize that many Africans chafed at our presence. Soon after we left Uganda, nation after African nation would rise and throw off British colonialists, setting the stage for power struggles that continued long after the Crown retreated. Sixty-two years later I would learn that the consequences of Uganda’s painful history were not behind it, that there was a growing anti-colonial and anti-imperialist sentiment and that its future was anything but certain.
I traveled back to Uganda with an emphatically apolitical international non-governmental organization, an NGO that worked in agriculture. We were here to strengthen social, academic, and political relationships and to meet Ugandans and evaluate the NGO’s efficacy working with Ugandan subsistence farmers, helping them start businesses to transform their lives through technology and entrepreneurship. I was not a professional journalist on assignment; I was an independent freelance travel writer. I planned to focus on farmers’ and students’ accomplishments, aspirational things. Success stories.
The first success story I heard was about the Akwataempola Kitteredde Savings and Development Group (AKSDG). To get to the village of Kitteredde, we rode for two hours in a rattletrap bus. The roads were slippery clay tracks with potholes and deep channels carved into the mud by the rains and poor drivers in cars, trucks, and buses. Kitteredde was rural, but people were everywhere. Along the road they sat and stood in groups talking and laughing. They walked single file wearing backpacks, herding goats, and cattle. They perched precariously on the backs of boda bodas, motorcycles for hire, which raced in both directions on both sides of the road simultaneously, carrying passengers and cargo like bananas and lumber.
As we lurched along, I noticed signs painted on houses and posted on trees that said, “THIS PLOT IS NOT FOR SALE!!”
“What’s with the signs?” I asked, nodding toward one.
“Oh, that,” one of the Ugandan team members replied. “It’s a warning to land grabbers. It’s common. Because of so many people here, land’s very valuable. Some conmen, land brokers, use fake titles to sell the land while the owners are away. Sometimes corrupt land officers help the conmen and even some judges are against the real property owners.”
“It’s been going on for years. Even under the British. Land grabbing is a human rights abuse here,” another team member added. “When the constitution was rewritten in 1995, they returned land ownership back to those who owned the land at the time of independence and formed land boards to oversee things. But still it happens. People put up signs to keep the conmen away.”
We turned off the main road into a clearing that was Kitteredde and stopped in front of a few houses and an open-sided tent. Some villagers were already there, waiting on white plastic chairs. Others emerged from the trees. Young women carried babies. and little children peered out from behind their mothers’ legs. The older ones, I supposed, were in school. The men wore modern clothing. Some of the women wore traditional bright-colored long dresses belted at the waist, with puffy sleeves. A few wore jeans and T-shirts. They were between the ages of 20 and 50. None had gray hair.
Rain began to fall as the group’s leader, a small, kind-looking man in his fifties, began speaking in measured English. A woman translated for the villagers watching.
“The name of this group was picked from the way we do our things,” he began haltingly, allowing the translator to keep pace. “We move slowly but firmly. We began with Akwataempola and added the second part, which is Kitteredde which is where we are. Kitteredde literally means ‘we are safe, we OK.’” The villagers smiled, nodding in agreement. Safe from what, I wondered.
The rain fell harder. The leader moved onto the porch of the house directly in front of the tent and beckoned our team to move with him. Villagers, still under the tent, began looking at one another as wind against them, carrying rain with it. When water began running down in streams under their feet, many left. But the leader, prepared script in hand, pressed on.
“The group started 11 years ago with 30 members with the purpose of saving and lending members money to pay school fees for their children and support their homes and gardens. We wanted to be self-reliant, to eradicate poverty by starting small projects to sustain our families and to improve from domestic to commercial farming,” he read aloud.
”We grow and sell maize, beans, coffee, bananas, sweet potatoes, cassava, and soybeans. We rent out this tent,” he said, pointing at it, “to raise funds too. As a result, our children go to school. Some of them have started businesses of their own, like boda bodas, and domestic violence has been reduced because the women can stay home with their families.”
As I pondered his causal logic, the rain intensified, and I could no longer hear him. He smiled apologetically and beckoned us into the house.
Inside and out, the house was plastered and painted a pale tan. Its door and windows were covered with metal bars. The front room was about 10- by 12-feet and filled with large brown overstuffed chairs and couches. A woman sat nursing a baby in one chair, and the leader pointed us toward a couch. Four of us sat, others stood. There was no light. The sound of the rain was still louder than the leader, so I let my eyes wander. It was the first time in years that I had been inside a Ugandan home. The walls were bare save a large photo of a woman, Namayanja Rose, May Her Soul Rest in Eternal Peace, according to the words written under her barely smiling face. Finally, the leader began wrapping up, coasting toward the real purpose for the meeting: the ask.
