This is a short story about my very first night in Uganda…
I was very excited when I arrived in Entebbe. I had never been to Africa, so stepping off the plane into the warm, humid Ugandan night was the beginning of a great adventure. After clearing immigration and getting my bag, I stepped outside to see a throng of drivers waiting, one holding a sign with my name. I introduced myself and he handed me a note from my new boss, whom I had not yet met: “…Sorry we can’t pick you in person, but we all have other commitments. We’ve put you up in a hotel near where we stay. Get some rest, we start work Monday!...”
The driver dropped me at a small but nice hotel in Makindye, a suburb of Kampala, at around 11 o’clock on Saturday night. Although I was quite jet-lagged from my flight from the states, I was just too excited to sleep, and was also hungry. The man at the hotel told me the kitchen was closed and that there was no place nearby to eat at that hour. I knew that there was, because I had seen many small bars, street vendors, and so forth on our drive to the hotel. What he really meant was that there were no proper restaurants for mzungus (white people). But I didn’t care if it was a fancy place, so I went for a walk.
People looked at me a bit funny, bein’s the only white person out walking around at night. But they were just looks of very mild surprise, and everyone was quite friendly. I came across a young man cooking meat skewers on a grill set up on the side of the road. Lucky for me, English is the official language here, so I could ask him what he was cooking. Unlucky for me, his accent was very unfamiliar, so the only meat that he listed that I recognized was “goat”. So I ordered a stick of goat for 2000 shillings- about a dollar. It was damn tasty goat.
On my way back to the hotel I was feeling quite satisfied. I’d been walking for about 2 hours, had found something tasty to eat, and felt comfortable and safe walking alone at night. So complacency had set in as I walked into a dark, deserted stretch of road. A man was walking in the other direction, I smiled and said hello as you would expect to do. But as he was just past me he turned and swung and hit me hard on the side of the head! It was a hard enough hit that in combination with the surprise it knocked me to the ground. My mind ran very fast as I was falling. My first thought was “fuck me, I’ve been here two hours and am getting mugged!” My next thought was that I had taken all my cash with me, thinking it was safer with me than left alone in the hotel with 19th century locks, and that I now wished I had left it in the hotel. I realized I had some choices- 1) just give him my money, 2) run, or 3) fight. I’m normally not a violent person and can’t remember the last time I’d been in a fight. But, I wasn’t going to give him all my money, I didn’t know if people would help if I ran, and he didn’t appear armed or that big. So fight it was.
After I hit the ground I jumped up to face him, took a step forward, cocked one arm back and yelled “come on, fucker!!!” Of course I didn’t want to fight, but hoped I might intimidate him just like he was surely hoping to do to me. He hesitated, then took a step back. I took a step forward and yelled again. At this point he took another step back, looked at me like I was a crazy mzungu, and ran away. I was so excited by this that I almost chased after him, which would have surely been a bizarre sight for any spectators- after midnight on Saturday, some crazed mzungu chasing and screaming after a Ugandan man, who’s now realized that he’s picked a fight with a lunatic… As comical a sight as that would be, I was happy just to see him running away while I still had my wallet. So I watched him for a moment, then continued on to the hotel, just about a quarter mile.
Obviously, this could have happened even in my old hometown. I was out walking around late Saturday night near the bars, was obviously not a local, and my color meant I was rich. I was lucky that I learned some valuable lessons: don’t carry a lot of cash, and when in doubt- act crazy. The second part comes easy if you already have a bit of crazy in you.
I am very happy to add that I’ve been living in Uganda for over a year and have never felt threatened or unsafe since. I go out alone at night, I date Ugandan women, and I’ve been in many places and situations, both in the city and the villages, that tourists never get to see. So when people say Uganda is the friendliest country, I believe it is true.