Uganda: the pearl of Africa

May 3, 2020

In the first of a two-part series on his visit to Uganda, Dr Ajaz Anwar talks about his experiences as the teaching staff member at Makerere University, Kampala; the Ugandan people of “velvety and spotless” skin; their staple food, Matoke, “a thick green banana steamed over low heat, sprinkled with peanuts and some sauce and salt” which they have for breakfast, lunch and dinner, all year round; shaking hands with Idi Amin; and more

Makerere University, Kampala.

Uganda’s National Anthem calls it the Pearl of Africa. Indeed that’s what it is. After I returned to Pakistan after finishing my doctoral programme in Turkey, a delegation came to Lahore to recruit teaching staff for Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda. It was a walk-in interview. I was selected as a senior lecturer and given maximum in the scale.

The university is the most prestigious one in Africa. Kampala saddles over seven hills and Makerere is one. Here, during the British period, they had started a technical school in 1922 which was upgraded into a university as London University College. Uganda never had apartheid or segregation and very few whites had property ownership or settled there during the colonial period. If the locals were properly dressed and had the money, they could visit and drink at upscale restaurants and hotels.

As we landed in Nairobi, we were taken to Kampala in luxury coaches and checked into Imperial Hotel which was like a four-star with a swimming pool and a band. My teacher, Prof Taufeeq Aijaz, too, joined in, as director general of Uganda TV. His wife Munawwar was a set designer.

One of Makerere’s departments is Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts where I served. In this university there were no tuition fees. In fact, all students were given a generous monthly stipend which they mostly sent to their parents back home. Boarding and lodging too was free. They were even allowed to take their beddings home after graduation. On the day of announcement of final results, the Public Service Commission hired most of the successful graduates and a reasonable allowance was given to the others. All art material was dished out at the studios where practical classes were conducted.

My colleagues, apart from the head of the school, Prof G Kakooza, included Ignatius Seraglio (a fine painter), Kirunda (a ceramist) and Sohail (a Pakistani).

The university library was well stocked and had photostat facility. Various international newspapers were subscribed, including The Pakistan Times. It was here that I learnt about a vacancy at the National College of Arts, Lahore, and applied for it just in time. The library was open till midnight. I found students from remote villages painting and studying quite diligently, round the clock.

Uganda is a most beautiful country with a mild climate, and all green. It drizzled mildly every day. The landscape has vivid colours. Kampala is like a very big Lawrence Gardens. Situated on the equator, it is mildly hot during the months of December and January and slightly cold during June and July. Banana, pineapple and papaya are their national fruits found in abundance, of best quality, but perishable; therefore, very cheap. They are expert in peeling and cutting pineapple. Ugandan papaya, when cut horizontally, has perfect star pattern and smells delicious with its orange chrome colour.

The Nile, originating from here, is the only river in the world that flows from south to north. Papyrus reeds grow in abundance along its banks. The ancient Egyptians made paper out of its pulp, hence the name, Paper. Perch of Nile, as it is called, is a very delicious fish; it is found in abundance.

Their staple food is Matoke, a special thick green banana which does not ripe. It is steamed over low heat. They have a large plateful of it, sprinkled with peanuts and some sauce and salt for breakfast; again for lunch and for dinner every day, all year round. Professor Salim, a botanist at the university recommended this to me. One should always eat local food and seasonal fruit, he said.

A large variety of bananas is to be found there. The biggest is more than a foot long, and the smallest is only three inches in size. The smallest one is peeled and put over the perch fish and barbequed; it thus melts and covers the fish. Kasawa or sweet potato ground into powder is also very popular. Water chestnuts in Uganda are really big.

Uganda is the largest producer of coffee, cotton and some minerals. At the Tourist Centre giraffe and zebra pelts were available for a small price tag, but I did not like to buy this symbol of cruelty. Bark of a particular tree is used for clothing and making caps and jackets. The bush men are well provided by nature. They rarely eat meat. Locust attacks are frequent, but most of these are roasted in sun heat and eaten with relish. I too tried many times.

Another delicacy is a kind of ants available in the market. Ant-hills dot the landscape, occasionally monkeys can be seen inserting a stick into the holes and munching the ants.

Uganda is a bird’s paradise, but there are no peacocks. At times white flamingos flock together in thousands to prey on snakes.

African elephant cannot be trained. Zebra, too, might be more powerful than a horse, but it refuses to be harnessed. The African bull is only a bit smaller than the elephants roaming around. But it is very tender if barbecued rare, with blood still dripping. It is really mouth-watering.

Their local food defies all nutrient theories. People are healthy and athletic. But when it comes to imported food items, they find it difficult to survive economically.

