Journey to Uganda

KAMPALA, Uganda — Our journey to Africa is just one day old and already our students are finding, to their delight, that journalism is all about new discoveries and interesting people.

The printouts from three months of Internet research that preceded this African adventure remain buried in their suitcases as the students breathe in the wonders of an environment so different from their own, but also so familiar.

Kampala, the Ugandan capital, is a city of over one million black people who could look no more dissimilar to our young pale-faced students. No matter. From the airport passport offical who stamped in entry visas with a smile, to the street side newspaper seller who shouted an eager “oyly oh tsia,” the Ugandan language hello we hear everywhere, the reception has been wonderfully friendly. The “Thank you” response, “see-n-dee,” always brings a big smile to the faces of the locals.

And the students are responding with their own unbounded enthusiasm to a people who until today, from their perspective in China, they saw as inhabitants of a distant, mysterious continent afflicted with mankind’s major medical, social and political perils.

There are plenty of problems here, which was why Uganda was chosen as the first stop on our reporting adventure. But here also are are a vibrant people reaching out in friendship to the world, reaching out to our students, who are in turn reaching back with their own youthful exuberance.

It has been said that the journey on a long-planned trip is sometimes more interesting than the arrival because expectations outweigh reality. Certainly our journey to Africa has been a long one, beginning in January with the selection of the nine-member student team, and followed by months of seminar studies.

We found in our research what the world is also finding — that Africa has become a major focus of China’s economic policies. The continent’s abundant mineral resources have attracted billions of dollars of Chinese investment, thousands of Chinese technicians and merchants are working here, and inexpensive Chinese products are finding a ready market in the more than 50 African nations.

This commanding economic position in some African countries gripped by internal civil strife has brought calls by the international community for a greater effort by China to assert political influence to bring stability to places like the Darfur region in western Sudan and Zimbabwe in southern Africa.

We chose to visit Uganda and Ghana primarily because they were more directly reachable than the other countries in the sprawling African continent. They are also English-speaking, as are our students, and more stable than the neighboring nations of Sudan, Kenya, Somalia and the Congo. China is becoming so dominant in Africa that we could have chosen twenty or thirty other nations to achieve our journalistic goals.

Even so, there was understandable worry as our students rode the bus from Shantou to Guangzhou airport on May 8th to begin our adventure. Yamaha told me later that as our plane took off she looked back at the great city below and thought, “I’ll miss you China. I want  to cry.”

Lucy had never flown before and she wrestled with the G-forces as our plane rose sharply into the sky.

Our journey here was memorable less for its long duration than our air route that took us from Guangzhou across Myanmar where 35, 000 feet below, 100, 000 people were reported to have died in a murderous typhoon. Then on to Pakistan and along the Afghanistan border where terrorisim and war afflict millions.

We made our first stop in Dubai, just thirty minutes flight from southern Iraq where war has entered its sixth year. Just across the Gulf was Iran where nuclear development has alarmed the world.

Then we flew south to Africa over Yemen, a long-troubled Arab state, and across Somalia, a country in civil conflict for nearly 20 years. Eventually we landed in Nairobi, Kenya, to change planes for Uganda. Kenya itself has been flirting with civil war all year.

In ten hours we had flown an arc of brutal violence and human despair that for our young students was a reminder of how fragile peace and stability are across the world.

Our journey to Uganda, then, was long and fascinating, but did it outweigh the reality of arriving? After 24 hours of being here I can answer for all of us a resounding “no.”

We had worried for some time about our accommodations in the capital Kampala because of the difficulty of communications, but as scheduled a bus was waiting for us to take the 40-kilometer drive into the city. A setback was suffered by Gloria whose bag was missing and who is relying on her friends for essentials.

Also as planned our hotel reservations were honored, rooms at the colonial Speke Hotel in downtown Uganda, the oldest hotel in the country and recently refurbished. The new Sheraton Hotel towers in its modern glory in the park above us, but all agree the Speke with its shiny wooden floors, grand old hallways  and streetside coffee lounge is suitable enough for us. One big plus, a modern upgrade that gives us 24-hour room Internet service at no extra charge.

Our further adventures will be detailed in upcoming blogs by our team. But I’d like to mention a couple of matters that interest me as a professor of journalism. Uganda is noteworthy for its free and sometimes irreverent press, and here are the headlines in a handful of newspapers I bought this morning. Such headlines would be unlikely in the papers at home.

The tabloid Saturday Vision announced: “I Have Only 4 Wives — Akon” a claim by a popular singer. The Saturday Pepper headlined, “Soldiers Sell off Kololo Barracks Secretly,” a deal made by a private soldier and a warrant officer to profit from part of the Uganda Army’s main base in the center of the capital. The Observer headlined, ” I Lied That Pastor Imelda’s Prayers Cured My AIDS,” this from a follower of a Pentecostal preacher.

Arriving in a foreign city under deadline is always a challenge for international reporters, and I can report that our Africa team is meeting it professionally. Jane while walking on the street this morning casually met a young Chinese businesswoman from Kunming who has worked in Kamapala for ten years. From this meeting a fascinating profile of young Chinese professionals in Africa will emerge.

Gloria is tasked primarily with business stories and spent the day looking for Chinese interests in chaotic Kampala. This evening she figured out that the small casino behind our hotel might attract Chinese customers, and some of us went over with her to check out her theory.

Sure enough, a middle-age businessman on a losing streak at the roulette table turned out to be from Gloria’s hometown in Zhejiang Province and invited her to visit Williams Street on Monday to meet many other Chinese business people.

I’m happy to recount this story because I’ve always argued that successful journalists are blessed with sharp insight — and lots of luck.

Posted on Monday, May 12th, 2008 at 12:03 pm and is filed under Trip News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One comment


“In ten hours we had flown an arc of brutal violence and human despair ”

I felt pretty down on this sentense to recognize the wide-spread sufferings in the developing


Thank you for the animated report. Good luck, my dear teachers and classmates.

May 14th, 2008 at 3:42 am

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