Idi Amin, The Butcher of Uganda

If you have seen the movie The Last King of Scotland you would understand what I wanted to do in Kampala, Uganda.  I wanted to learn more about what the country has gone through, what these people’s history really entailed, and how it has influenced the nation, developing it into Uganda as we know it today.  I wanted to see the remaining footprints of Idi Amin, the military leader and President of Uganda from 1971 to 1979.

In a nutshell, borrowed from About.com, “Idi Amin Dada, who became known as the ‘Butcher of Uganda’ for his brutal, despotic rule whilst president of Uganda in the 1970s, is possibly the most notorious of all Africa’s post-independence dictators. Amin seized power in a military coup in 1971 and ruled over Uganda for 8 years. Estimates for the number of his opponents who were either killed, tortured, or imprisoned vary from 100,000 to half a million. He was ousted in 1979 by Ugandan nationalists, after which he fled into exile.”

I highly recommend reading the BBC Ugandan profile to understand the history and About.com.

I went to the Mengo Palace which stands on one of Uganda’s hills overlooking Idi Amin’s private lake, and from where one can see Gaddafi’s mosque.  The Palace itself is quite modern looking, and if I remember correctly, its architectural design was a gift from England.  Tourists are not allowed to enter, however the reason I came here was that the same grounds are home to the infamous prison and torture chambers built by Idi Amin in the 1970s.  They were later used by President Obote for the same sinister purposes.

The torture chambers were haunting.  Originally designed to store the army’s weaponry, we were told that they were commissioned to be built by Israelis who had no idea that the purpose of these cemented underground caves would be changed upon completion.  They were used for some of humanity’s worst atrocities.

The victims would be blind-folded and driven around the palace grounds all day in order to make them believe they there were far away from where the drive started.  None would guess that they were still on palace grounds in Kampala.  The chambers are elevated multiple feet above the ground and are surrounded by water.  The only way in when the torture chambers were active, was by boat.  The water was electrified, turned on and off as necessary by those in command.  When the entrance was closed there was no light.  Each chamber held about 500 people.  Oxygen would run out, feces would pile, victims starved.  Some chose to jump into the electrified water to end their suffering quickly.

The marks from the wires still run in the walls.  On some walls are charcoal messages.  One such message reads Obote, you have killed me, but what about my children!  Twisted, Idi Amin enjoyed the torture chambers so much that he chose to have them replicated and started to build a second set. Neither he, nor Obote could finish this task.

I was reminded of Cape Coast in Ghana, where slaves were also held captive in such dense quarters.  While slavery did exist in the African Kingdoms prior to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, it had never before been to such a scale.  Initially, the Slave Trade developed along the pre-existing slavery contexts and along internal African trading routes; however, the large-scale horrendous movement of human cargo, such as the slave exporting purpose of Cape Coast, Ghana, was perpetrated by foreigners.  Thus, the overwhelming difference that shocked me most with Idi Amin’s reign in Uganda was that the merciless torture and killing was carried out by a fellow Ugandan at scales unseen before.  According to this website, Idi Amin is ranked number 7 on the list of the world’s most evil men. Many websites describe his sickening torture methods.

Due to technical mishaps, I am unable to post additional photos, so if you are interested in seeing these prisons and torture chambers, check out this link.  They aren’t gruesome to look at, unless you can image what was once the reality of what you are looking at.  Clicking on the photos should open up and allow you to see additional photos that other travelers have posted.

It really is a shame that this history is similar to those of multiple leaders around the world.  Was it Idi Amin who used power for evil, or did having access to so much power corrupt him?  Once hailed and celebrated as a hero by fellow Ugandans and the international community, I cannot help but wonder how the world could have been so blind.  Some say he suffered of illness.

How is it that those who know no love for humanity, often gain and maintain power for so long?

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White Christmas

White Water Rafting on the White Nile

It’s December 24th.  We are in Jinja, Uganda.  I wake up earlier than intended and lie in bed unable to sleep.  Excitement runs through my veins.  I listen to music playing softly on my iPod as the sun begins to rise.  The others wake up.  We get changed and spend the next hour watching the Nile flow by reminiscing the evening before.  Dinner had been a sunset cruise on White Nile and its source, Lake Victoria.  Our boat had passed Livingstone’s monument, who discovered the source of the Nile, and one of Gandhi’s shrines, whose ashes were scattered here and across the world following his death in 1948.

It feels like forever before we are loaded into an open-sided truck and shipped off to get breakfast, complete with a life vest and bright coloured helmet.  The trailer, piled high with rafts, gets hooked up to our truck and off we go.  The paved roads become dirt, the smoothness gives way to potholes, and the dust becomes near unbearable.  I don the broken sunglasses one last time.  We are close, I can tell.

