I spent the fall of 2005 in East Africa, much of it in Uganda. Hurricane Katrina had just ravaged New Orleans, leading Kanye West to conclude “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” on national TV. I’d traveled quite a bit during Bush’s first term and the early days of the second Iraq war, but I’d never witnessed anti-American sentiment like I did in the post-Katrina era. The feeling expressed to me, over and over, echoed West’s comments in a gentler key:
“You Americans. You’re not taking care of your own.”
For the first time in my life, I felt embarrassed of my country. I promised to sew a maple leaf onto my backpack (the vagabond’s equivalent of “I’m moving to Canada!”). I made a concerted effort to seem as un-American as possible. “Well, my father is actually Italian” I’d say, insufferably. When I met other travelers, I wedged my political leanings into the conversation early and often, so everyone would know I was one of the good guys.
Meanwhile, I fell desperately in love with Uganda and its citizens. I admired how the people were both tough to charm and genuinely warm; funny and kind and big-hearted. Even the most mundane conversations were peppered with laughter and platonic friends of all genders held hands when they walked. This, I decided, when an elderly woman took my hand to lead me toward a shop, is how the world should be.
In the throes of my Uganda affair, I spent a lot of time at the country’s equivalent of the DMV. I was buying a car and needed to get a driver’s license — which meant classes, a written test, and two practical exams. One day, waiting for my instructor, I started a conversation with a handful of taxi drivers. We leaned against the concrete office, radiating afternoon heat, and argued about whether 50 Cent was a good rapper.
After awhile, I asked one of the men about the government.
He offered a wry smile. “You should not ask me that, I could be part of Mister Museveni’s taxi service.”
The other men in the group chuckled. I recognized the name of Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, but felt left out of the joke.
“Seriously though,” I tried, “what do people think of –”
“I am telling you,” the man said firmly, “do not talk to people about the president, unless you are speaking in the home of a friend.”
Over the course of the next few weeks, I traveled the country at the wheel of a used Nissan Patrol. I saw the impenetrable jungle and rare mountain gorillas at Bwindi, the climbing lions of Queen Elizabeth National Park, and the sandy islands of Lake Victoria. I ate the most perfectly ripe mangoes I’ve ever tasted and drank Bell Lager at roadside huts. Roasted goat served with chipati quickly became one of my favorite meals.
But during these travels I also saw Uganda’s clay feet. On November 14th, Museveni had his only competitor in the upcoming presidential elections jailed for treason. The arrest led to riots and claims that the leader was a dictator. The accusation wasn’t baseless: Museveni had promised to impose a term limit on himself, then rescinded that promise; he’d bragged about international leaders fearing him, leading countries like Denmark and the Netherlands to put a freeze on vital donations; he’d even threatened to shut down the newspapers.
I also learned of the country’s brutal attitude toward homosexuality (an animus imported by American evangelicals). The gesture of male friends holding hands on the sidewalk became much less potent when male lovers couldn’t share the same freedom.