The Idi Amin Effect

“Dear Liz, if you want to know a real man, come to Kampala,” so went the telegraphic message that the ruthless and eccentric former dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin, allegedly sent to Queen Elizabeth II of England—whom he was rumored to have the hots for.

Amin was probably right, because in Uganda, all men are supposed to behave and be like “real” men. Homosexuality is not only frowned upon, it also downright illegal in the truest sense of the word, which even spurred the penning of an anti-gay bill that would, when passed, throw “repeat offenders” into the lion’s den (a.k.a. death penalty). This has stirred criticism from the international rights-based community who threatened to cut aid if the bill pushed through.
Now for someone like me who comes from a society where homosexuality is accepted (and sometimes even embraced), this was quite interesting, albeit awkwardly. I was lucky to witness a reading of a controversial play by the talented Ugandan playwright Judith Adong during my visit in Kampala. It tackled the sensitive issue of homosexuality  in Uganda, and as expected, it provoked mixed reactions from the audience. I was the only “outsider”  (foreigner) in that group, and since there’s no stopping my big mouth when I get into conversations about topics I’m passionate about, I announced to a group of five or six true-blue Ugandans that I am pro-gay (not because of any religious or political reasons, but because I have gay friends and they are just as human as we all are). And you can just imagine the looks on their faces—some of awe, some of disgust.  
Play reading in Makerere University.

After the reading of the play, as Dilman and I walked along the streets of Kampala (to have a feel of what the city is like—I do this during my first few days in a new place), I can’t help staring at the men and observing their actions. Some men hold hands while walking, some talk with their faces so close to each other, some caress each other’s backs while waiting for taxis. And I even pointed out to Dilman some men whom I suspected to be gay—and he won’t have any of it! Haha! So I decided to keep those thoughts to myself.

Too close for comfort?
Believing that the bill will put into exile hundreds of thousands of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals in Uganda for fear of persecution, pro-gay activists compare the anti-gay bill to Amin’s order to expel Uganda-born Asians in his bid to make Uganda a purely homogenous black country.
In 1972, Amin threw out Indians and Pakistanis out, leaving their properties and businesses behind—which Amin distributed to his cronies. The ousting of the Asians, however, caused the economy to spiral downward because of mismanagement of the businesses. When the current president Musuveni called back the Asians to help save Uganda’s economy, it was already too late, as inflation has already gripped the country.
You can’t believe how high the cost of living is in Uganda! I had to have money changed (dollars to Ugandan shillings) every 3 days while I was there. I thought I was going to shop for clothes to take back to Sudan with me, but what do you know, a second-hand dress costs around 70,000-90,000 UGX (25-30USD) and a brand-new blouse costs around 60,000 UGX (22USD)!  There are many new shopping malls (called Nakumatt and Game) around Kampala, modern ones, and well, the prices are just extortionist! Dilman went to buy a set of curtains for his house (about 8 pairs) and it cost him a whooping 290,000 UGX (100USD)! For curtains! Please don’t even let me start on the price of food and basic commodities.
Nakumatt—one of the newest (and priciest) shopping mall in town.
If you’re confident your international credit and debit cards can take you places, think twice when you’re in Uganda. The ATMs (even Standard Chartered) only accept VISA cards. I was lucky I had some dollars with me, because my Maestro card was simply useless. As for the transportation, I’m just glad there are boda-bodas (motorcycles) for hire and the matatus (mini-buses) that charge around 500-2,000 UGX, because the conventional taxis can rip you off as well.
With these skyrocketing prices, I often wondered how an ordinary low-wage-earning Ugandan can survive in these tough times. I looked around and I could see women and children and men spending their pastimes at the sides of the streets doing nothing, alongside flocks of marabou storks that grace the city’s sidewalks and skyline. Kampala is a city of contrasts—beauty and ugliness, wealth and poverty, living next to each other.
Contemplating about life in Uganda.
Witness of Kampala’s struggles.