All Ugandans, even the semi-literate ones, speak some sort of rudimentary English. They have very beautiful proportions, may be the Classic Greek sculptors were inspired by the anatomy of the Ugandans and Somalians. Their skin is velvety and spotless. To a newcomer they might all look alike, but gradually one discovers pinkish, greenish, bluish and purplish hues in their skin colour.

Before getting married, they try their expertise by having two or three children, because they need a big family. There is less crime, and almost no violence. Ugandans are a most peaceful, friendly people. Their sense of humour is intact under all circumstances, especially when they are under the influence of a community-made brew which can be very potent.

Much has been reported in the international press about Idi Amin’s brutal period during the 1970s. I had the chance to shake hands with the man when he came to our university for convocation. I saw him again when he came unannounced and joined the Eid prayers without any security. It was rumoured that he had many lookalikes, but for a polygamist this would be a risky option. His style and rule begs forensic analysis based on local ground realities obtaining. He was a CBE which, according to him, stood for “Conqueror of British Empire”.

Ugandan economics had long since been controlled mostly by the ethnic Indians. Industry and commerce were their monopoly. Under- and over-invoicing with foreign exchange accounts operating from London had made the transactions opaque. They were given the option of becoming Ugandan nationals or leave the country in 1972. Britain readily accepted them because they were dual nationals with all their money deposited in British banks. As they left en masse, they also made away with vital parts of sugar and other industrial machinery. As a result, sugar became scarce, and trade suffered because the big stores were allotted to the locals who knew nothing about the inventory and prices. The local Christians supportive of the ousted Milton Abotte did not fill in the vacuum. Muslims being fewer in numbers and not much educated failed to grab the opportunity. Moreover, people had loyalty to their respective tribes rather than their religion. Thus, an export-oriented country had to import items that were previously produced locally. Though a US dollar was officially for 8.5 shilling, all prices were fixed at 10 times in black market, locally called “magendo”. Some Pakistanis too sadly indulged in black marketing.

In March 1979, Idi Amin hosted a conference of Foreign Ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) at Kampala, in a desperate attempt to draw the attention of the Ummah. At that time, the trial of the OIC chairman Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was in its final stages.

In the only cinema of the city, we saw a film about the elected leader Allende, as removed by Pinochet; maybe it was screened intentionally.

On the eve of bi-centennial of Christian church in Uganda, war mysteriously broke out. I saw fair-coloured soldiers from Libya guarding banks and critical installations. They finally escorted Idi Amin to Saudi Arabia. (Other leaders too were gradually eliminated). As war became inevitable, night curfew was imposed.

At dusk time, an ancient tank, unable to move, stopped in front of my apartment. On the rooftop of an adjacent building, some insurgents thought that the tank must have come for them, so they went swirling for cover. I too chose to duck and crawled to safety. Just then a complete blackout was imposed. You could count galaxies of stars in the dark expanse of the universe created with the Big Bang, they say. But there were so many bangs, bangs and still more bangs. Some sporadic gun-fire could be heard. While I heard someone pleading his innocence, I felt guilty of being unable to help.

Professor Kakooza had disappeared after handing me the charge of the department. With the final examinations just announced, external jurors refused to travel into the war zone. I drove to Entebbe to fetch them. Bullet-riddled civilian cars with shattered windscreens could be seen all along the route. Some of them overturned. A stout man with his hands tied behind him was seen being beaten by skinny soldiers. I asked my driver to stop, but he was wiser than me. At a picket we were asked to disembark to be frisked. Without alighting I showed the soldier my Makerere service card, he sort of saluted me and let us go. Riding a strange looking armoured vehicle, some soldiers sped through a busy shopping area sending the people helter-skelter. Some other areas were peaceful. People were enjoying acrobatics of probably their only fighter-jet emitting colourful smoke.

On the way, outside his fruit orchard, an old man was seen selling papaya. I bought some, and he made us sit on wooden crates and cut some more for us. His land was located beside a catchment area of The Nile. He discussed his plans to set up a bottling plant there, only if someone would finance his scheme. As we got up to leave I asked him as to how much I owed him for the extra fruit we had eaten, he said we were his guests. I jokingly said, “In that case we don’t need the ones we had purchased.”

“Goods once sold cannot be returned,” he mused.

Ugandans were really able to retain their sense of humor. The following day when I went to purchase some eggs, the prices had shot 10 times. Upon my protest the shopkeeper said, “With the bombs exploding around, do you think the chickens are going to lay eggs?”

(This dispatch is dedicated to Prof George Kakooza)

Note: I intend to compile a series on Pakistani Diaspora visual artists, interested ones may contact me on: [email protected]

For more about Uganda see, Inside Africa by John Gunther.


The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists’ Association and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

Uganda: the pearl of Africa