We are unloaded and the instructions begin.  I am excited and true to form, can’t stand still.  Our shoes are off and placed with a change of clothes in the truck, which will meet us at the end.  There is no turning back.  Whooohooo!!!

We are given a pep talk, which included tips: what to do when the raft flips; who to give the sunscreen to; check your life vests; practice flipping and getting back into the raft here in the calm water before reaching the rapids; you get more footage in the souvenir DVD if you are dramatic so flip your raft, fall out, lose your shorts.  My eyes widen.  I had woken in the night with the footage of the previous day’s group replaying in my mind.  The rapids are rushing in every direction as fast as I can image.  The rafters were tossed around like ragged-Anne dolls.  To my horror, my realization in middle of the night had been that my shorts might fall off.  Now, I tighten them as much as possible, uncomfortably aware that this makes them inches shorter.  We translate for Natalia and are loaded onto our raft.  I want the front but they say I am too small.  I sit where they put me, towards the mid-back, choosing to trust the professionals.

In a comical way, our guide informs us that today is his first day working these rapids.  We are not sure that we like the humour.  Then he tells us what to do if we fall out and into the rapids.  When he informs us there are kayakers out there who will save us we feel relieved.  This is better.  He and a kayaker show us how to hold onto the kayak when they rescue us.  They then teach us how to paddle and I become impatient.  I’m bursting at the seams with excitement but must remind myself that not everyone grows up with a canoe.  Learning to paddle may be important.

There is a girl in our raft who is terrified and cannot swim.  There is another girl who is still learning to swim.  The guide tells us there are two ways of doing the rapids: the harder or easier route.  My independent-fight-for-yourself side must speak up.  The hardest route of course!  We are here for Grade 5 rafting.  Let’s take on the challenge – no question!  That’s why we’re here.  Complete with a winning smile.  I catch the frightened girls’ eyes and feel sorry for her but I don’t want one person to hold back our Christmas trip.  I’ve been dreaming of this since I was a kid.  My friends and I had this trip planned for months. I think to myself ‘Send her to a different raft if need be.  I want the full experience.’  I feel somewhat heartless and am uncomfortable with it.  She asks if I’ve ever rafted before. Never.  I’ve always wanted to do it here.  I’m so excited!  She says I must be an adrenaline junkie.  I just smile.

In the calm water we flip the raft and must climb back in from the water. The guide gets back in.  So do two of us; the one guy on our raft, and myself.  We thought we were home-free but instead we earned the responsibility of pulling the other five people into the boat.  I realize this is much more difficult than it looks as my help in pulling the first person onto the raft results in their landing directly on top of me.  At least I didn’t fall out of the raft and into the water on the other side.

What seems like forever is finally over and we are off.  I’m so excited!  A small part of me freaks out, but it’s too late, we’re committed!  Whooohooo!!!

We make it down the first rapids, no problem and are shocked to see others lose a couple rafters.

We approach the second rapids.  The camera man watches from shore.  We are dared to stand and wave.  Three of us do, myself included. Back down in the raft as soon as possible, we survive the rapids.  These are warm up rapids.  Now we are ready for the big stuff.

The one nicknamed The Washer, for tearing away people’s clothing is before us.  We are the first raft to go.  My heart is racing.  We paddle, we paddle harder, we get down, all according to the guides instructions.  We remember him saying that if we flip, this time we must let go of the paddle and let go of the raft’s rope and assume the safety position.  Check.

We are down in the raft, holding on for dear life.  We are tossed up on the rapids and down again, up again, almost to the top but not quite.  We are sent backwards into another wave and are spun.  Before I know it, our raft is lifted high and we are flipped out of nowhere.

Water is everywhere.  With my arms and legs I reach.  For what, I’m not sure – something, anything.  There is nothing but water.  No raft, no people, no paddle.  In a split second my natural reaction to swim kicks in.  I realize that I don’t know which way is up while I become acutely aware that I’m running out of air.  I still myself and after a second, which felt like eternity (I was beginning to wonder where my body would turn up) when the life vest finally decides to serve its purpose and it pulls me upward.  I open my eyes and mouth just in time to close them again.  I am pummeled and tossed, while trying to stay in the safety position; my legs out before me, arms by my side.  My head is above water again and I breathe in the wave which comes from behind.  Thankfully it sends me to slightly calmer water and I am able to float visibly.  I open my eyes and am relieved to see a kayak rescuer in front of me.  Someone is at his front, I go to the back.  As he brings us to a safety boat I am coughing continuously.  He asks if I am okay.  I am fine, just full of the Nile.  I look to see who is at his front.  It is the frightened girl.  We are united in our first out-of-the-raft experience.  We loved it.  The sensation reminded me of surfing in Barbados, particularly beach that was notorious for pummeling surfers again and again.  Our guide comes to collect us and another girl who floated by.  We then paddle back upstream to collect the other 4 rafters from where they waited on shore.  They were rescued earlier, while I was still under water.  It had felt like forever.  It was probably only almost a minute.

