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From Croatia to East Africa
Monday, 10 January 2011 Written by Nikolina Radić Ančić

Davor Šuker is very popular

On the long journey from Croatia to East Africa – about whose crime, poverty, post-war conflicts, paramilitary groups, diseases and other dangers we were warned about by all who had heard that we were traveling to that never stable part of the Black Continent – it was a terrible twist of fate, or true irony, that the greatest fear we suffered was at the Zemunik Airport in Zadar. The Croatia Airlines plane that flies from Zadar to Zagreb, stopping in Pula, was an hour late, so that it seemed that the long- prepared and demanding trip would end before it even started. Luckily, the plane in Zagreb waited for fifteen minutes just for the two passengers from Zadar, so the journey from Frankfurt to Dubai, Ethiopian Addis Ababa, and Ugandan Entebbe was able to proceed smoothly. Following the Dubai Airport, which was declared to be the best and the most luxurious in the whole world, and which faithfully depicts the richness of the United Arab Emirates, the “clash of the worlds” upon the arrival in Entebbe was truly dramatic.

Exiting the space-tech Boeing 777, where they totally spoil their passengers, it was rather cruel to suddenly find yourself in dust! At a typically East-African (dis)orderly and (dis)organized airport they led us from one counter to another. The first official carelessly stamped the DR Congo visa instead of the Ugandan one-entry 30-day visa. When we asked her to change the visas to multiple-entry ones (we were told to do so because we were going to travel to other countries and in the end once more fly to Croatia from Uganda), we were sent on a pilgrimage from one counter window to another. The $60 we already paid had to be supplemented by another $60.

“Where are you going? What are you looking for?” an elderly airport controller asked without a smile, and after a lengthy explanation on our side, she finally “snapped” and started to shout, “Who told you to pay? Do you hear me? Who?”

We pointed to the officials we had passed so far, and she wanted to know who was the first one we had gone to. She hastily marched to the clerk, and we nervously hurried after her. After she saw the wrongly stamped visa, she got angry once again and started to shout at the frightened official who kept apologizing. She then explained to us that we shouldn’t ask for a new visa until our return to the country, at the border-crossing.

“Go!”, she dismissed us with an equally raised voice, and we, after the first lesson in African bureaucracy and confusion, exited the building without being stopped or any customs checks because we had come from “better” countries. We searched for a taxi to take us to Kampala, the Ugandan capital, which was 40 kilometers away.

Ten taxi drivers quickly surrounded us, but we turned to the one that had some kind of an info-stand in front of him. In acceptably understandable English, he started to bargain. The “agent” punched in numbers on a calculator, recalculated kilometers, petrol prices and distance, and didn’t change the $50 price. To the local population it is understood that all white folks are rich, and when they, in addition to the aforesaid seem insecure and confused because their first visit to Africa has just begun, they are an ideal target for a ‘rip-off’. But man is an adaptable animal, even if we are talking about a white woman who finds bargaining in her own country to be very unpleasant, so we quickly managed to pull ourselves together and took the calculator in our hands. Starting then, and in all later bargaining and outsmarting, it turned out that our greatest advantage was superior calculator use and fast calculation of currencies, exchange rates, and other numerals. The speed by which we completed those basic mathematical operations was obviously impressive, so the self-confident taxi drivers paused and slowly checked our numbers believing that ‘they’ were now just one step away from being cheated.

“OK, muzungu, $30. It can’t go lower.”  The negotiations ended in which “the muzungus” turned out  to be not so naïve. For most people in the former East African colonies the expression means “white man,” and sometimes it has a somewhat offensive meaning. From that moment on, during every step of our reporters’ expedition we heard, “muzungu, muzungu”.

The “agent” sent us to a taxi driver, who in turn took us to the parking lot and his ancient Toyota, the most common brand of car on the roads of Uganda and Rwanda, and silently showed us his at least 25-year-old wreck whose rear windows couldn’t be opened. Whatever question we asked him, he didn’t answer, so we concluded that the English language was totally unknown to him.

And on the road to Kampala we too fell silent or, better said, we went dumb. Even those who had visited Zagreb’s poor Roma settlement of Kozari would be shocked by the poverty of the Ugandan people. The scenes of unimaginable poverty constantly changed one after the other, and my photo-reporter colleague, Jure, was already “shooting” through the window, not knowing what to shoot first.

