Now that I am safely back in the US, I think it is time for me to explain the events of September 10, and consequently why I am unable to safely return to Uganda at this time.
Before September 10th, I knew very little about the conflict and tension present in Kampala. I knew that Uganda was made up of various separate Kingdoms, and that Kampala was part of the Buganda Kingdom, the largest one. I had read several editorials/opinion articles about the Kingdom given to my by one of the directors and I knew that this particular Kingdom has a very high opinion of itself and isn't afraid of saying so.... I knew that such opinions were a big part of the reason the directors fired the matron (cook, etc.) of the home:she was from another Kingdom. Knowing all this, and thinking it was all rather silly, I headed to work that day. It was the last day of my first week of working in the village. Little did I know just how I had underestimated the Kingdom tensions...
As I now know but did not know at the time, the Kingdom system is purely a cultural entity: they have no political power within the national government system. Nonetheless, the Buganda Kingdom has quite the ego, and its residents think ever so highly of the King (The Kabaka). So highly, in fact, that they do not take kindly to slights from Museveni, the President of Uganda (the one who holds the real political power). On September 10, 2009, the Federal Government was threatening to bar the Kabaka from visiting a particular part of the country. On September 10, 2009, the people of the Buganda Kingdom were angry. On this day, I knew nothing about any of this, and went to work.
Miraculously, I made it to work just fine, knowing nothing of the situation in the center of Kampala. In fact, I taught an entire lesson before I even knew anything was wrong. It was only then that I heard there was rioting in Kampala, and that it was spreading outward. The school was releasing the children early so they could get home safely before it reached the village. At this point, I started to panic. I didn't know what the riots were about, and I couldn't understand the radio broadcast in Luganda. All I understood was the word "Nakulabye," a location I passed through to get to work every day, and would have to pass through to get home. Not good.
In a panic, I called a friend from the village who promptly came to find me at the school. He brought me to a family friend's house, where we sat and watched the news for several hours, hoping things would clear up enough for me to be able to get home. It was there I saw broadcasts of what was going on in the city: anger, fires, people being shot, suspects being rounded up, and all out chaos. I felt safe for the moment, glad I hadn't tried to get home, and hoping things would calm down.
As it started to get dark, we decided I needed to find someplace safe to sleep for the night. Henry suggested a hotel in a nearby place called Nansana. As we descended the hill from the village on foot, there was a gigantic bonfire in the middle of the road. We went around a back way, trying to keep me (read: white girl=giant glow in the dark target) away from any danger. We luckily found a man taking his taxi down the hill to check out the situation and hitched a ride. At the bottom of the hill, near the main road, we got out and paid the man. I hid in a little shop I had often stopped in before to get a snack, while Henry went to assess the situation. At this point we realized there was no way I could get home, and Henry tried to hire a boda to take us to Nansana (my home was towards the city center, Nansana is in the opposite direction, farther out the road).
Henry got a boda man to agree to take us to the hotel for 3K shillings (3x the normal rate), and we climbed aboard. Maybe 50 yards down the road, we encountered the first "road block" - a line of flaming debris across the entire road. The man ordered us to get off, and off he went. This is when I knew I was in trouble. The riots had spread all the way out here, and to get somewhere safe, we had to join the mass exodus of other individuals trying to get through the madness to their homes. All public tranportation had shut down, so everyone was walking by the sides of the road, trying to get home. Add to the chaos the police. You would think police would be a good thing, but no. These policemen thought it was a good idea to shoot live rounds into the air to scare off the rioters. Perhaps if I hadn't been so afraid of getting shot, I would have told them that what goes up must come down.....
But no, I was doing everything to avoid the men shooting guns. I had never been shot at before, and running from the bullets every few minutes was the most frightening thing I have ever experienced in my life. Every time a new burst of gunfire sounded, all of us would run for cover. The first time it happened, in the chaos and the dark, a man near us almost fell into a hole dug for a pit latrine, which would have been instant death. Between the gunshots and the flaming road, I was terrified. Time and time again, we ran for cover from the gunshots, every time thinking it might be the last and that I would never see my family again. We eventually found another boda man who would take us for 5K (after we passed on the man who tried to charge us 20K), but things were not all that much easier. Each time we got near one of the flaming roadblocks guarded by angry, crazed rioters, we had to get off the boda, walk a safe distance past, and then get back on. This man with the black helmet could have been killed for taking us. The rioters were trying to disrupt things, and his driving is through was defeating their work. He was risking his life: whether his goal was to help people, or to make extra money, I will never know. Time and time again we had to pass through these blockades. One of the last times, the rioters saw me and started shouting things in Luganda. I couldn't understand them, but I knew it couldn't be good. I was so scared, but Henry kept me calm and moving (not running, that would have made them chase me...). Later on, he told me they had been asking him if I had money. If he hadn't kept a level head and helped me stay calm, I don't know what would have happened to us at their hands.
I don't know how long it took us, but eventually we arrived outside the hotel gates. I paid the man what he had asked, and we hurried inside. We spend a nerve-filled night there, hearing the gun shots outside, and wondering when this would be over. We spend most of the next day waiting, and I kept in communication with my parents in the US, and my friend at the orphanage. Thankfully all of our kids were safe and home. By mid-afternoon, the gunfire had paused in our location and in the location of the orphanage, so we decided to make a run for it, knowing that things had the potential to escalate again if we waited any longer. We walked to the main road, and tried to flag down several taxis, but they would not pick us up. They were afraid to have me. We managed to hire another overpriced boda, and we made it halfway home before the debris still on the road popped his tire. Not many people were out and about, but those who were carried huge sticks. Another boda stopped to help, and he took us the rest of the way home. I was so thankful to be back safely.
I didn't know it at the time, but I passed through some of the worst areas for violence outside of the actual city center. People died at the Nakulabye roundabout, where I walked everyday to catch the taxi to work. On my way to work, I passed through Kasubi, another area of high violence where people died. People also died in Nansana, near where I spent the night. I don't know how I survived, but I am sure all of your prayers played a role.
I don't want people to fear Uganda, and that's why I haven't written this sooner. It's not a bad place, and it has some amazing people (like Henry). Right now, though, the tension has not been completely resolved, and I feel better staying in the US. I miss my students and my friends, and part of my feels guilty about being able to leave. Most of the people I know there don't have that option. That night, I couldn't stop thinking that these people shouldn't have to live like this. It's not right, and I wish I knew how to fix it. I have never been so scared in my entire life. I am safe now, but my friends are not, and it kills me each day.