There is a 45 minute stretch before the next rapids.  We share stories, sunscreen and swim in the Nile.  There are a series of rough rapids and we flip three more times.  We were a strong raft, not losing our rafters and not flipping often.  The four times we do flip are epic.

That night after listening to Christmas music and exchanging gifts, we meet up with the others.  As every other night, everyone staying at Jinja Backpackers’ Campsite, our accommodation, gathers to watch the footage of the day’s rafting.  When showing our first flip, The Washer, there was a unanimous gasp across the room.  Someone’s voice wavered, “Where are they?”  In the film, our raft eventually emerged upside down.  Only three or four red helmet heads pop up seconds later, further in the rapids.  The rest of us, myself included, are still being washed.

Adrenaline junkie?  Bien sûr!

January 18th Already?

So I looked at the date and had to take a minute to write that I am arriving home in one month!!!  Yahoo!  I have mixed feelings and a couple ideas about what will happen next, but am glad to be returning for a bit.  There is nothing like coming home to family, friends, home cooked meals …access to a kitchen, my own bedroom, water coming out of the tap lights that work and when they are turned on… On top of all this, I really hope there is still some snow left for me!  Perhaps this is asking too much?

My Christmas and New Years blogs are just about finished.  I’m just waiting on photos to upload before I share them.  As we all know, photos tell stories of their own, and with these experiences, it’s only fair the writings are accompanied with the photos!

Work is crazy, deadlines are coming and on top of it all, it turns out I am head north tomorrow to visit some primary schools in Nyahururu and Ol Joro Orok.  Then I will have more experiences to share!

This weekend: take some time for myself, get those photos uploaded and catch up on this blog with a salted pretzel and mustard.  Sounds perfect!

Everything is Normal in Nairobi

Life has assumed itself a sense of normalcy here in Nairobi for most people.  A normalcy which was questioned by everyone when the security at work had heightened over the weekend and the latest security warnings had been sent out by the UN and western embassies.

The warnings explicitly state to avoid UN Avenue, the UN, western embassies (particularly the US embassy which is across from the UN) and Village Market (the nearest mall to the UN).  All of these are the key landmarks of Gigiri; the neighbourhood within which my life here exists.

I am not scared or nervous but think this is an interesting time to be here.  Will people operate with the same caution they did when the Al-Shabaab threats first came in autumn?  Or will people assume that the threats have resulted in nothing to Nairobi so far, and that nothing further will?  My observations: while security has gone up, individual awareness and security has not.  I would argue that this and street smarts – operating with extra caution – are definitely the characteristics to presently be acting upon.

However, that being said, some people are not surprised by anything.  I was told today by both security and investigation officers that “everything is normal in Nairobi”.  This means that the odd, unusual and somewhat creepy text messages and phone calls I’ve been receiving are normal.  That being accused of being the girlfriend to a man who already has a girlfriend, whom the man wants to marry, but who turns out to already be a husband to a wife who is in the hospital and just gave birth is normal.  That people find out Westerners’ numbers and try to entrap them in situations later used for blackmail is normal.  That winning the lottery and being dragged into a real Kenyan soap opera is normal.  It was just like one of their popular radio shows where they try to bust people who are cheating on their significant others.  Crazily these stories are common.  Yet, I still do not get it.  How did they get my number and who are they?

Acting on advice, tomorrow I will be purchasing a new sim card – definitely time for a new phone number!  Oddly enough, from what I’ve heard, I have been fortunate to make it 5 months with only an accommodation incidence.  If that’s true, here is to hoping my good luck continues!

Humanity Comes First

Elephant Orphanage: The David Sheldrick Wildlife

In early December I decided to go to The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Elephant Orphanage.  This is within Nairobi National Park and is where infant elephants are taken and raised if they have been orphaned.  Elephant communities themselves do not stay in Nairobi National Park because the park is too small.  Elephants require lots of space.  Walking 100 miles a day is an average stroll for a herd of elephants.    According to the Trust, 30 years ago the number of elephants in Africa was 3 million.  Now, the number is less than 400,000 and is declining steadily.  This is because the space elephants require is no longer available due to the huge population explosion which resulted in elephants competing with humans for space.   Of course, being kept within the limits of a national park is not the best option, leaving elephants are dependent on unreliable rainfalls; however it remains the best alternative when the elephants are viewed as threats when they step outside the park.  If not seen as threatening, they are seen as valuable – not only for their ivory, but also for leather, curios, and meat.  There is much more information about this available at the Trust’s website: http://sheldrickwildlifetrust.org.  It also shares unfortunate details about elephants being poached and trafficked, particularly the infants.  It is incredibly sad.  The International Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) also has some interesting information available.