Buying, Selling, Subtracting, and Adding

On a road full of potholes, whose tarmac barely reached the edge of the narrow street, the trucks, buses, minibuses, overcrowded taxi vans, and “boda boda” motorcycles madly raced. The generally poor population cannot afford to buy private cars, motorcycles, or even bicycles, so taxi transportation on any kind of a motorized vehicle is extremely popular. The most popular means of transport, because they are cheap, are by far the vans, in which one can fit ten to twenty people, and the “boda boda,” which is at the same time the most dangerous way to travel because they go so fast, winding their way through pedestrian crowds. It is quite common to bloody your knees and elbows or to get seriously injured. Even pedestrians walked on the road, because it was more pleasant for them to walk on tarmac than on the dust and rocks alongside the road. The masses were walking along the road going about their business or to the shops, and almost every house – including the poorest, incredibly askew shacks, as well as the more decent houses built out of bricks and mud – had a shop or a store of its own.

From Croatia to East AfricaFrom Croatia to East Africa

Everyone was doing something and, in the well-known Partybreakers’ verse, “buying, selling, subtracting, and adding.” You have to live from something, and the Ugandans were obviously doing their best to find every means possible to survive another day. Hair salons are very popular, and they could be found every one hundred meters or so, as well as furniture stores. The furniture on display is usually comprised of two distinct items: an armchair which is always of the same type, and a wooden framework of a bed that usually doesn’t have a mattress, so it is presumed that the buyer would somehow obtain a mat he could afford. The clients of those dreadful hair salons, women and men of the lowest purchasing power, often have their hair cut sitting on the dusty ground in front of the “salon.” That category of people simply doesn’t have a choice, so cutting one’s hair means just to have it cut to the skin.

The hair of Ugandans, Rwandans, Burundians, and the people from neighboring countries is without exception incredibly strong and curly, so a haircut which is just a few centimeters long is impossible to comb. That’s the reason why most of them cut their hair short, and the few who want to afford a different haircut are women who often spend one-third of their monthly income of some $80 to $100 in order to have that luxury. Their few centimeters long hair is straightened by hair dressers and then they put on extensions which are finally made into one of the small cue haircut variants. The procedure can last more than five to six hours. “But the women here like to adorn themselves and they are prepared to suffer anything for beauty”, Mirella Brenke, a woman from Zagreb and for the time being the only Croatian living in Uganda, would tell me later.

She came to Kampala with her German husband and their children a year-and-ten months ago in order to make a change in their pleasant and routine life of well-paid economists in Germany and lead a more exotic, African one. Through our colleagues from the Croatian Television, who left Kampala one day before our arrival, Mirella helped us to make a reservation in “a solid and clean hotel for a decent price” in which several groups of Croatian journalists were already staying. In front of the “Kenrock Hotel”, which he managed to find only by paying a small fee to a “boda boda” driver, our taxi driver suddenly received the gift of speech and started talking in English, asking who would take us to the center tomorrow morning. He recommended himself to the hotel staff, who immediately jumped out in front of us. At reception our second African lesson was about to begin.

“Yes, you have made a reservation for two single bedrooms at $15 each, but they are not next to one another as you asked because one of our guests has stayed longer. One of the rooms is here on the ground floor, and the other one is upstairs”, the two receptionists told us while we exchanged concerned glances. None of us wanted to stay on the ground floor because we had noticed that even the balconies upstairs were closed off with iron fences and bars, like bird cages. They were probably there for a reason, and we were not sure if we wanted to find it out. We insisted on having rooms upstairs, so one of the receptionists took us up to see if we could find two empty rooms. That, supposedly, cannot be known with certainty from the reception desk!

“There could be a room, but that would be more expensive, then”, the dandyish receptionist told us, wearing a yellow shirt with a golden collar and a golden watch, which he constantly kept touching with the other hand, just to make sure the precious thing was still in place. He then brought us to an empty single bedroom which, wondrously, was right next to another single bedroom! Wasn’t that our reservation in the first place!? There was never a problem with the rooms. The whole mess was only necessary to get an extra buck out of us. When we agreed to pay the extra $2, there was a new problem.

“No, we don’t accept dollars, only Ugandan shillings. You have to go and change your money”, the dandy said in a quiet, polite and almost servile voice, behind which a plain little fraudster hid. He was well aware that we had no idea where we were, because earlier at reception he had already asked us if this was our first time in Africa and when we had arrived. He immediately offered to go change the money himself and asked for $1 for the service. He offered an exchange rate of 2200 shillings per dollar, which was great. We accepted and gave him the money. A few minutes later, he came back and said that we would get a better rate if we exchanged a larger sum of money.