“We also bought land, about a quarter of an acre, for future development purposes,” he said. “But we need more land. It’s too expensive. And we need an irrigation system to water our crops during the dry season. We need investment.”
Team members listened intently and took notes. The villagers were deserving, but we wouldn’t have an answer for him that day. The meeting was the first of many we would have with others who also would have lists. We wanted to help all of them, but the nonprofit would wait to make commitments.
By the time the leader finished, the rain had passed, and we moved back onto the porch. We thanked him, gave him a gift, a solar light, and the nonprofit’s leader asked me to close the meeting.
“Thank you for your kind hospitality, for the remarkable things you’ve shared,” I said. “For me, visiting here is coming home. I lived in Entebbe, had my fifth birthday here. It’s been over sixty years since I saw the green trees and red earth of Uganda. It’s fitting that I’m here. My father came to Uganda to do agricultural research and reduce hunger and poverty in 1962. He would be, as am I, very proud of all you’ve done.”
A visible ripple of approval coursed through the villagers. We had come not just to listen, but I had come back to Uganda. My past was like a golden key of belonging, fitting perfectly in a lock.
It was a key I might not have chosen if I had heeded warnings from the U.S. State Department, well-meaning relatives, and friends. The list of things that could befall me in Uganda was sobering: terrorism, corruption, military and police oppression, petty crime, and more. And just before I left the U.S., the Ugandan Parliament passed a controversial (though popular with Uganda’s Christian majority) anti-gay rights bill, stoking indignation around the world and within my own family.
“Whatever you do,” the nonprofit’s leaders told us, “don’t talk about that bill here. Even if others bring it up.”
But “Teri,” my brother-in-law wrote to me before I left the U.S., “I’m so sorry but I must share that I would never ever spend one red penny in Uganda. From my perspective it is such a horrible country to depict in any sort of positive light. I wish you would post things exposing its despicable underbelly. I hope you know that homosexuality is punishable by DEATH in Uganda. Your brother and I would be summarily captured and thrown off a five-story rooftop and if that didn’t kill us, we would be beaten to death to finish us off...”
What he had written was true. It was wrong and despicable, but not going to Uganda wasn’t right either because of the many people who depend on tourism to make a living. So, I promised my brother-in-law that I would keep my eyes and ears open and that once I got back, I would write about Uganda, underbelly, and all. I was committed emotionally and financially, and I continued researching, preparing for the trip.
I learned that authoritarian President Yoweri Museveni rose to power gradually. For years Ugandans were like shellfish, gradually acclimatizing to the rising temperature in a slow-heating pot. Museveni helped overthrow bloody dictator Idi Amin in 1979. In 1980, he headed up the armed forces against then-president Obote and in 1986, he declared himself president. Ten years later, Ugandans elected him, and his supporters won control of parliament. He was still president.
Early on he was credited with bringing a measure of peace and stability to Uganda in the war with Tanzania. But there were abuses too. Museveni reportedly violated and ignored human rights abuses to freedom of expression and assembly, sexual orientation and gender identity, women’s rights, arrest and harassment of opposition members and supporters, attacks on civil society, forced evictions, prosecutions for serious crimes, and children’s rights.
If corruption was the hallmark of Museveni’s administration, so was suppression of dissent and political opposition. After he was accused of vote-rigging to win the 2021 election, he said, “Nobody is going to cause chaos here, because whoever tries to, we will break him, because it's no joke...There is nobody who is above us in knowing how to handle guns...and fighting."
But Museveni’s regime may be close to an end. He is getting older, and I had read that more than three-quarters of Ugandans are 30 or younger. They are tired of impoverishment and oppression and have never known another president. An increasing number believe he is old and irrelevant. They hoped, I learned, to replace him with a younger president: the crimson beret-wearing, self-proclaimed revolutionary pop star rapper and politician, Bobi Wine. As Wine attracts more disaffected young voters every year, a future regime change seems possible.
I didn’t know how the young children I met in the Kamuli District would decide about a future president. They were as oblivious to Museveni’s machinations (and Wine’s overtures) on the day I met them as I was to colonialism and racism in 1962. We had traveled three hours from Kampala, passing the Nile River’s modern Isimba Hydropower Project to get to their nearby village where there was no electricity.
At 3,500 feet in elevation, the region was said to be one of the poorest in the country. The landscape was lush and green although it wouldn’t be come dry season. We came to learn about their efforts to grow coffee, pumpkins and other crops, and to build related businesses. We were also there to lay a ceremonial cornerstone for a building the villagers would construct.