It was at the Elephant Orphanage that I learned elephant orphaned younger than 3 years cannot survive without milk.  Usually the mother elephant’s milk supplements elephant infants’ vegetarian diets for the first 5 years of its life.  While elephants are known for being human-like and emotional, resulting in their strong nature to care for and protect each other, mothers are also aware that they cannot supply milk for an orphan infant without sacrificing the survival of her own.

The Trust developed a milk formula similar to the natural milk of elephant mothers, and has the elephant infants spend a large portion of their day in Nairobi National Park, encouraging them to thrive in their natural wild habitat.  This might seem contradictory considering that the elephant infants sleep in the same stall as their individual Keepers; however this is necessary for the elephant survive as elephants only thrive if they are happy.  They are inherently emotional and need to know that they are valued and in community.  They develop a bond, each with their own Keepers, and are reliant on their Keepers until their rehabilitation is complete.  The orphans grow up with each other as family until they are eventually re-integrated with their herd in the wild.  Their herds are usually traced once the elephant infants are discovered so that they will be able to release the elephants to the same herd.  The goal of the Trust is to rear the orphaned elephants in such a way that they grow up psychologically sound.  Most of those released to the wild return to their herds in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park after spending time at a short rehabilitation camp re-introducing them to the park.  They are monitored to ensure that they are accepted and welcomed into the herd.  Apparently it is true, elephants never forget.  They remember and recognize their trainer throughout their lifetime.

Elephant orphans, as humans, each have their own stories however many have similar stories with their mothers having been poached resulting in an elephant infant without milk or nutrients, falling behind in the herd and eventually on its own.  At the Elephant Orphanage there were elephants who were discovered by their mother’s body, wandering a settlement on their own, or being washed up on shore.

The elephant orphans grow up with each other as family.

I saw 3 sets of elephant orphans.  The first were the youngest and newest to the shelter.  They came wearing blankets for it had been so chilly that morning.  If it had been a warm day, apparently I could have seen them having a mud bath.  They only drank their milk and walked around.  When I think elephants I think large round creatures.  The youngest one was still very traumatized.  He was found washed up on a shore and had just arrived at the shelter recently.  He would not drink the milk and barely moved.  I’ve never seen an animal more sad, or an elephant thinner.  It broke my heart.  Unfortunately, I was not surprised when writing this, to discover when looking up the website that he was one of the few who did not survive the Trusts’ intervention.  Found washed up along river shores, he was not only traumatized but also weak and predisposed to sicknesses, such as pneumonia, which took him in the end.

The second set we saw were older and came running for the milk.  They supplemented their milk diet with branches and although they were only by a little older than the first set, they were significantly bigger and had much more energy.  Certain elephants of the second set continually checked in on the first set, seeming to take care of each other, although most often the elephants kept near their Keeper.

When both these sets left, in came the 2-3 year olds.  They were huge and gregarious!  Full of energy  they played with both their trainers, each other, and the crowd.  They were full of life and of all the space they had they stuck together side to side huddled like they were discussing a football play.  A nice testimony of how the Trust has helped elephant infants thrive, this third set left everyone hopeful that the lives of the first set will one day turn around.

The Trust also looks after orphaned rhinos, which up close look both scary and gentle at the same time.  Their skin is so incredibly thick, dry and rough.  I can’t help but wonder how it keeps from cracking.  Since rhinos don’t use cream, there must be a purpose.  One thing I’m sure, nothing can penetrate that skin so I’m guessing rhinos don’t suffer from sun damage.

I was torn.  There animals are cute but part of me feels that we shouldn’t be seeing them as an attraction – at least not the youngest ones when they are clearly still traumatized.  However on the other side, between 1987 and 2009 the Trust has successfully hand-reared over 85 newborn and very young elephant orphans (in addition to those older and fit enough to go directly to the Tsavo rehabilitation camps) that they have proven to be effective if they have the continued funding, and how better to receive donors?  They have a program where you can sponsor an elephant much like a child.  This seemed like a great and innovative way to raise funds for the Trust, and as much as I knew mom always wanted an elephant as a little girl, I couldn’t bring myself to support this when there are so many hungry, abused and orphaned people in this world.  I knew she would agree, but I am still glad to learn that there is someone looking out for these beautiful creatures.

My heart did go out to them, especially as it is my own species which has created so much damage and trouble for these animals in the first place.  However there are many humans which suffer as a result of our own actions as well.  There is one thing I cannot change, no matter how cruel mankind may be to these lovely animals, there is equal and undeserved cruelness towards fellow human beings.  It is justice against this where my effort and support must always lie first and foremost.

To me, humanity comes first.