“Never mind, we don’t need more shillings”, we told him and realized our mistake. What for us is just a few insignificant Croatian kunas, to some Ugandans represents half of their daily wage, and by saying that, we were actually saying that we had large sums of money.

When he returned, it turned out that the rate was 1800 shillings per dollar, and the negotiations began again. We were once more saved by better and quicker handling of mathematical operations, and we managed to get rooms without paying the extra $2. We only paid the money change service and at a somewhat worse rate.

From Croatia to East Africa

We left the rooms with inevitable mosquito nets and only cold-water showers to meet Mirella in the nearby Indian restaurant bar. Kabalagala, the quarter in which we were staying, was almost as dreadful as the slums we passed on our way to it. The dusty road packed with potholes, patched up houses and “business offices” was right next to our hotel, but also to the twenty-something meters distant street with bars and nightclubs. “In this neighborhood the nightlife goes on the whole night long”, Mirella explained.

The next day Fr. Ivica, our host in Rwanda and an expert on Uganda, would say laughing loudly, “Oh my! A nice neighborhood you were in! It’s Sodom and Gomorra over there, the workplace of prostitutes and criminals of every kind. They would’ve surely tried to rob you,” adding that “it was good that after meeting Mirella, due to fatigue and the next day’s trip you didn’t go out “into the life” or even take a simple walk in that colorful street”.

Back at the Indian restaurant bar, after we finished our drinks and agreed with Mirella upon our return to Uganda to visit the poor slum women, whose handmade paper jewelry she sells in Croatia, we returned to the dark garden and yard of our hotel. There sat a man with a gun. An armed night watchman!

“It’s common. Every hotel, even private houses of wealthier people, black or white, have a day and a night watchman. The poverty is so great, and everything one cannot afford is very tempting. Theft and burglary are common, but I never heard of an armed robbery of a private house, like in the South African Republic,” Mirella reassured us before she left, and the fact that she, a gentle blonde, moves around almost the whole city, also during the night, and even in the poorest sections, all by herself without being afraid was very encouraging. She only doesn’t go alone to the slums during the night.

In this part of Africa, around the Equator, the duration of day and night is equal throughout the year. The sun rises around 6 AM and it sets around 6 PM.

In the morning, after sunrise and in accordance with our agreement, at 6.30 a taxi was waiting for us which took us to the city center through streets packed with people whose night hadn’t yet ended. There we boarded a “Jaguar” bus and we headed on our way to the Rwandan capital of Kigali. Armed soldiers and policemen were visible almost every step of the way. The trip, one that usually takes 8 to 9 hours and costs around $10 per person, which at first seemed cheap transportation, probably turned out to be the costliest ride of our lives. The driver didn’t spare the old, shaky bus even on the worst potholes, not even in the southwestern part of Uganda where large parts of the road practically didn’t exist because they had removed the aged and damaged tarmac and replaced it. Next year in February, parliamentary elections are to be held in Uganda, and the current government is campaigning by suddenly starting to care about the development of infrastructure. The same tricks are obviously employed by other unstable African and transitioning European countries’ governments.

The completely insane driver drove down a dusty construction site at speeds even greater than those that are allowed on Croatian highways, so the passengers were being lifted off their seats by half a meter, and the bus itself was dangerously swinging left and right on the edge of a dike. We desperately prayed to God, held onto the seats in front of us, and tried to anticipate the bumps by quickly lifting ourselves from the seats. The Ugandans seemed not to notice the hazardous driving, and even women who held several-months-old babies in their hands did not appear to be worried. Red dust clouds entered through opened windows, some of which were permanently stuck and could not be closed. Everybody put scarves over their mouths or lifted their shirts and continued their journey as if everything was just fine. Half an hour later we concluded how amazing it was that we were thoroughly dirty after just an hour or two of traveling in the bus!

In one of the villages that we passed through, which took us mostly through banana fields, a woman entered the bus with two children. One child, three to four years old, she led by the hand, and the other one, perhaps two months old, she just placed on one of our laps. After she sat and settled down, she didn’t ask us to give her back the child, so 15 minutes later we simply handed it back to her on the seat behind us. The name of the cute little one who kept smiling was John (this we found out the hard way, because the mother only spoke the Ugandan Luganda language).

As soon as the bus made a stop, the passengers bought food through the windows from sellers who sold fruit, bread rolls that looked like thick, fat pancakes, and the inevitable African goat meat brochettes. If the stop lasted a little longer, the sellers entered the bus.