So where was I? Ah, Indians and Pakistanis, yes, you see a lot of them around Kampala that you think that you are actually in an urban city in South Asia. They’re obviously back to business, thanks to Museveni, and they are doing quite well. Around 70% of the business establishments I went to (supermarkets, restaurants, clothes shop, appliance store, etc.) were owned and operated by my South Asian brothers and sisters.
Anyway, I am no expert of Amin’s history or Ugandan culture but I can’t help connecting the dots when I saw these signs all over Kampala.
Strictly off-limits to tourists—unless you have other things in mind.
And if you are a backpacking junkie like me who dig low-budget accommodations, steer clear of these types of lodges when in Uganda for your own good. READ: they are not for tourists. They are infamous for encouraging adulterous affairs. Dilman wrote about it in his blog, here.
So why did I think of Amin when I saw these lodges sprouting like mushrooms around Kampala? Well, Amin was a Casanova, wasn’t he? He was known to have married at least six women and fathered as many as 43 children. And being the married man that he was, he still tried to work his charm on Queen Liz, who rejected his advances (and broke his heart?). Could it be the reason for his hostility towards Britain? Don’t quote me. 
Photos by Dilman Dila
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12 Comment

  1. AJ says: Reply

    Wow, this is quite a mouthful. Very fascinating peek at Ugandan society that only Reiza can deliver. 🙂

    It's great that you were at a play reading. Not many travel bloggers can boast about attending one. But you tied it up with an incisive cultural observation. Your description reminded me of China. Not sure if homosexuality is illegal there, but it certainly not accepted by society. But surprisingly, men are openly affectionate with one another. Yes, they also held hands in public without any trace of self-consciousness. I don't even see that here in Pinas!

    Oh, and that photo of 2 men talking so intimately is…well, just priceless. Haha!

    And I never imagined there are high-end malls in Uganda, and that the standard of living is stratospheric!

    Thanks for this multi-layered post.

    PS: Idi Amin and the Queen? That's just wrong! Haha!

  2. admin says: Reply

    Oh yes, AJ! Uganda is quite a fascinating country, and the best way to enjoy it is to understand its history and culture. It somehow changed my perception of travelling. It's no longer about seeing places, but living it—as cliched as it may sound.:)

    And it also struck me how a small issue (even a non-issue) in Pinas can become some kind of obsession there. I'm talking about homosexuality, which they often refer to as "gayism." I was shocked when people say they haven't met a gay person in their entire life!

    And about Idi Amin and the Queen, I just have to put that in. It's priceless!

  3. Great post. Glad to follow you.

  4. Jim says: Reply

    A good read Reiza. Yeah African men have no qualms about holding hands walking down the street so you have to wonder what is driving all the anti- homosexuality law making there?

  5. Jenn says: Reply

    Interesting insight on Uganda. I love reading about your experiences. Although after shopping yesterday for children's clothing here in the US, I was shocked that they wanted $32.00 for a really cute top for my daughter. I choked!! I was like–it's cute–but not that cute!

    Cheers, Jenn.

  6. Interesting read Reiza! In South Africa it is very common for black men to hold hands and most of them are not even gay. It is part of their culture of we as white people often joke with them about it and then we all have a good laugh together 🙂

  7. Great post as usual. Men hold hands in lots of countries. I don't quite understand what it's all about. Friendship, maybe – but it also seems a declaration of public love…

  8. admin says: Reply

    Jim, Nelieta, and Petra, this men-holding-hands-with-men thing has become a tourist attraction! I see a lot of photos of them in people's travel blogs. 😀

  9. admin says: Reply

    Oh yeah, Jenn. I think we'll just learn how to live in the 21st century. 😀

  10. admin says: Reply

    Thanks, Laura. Following you too. 🙂

  11. I first learned about Idi Amin by way of the movie "Raid in Entebbe" and of course the "Last King of Scotland" he's one of the most feared dictator but I only knew about his romantic side (albeit bordering on madness) by his infatuation with Queen Elizabeth lol.

  12. admin says: Reply

    Oh yeah, Marky, that's a shocker, isn't it? Goes without saying, he's just human after all.

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