Children gathered to watch us get off the bus. As I stepped down, I made eye contact with them and smiled, trying to engage them. Some were shy, others not. One little girl named Nakimera (not her real name) attached herself to me. Her seal-brown colored shirt was ripped and hung off one shoulder, revealing a bare chest. Her hair was closely cropped, her eyes dark brown, and she had a Mona Lisa smile. Only a few feet from the bus, she grabbed and held my hand like a prize. The other children watched big-eyed as she looked up at me wearing the same adoring look my grandchildren had long ago outgrown.
We were both smitten. When the group stopped to examine a field, she stroked my arms, draped them over her shoulders, and leaned back against my legs. From time to time, I heard an older woman whisper at her to come away. Nakimera was defiant. I tried to distance myself for the woman’s sake, but the little girl would have none of it. At the end of the tour, she walked me back to the bus, holding my hand. I got on the bus and wondered what would become of her. The region, I had read, had one of the country’s highest rates of child brides.
“I thought you were going to adopt that little girl,” a team member said to me later, and I wondered whether the woman who whispered to her may have thought the same thing.
“I noticed you with the children,” a team member said softly. “We do what we do for them. Your compassion has touched my heart.”
“That little girl– Nakimera – I want to help,” I replied. “I want her future to give her choices. What can I do? Does she go to school?”
“Nakimera’s mother was traumatized in a violent rape, and her father left. She and her four brothers and sisters live with their grandmother who can’t send her to school,” he said. “School here is technically free, but the uniforms, supplies, and lunches are not. If you want, I’ll find out how much it would cost and message you.”
“Please, find out,” I replied, “but for all five.” I’d found something I could do.
As we drove away, another team member speculated about why Nakimera was so drawn to me: “You were the only white woman there. You had that going for you.”
That may have been true, in her village I was a novelty, but I think it was more. Destiny, maybe. Even if I never saw Nakimera and her siblings again, they would get an education and have choices. And then one day perhaps, they would vote for a president who cared about them.
Daniel and Nakimera weren’t the only ones who moved me. There was the young boy I saw dragging his legs through the mud in the street in Kampala. The hysterical screams of the child I heard in the night that preceded a woman’s frightened cries, a man’s angry shouts, and the revved engine of a boda boda carrying one of them away. The insistence of a friend of a friend who wanted to meet me, though she would have to take a two-hour ride late at night by herself on a boda boda to do that. There were too many winsome children with big bellies and small hands reaching for candy from us. Too many people with dead eyes and worried faces.
These were smoke, despite their leaders’ insistence that things are getting better, evidence that Uganda is aflame. I wanted to help them all, but I couldn’t. I’m nobody’s Jesus separating loaves and fishes, nobody’s Mother Teresa. Their suffering is the fault of those who wield Uganda’s political system for their own gain, diverting profits that could go to feed and educate children, fix roads, supply electricity, heal the sick, and rebuild Uganda. I saw that clearly while I was there, but I didn’t write about it. I knew better. Soldiers and police were everywhere. It wasn’t safe.
The night Ibrahim Tusubira was assassinated, I was five hours west of his street in Kampala where he died. We had moved on by then to Fort Portal, leaving behind the Lodge and Kampala’s dirty streets to visit rural farmers and universities. We checked into the luxurious Nyaika Hotel in Fort Portal where we spent the last few nights before returning to Entebbe to fly home. Unlike the Lodge, the Nyaika was in an upscale neighborhood. It was a gated hilltop complex with beautiful gardens, a grand lobby with marble floors and a sweeping stairway leading up to my second-floor room with a balcony. Not far from Queen Elizabeth National Park, I spent the day in my room writing, wringing memories out of my head to make room for the lions, water buffalo, and elephants I hoped to see the next day. I got a massage. I don’t know how Tusubira spent his last day. Maybe he wrote too.
I was perplexed when I read about his killing. Tusubira was the chair of the Uganda Bloggers Association and was originally both a Museveni-leaning blogger and an advocate of free speech. He came to prominence during the 2020 presidential race critical of Bobi Wine. But at some point, he turned an accusatory finger at Museveni’s administration. Tusubira’s last video post celebrated the killing several days earlier of Museveni’s Labour Minister, retired military Col. Charles Engola. Tusubira didn’t just criticize Engola; he kicked him to the curb.
“Now you’re dead, go and serve your labour services in the grave,” he said. “You guys have mistreated Ugandans for so long. People are being kidnapped, and you foolishly said they had been kidnapped by Nigerians.”
Nobody disputed that the assassination was a professional job. The statements of seven witnesses and video from nearby security cameras confirmed that two men arrived early that evening to surveil his street, position themselves in wait, and confer with lookouts. Later, outside the gate of his home, still in his car, they sprayed him with bullets. Eight bullets, none of which hit his driver sitting next to him.