After six hours of driving, including the stop in Mbarara, one of the larger Ugandan towns, and waiting for and moving to another “Jaguar” bus, because our’s got broken, we reached the border between Uganda and Rwanda. As the luggage of all passengers was being thrown out onto the dry, dusty ground, we were immediately surrounded by a swarm of black-marketeers who changed shillings to Rwandan francs. On either side of the border there were no uniformed customs officials. After filling out forms and checking out of the Ugandan side, we crossed the two-hundred-something meters and entered Rwanda by foot.

“Show your passports”, a young man in trousers and an ordinary T-shirt told us, leaning on a pole with a toothpick in his mouth. He was the first government official that we saw on the Rwandan side. The officials to whom we handed over our forms seemed a bit more serious.

From Croatia to East Africa

“Ah, Croats! So, why isn’t your national team participating in the World Cup? We remember Davor Suker and your third place in 1998 very well. You know, my girlfriend supports Croatia”, one of the border policemen told us, and another one added that his brother had been to Slovenia. A moment later they were both surprised because we wrote down on the forms that we were journalists. All foreign journalists in Rwanda were nowadays traveling undercover because presidential elections were to be held in a month- and-a-half, and the government didn’t like unnecessary nosing about. We explained that we wrote reports for a Croatian newspaper about Croatian missionaries, and that we were in no way interested in their internal political issues. That, along with a “Hajduk” Football Club sticker offered as a gift to the girlfriend that supported Croatia, solved the matter, so we got our passports stamped without any further problems.

Before entering the bus, two customs officials in civilian clothes demanded that we open our backpacks and requested that we remove all plastic bags, because in their ecologically-oriented country they were absolutely unwelcome. Instead of the plastic bags they offered to sell us $10 fabric bags! Out of the large backpacks, stuffed with things separated in plastic bags, they chose precisely the one containing underwear, which a moment later were spread on the dusty ground. We put our stuff back into our backpacks refusing to buy the expensive eco-bags from the customs officials, and left them as if they were just one of the guys we had been bargaining with. An elderly woman approached us selling sodas, but we thanked her and showed her our water bottles. She went back to her black-marketeers and told them something that probably meant, “Those fools think that water is better than Coca Cola!” and they were all laughing their guts out. My photo-reporter colleague said, “How they just mock us”, and we laughed too.

Some customs officials then entered the bus and checked the passengers. They threw out a young woman with a child because her papers weren’t valid. She hid behind the bus and, the moment the policemen exited, she ran back into the bus visibly upset, because Rwanda is a well-known police state with an extremely harsh regime.

Although war ravaged Uganda in the ‘80s, and the terrible Rwandan civil war and genocide took place during the mid ‘90s, Rwanda seems to have recovered quicker and is a far more orderly country. Litter was absolutely nowhere to be seen, and between roads and houses that sprung up from the earth there were decent sidewalks. Even the poor houses were built better, and flower-covered private plots surrounding them were quite common.

The trip took longer than usual because of road construction, bus malfunction, and a long border delay, so in the end it lasted 12 hours. When we arrived at Kigali it was already dark. A persistent taxi driver immediately approached us, asking $60 for a 38 kilometer ride to Kivumu, where the Croatian Catholic mission and “Father Vjeko Center,” our base for further travels, were located. In less than a minute the price was down to $15, but we nonetheless accepted the help of a young Jehovah’s witness who kindly, and without much talk, directed us to a minibus whose ticket cost less than $1.50. While we waited for the typical minibus, a curious crowd surrounded us, staring and asking questions.

Everyone who passed by shouted “muzungu” and stopped, and we felt somewhat like a theater company just before bowing to the audience. In the crowded minibus, a curious man asked where we were from, and if this was our first time in Africa, as if it was common for every European to visit their country at least once. The other passengers were carefully listening as we exited the city. Outside the city there was no electricity, not even public lighting, and the road was illuminated only by car lights, so we slid into total darkness. At one point, police flashlights signaled us to slow down. We passed a bus and a van that had collided head on.

“The bus was overtaking and hit the van. Six people were killed”, the driver explained to us without much excitement as he drove past the completely crushed van. A moment later he stopped by the Kivumu road, and we exited the bus into total darkness. Several people immediately encircled us. We had no idea what they were saying. We asked about the mission. One of them stepped forward and led us uphill 300 meters to the monastery and Center. A car came toward us.

“Where have you been?” Fr. Ivica greeted us from the car and took us to the neat and orderly mission, which although located in wretched surroundings, seemed like a true oasis thanks to a generator, lights, warm water and a welcoming supper.

Photos by: Jure Mišković
Translated by: fra Branimir Mlakić
Edited by: Cherie Plamping

Father Vjeko Center

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