The political rhetoric and media coverage of his murder confused me. It was hard to know who was responsible.
Museveni said, “I treat with contempt of the killing of this Ugandan by some pigs... It is pigs that believe in using guns against unarmed opponents. [We enjoy] defeating unarmed opponents with counterarguments...”
Those close to Museveni, such as his oldest son Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, his adviser on Special Operations and a likely heir to the presidency, tweeted he was “very saddened to hear about the brutal killing” and urged “all law enforcement agencies to quickly find those behind his murder and bring them to justice.”
But both Museveni and his son were recently accused in an international criminal court of the arbitrary arrest and torture of 215 Ugandans.
Wine also sought to add to his base while waiting like an actor in the wings. “What is clear to all of us, regardless of your political affiliation, is that in a sinking boat, there are no winners.” he said. “Everyone is a potential victim of the lawlessness of the Museveni régime. Let the dead teach the living.”
Was Tusubira shot because of lawlessness, because of his previous support for Museveni, or for his subsequent disloyalty? Did the opposition kill him? I didn’t know and neither did the rest of the world.
Although his son wants to succeed Museveni as president, the talk I heard in Kampala was that even if he did, he might not be able to hold the office. Internal rivals have positioned the interests of others in the military and may have other plans. They have already infiltrated much of the civil government including the anti-corruption unit.
It was probably best that I didn’t write about these things or gay rights or about talk I heard in Kampala that Ugandans suspect their political leaders of creating a moral panic, using the incendiary anti-gay rights bill to rally support and obscure their leaders’ participation in a kickback scandal. Ugandans expect such things and also expect reprisals for standing in the way of Museveni and his supporters.
I did write once, though, about being in Parliament the day that the prime minister came to testify about the beating and arrest of eleven female Opposition Party Members. The women had assembled outside of Parliament to deliver a protest note to the Minister of Internal Affairs because some of them and their constituents had been beaten by police while at home in their districts. Their crime was arranging and encouraging unapproved International Women’s Day celebrations.
We were at Parliament that day to meet with the Agriculture Committee to understand how the nonprofit could work with policymakers. After our meeting, we sat above the chamber floor in the gallery, listening to the prime minister field questions from members when a woman came into the gallery and sat next to me, although there were plenty of other places she could have sat. She wrote in a notebook as she listened. I noticed she was writing because I wasn’t. The speaker’s office had taken my phone, purse, pen, and writing pad on my way into the gallery.
“Are you with the U.N.?” she asked, scooting toward me, smiling conspiratorially.
“No, I’m here with an agricultural nonprofit. Who are you with?” I asked, smiling back.
“President Museveni’s office.”
“Oh,” I said, drawing out the word. Then I sat and let it sink in.
I wondered what she had written on her notepad and what actions might be taken because of it. If I might end up on the page. She smiled back, seemingly satisfied that I hadn’t been sent by the United Nations. We didn’t speak again, but I knew why she was there. She was assembling information to hide smoke. Watching faces. Listening for the subtext of statements. Counting supporters and detractors.
The same day I visited parliament, the Uganda Journalists Association held a press conference to commemorate World Press Freedom Day. They promoted respect for free speech and remembered working journalists who had been killed on the job. Three days later I was in Fort Portal, and Ibrahim Tusubira was dead.
On the way back to the U.S. where I am free to speak, to do, and to dream, the magnitude of all that is wrong in Uganda overwhelmed me. I thought about the Ugandan proverb: You can burn down the house, but can you hide the smoke?
No, I thought. I had seen the smoke. Then, I remembered a quote from Abraham Lincoln.
“If you call his tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?” he once asked. The answer, he said, was, “Four, because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.” There may a lot of five-legged dogs in Uganda, but I won’t call a tail a leg or keep quiet about the smoke.
Uganda, the country that mattered to my father years before, mattered to me. It still does. But despite what I saw and heard there, glimmers of hope persist.
“How do you hold onto hope?” I asked several Ugandans.
“I persevere, navigate the terrain, because if I don’t, they’ll arrest me,” one said. “They tried several times to kill me and my wife. We left for a time because it was too much.”
Another, resolute, declared, “I can’t lose hope. I must fight.”
And yet another said, “In my life, I’ve seen so many people amass wealth and die. I know that someday Museveni will die, that Uganda will remain, and we will still be here.”
I said that I hoped Uganda’s next leader wouldn’t be worse. “No, one day,” one replied, “Museveni will be gone, and we’ll repossess what has been taken.”
I prayed that was true then and still is. That what’s been done and will yet be done in the darkness will be revealed in the light. Because all Ugandans matter. Truth matters.
All in Uganda is not as it seems. I couldn’t help everyone, so I tell their stories. Can you see the smoke? Then tell them too.