In the wake of Idi Amin
The legacy of the reign of terror keeps Uganda off the tourist map. But for those who make the journey, the islands that pepper Lake Victoria provide a dizzying array of all that Africa has to offer ... including its dangers, as Anna Borzello found
Saturday 15 February 1997
Just before reaching the ferry stage, the vehicle stopped next to a rundown house where, on the grass beside it, a group of women were crying. Then the coffin was lifted over the passengers' heads and off the pick-up, whereupon the women began ritually wailing and clasping their hair.
"The man they are crying for fell out of this pick-up yesterday," explained the schoolboy crushed against my knees.
Ssese, an archipelago of 84 islands in the Ugandan waters of Lake Victoria, has only 16,000 inhabitants, and is one of the less-visited circuits for independent travellers although Lonely Planet included it in the third edition of its guide to East Africa in 1994.
Uganda, which still suffers from its association with the long-gone dictator Idi Amin, attracts few travellers. Ssese, by virtue of its inaccessibility, gets even fewer. In Kalangala police station - a settlement of tin huts, loose chickens and courteous officers - the visitors' book in which all tourists must register, flicks back to 1992 in a few pages.
Kalangala, on Bugala island, is a tiny settlement, its buildings spread spaciously along the dirt-red road which overlooks the lake and offshore islands. There is not much action, except for the TV set. At night, benches are set up outside a shop and a vocal audience gathers to watch That's Life Mwattu, a popular Ugandan soap.
Most visitors stay about five days, rowing on the lake, walking through vervet- filled forests, or cycling along the quiet lanes. Paths pass through poor mud-and-thatch villages, and the islanders greet visitors politely. Tourists are still rare enough to have had little impact on the lifestyle of the islanders and only a tiny handful have tried to capitalise on tourists as a source of income.
One of these is Mr P T Andronico - the heart of Ssese's tiny tourist industry, and now, since his oddities were mentioned by Lonely Planet, an attraction in himself. This eccentric 70-year-old islander, with his luminous green Wellington boots and gasping, eager speech, has a manic urge to label everything in his tourist lodge as if he is trying to teach its inhabitants to read.
Outside the lodge, clouded by a noisy tree drooping with the weight of hundreds of yellow weaver birds, is a sign for a car park - a misnomer given that there are few cars on the island, none of which belong to Mr Andronico.
Instead, the tiny shack houses rickety bicycles which are hired out with a map indicating the major landmarks in Mr Andronico's life: the school where he taught; the improbable parish church - perfectly Victorian except for its corrugated-iron roof - where he funded the latrines; the village where he was born.
In front of Mr Andronico's lodge is a dustbin, helpfully labelled "bin". Inside the labels proliferate and even the plant pot is labelled "plant". My bedroom, with its animal skin, religious artefacts and house rules ("No wrong sex"), felt as if a mad old lady had recently died in it.
Mr Andronico's full creativity, however, is let loose on the dining room walls, where his personal history and political prejudices flourish freely. Ex-presidents Idi Amin and Milton Obote are there, the phrase "killer murderer" inked beneath them. The current president of nine years, Yoweri Museveni, fares better. His annotation: "Peace Bringer".
There is no doubt, judging by the curling picture of the Kabaka, the Buganda king reinstated by Museveni two years ago, that Mr Andronico is a fervent Muganda - the central Ugandan tribe which has historically dominated the economic and intellectual life of the country.
Underneath these pictures, the evening meal (plates of groundnut sauce, fish stew and sweet bananas) is eaten with Mr Andronico, his son and interested townspeople. In our case this included a local journalist who came every evening to share "hot tips". He seemed eager for company, not surprising given that there are few young people in Ssese. Most children go to the mainland for school, and by the time they are educated there is little point in coming back.
Ssese is usually fairly empty. The police came to tell us when another traveller arrived, and the only other tourists we met were a Danish couple en route to Tanzania to demonstrate Tanzanian dances to the "local people". The hostel is rarely full.
Few Ugandans travel to Ssese. This is not simply because there is little domestic tourism in Uganda, a country with a per capita income of pounds 150 per month and only a tiny middle class who prefer to "travel out" for their holidays, but because Ugandans, most of whom can't swim, are terrified of the lake.
Their terror is justified. On the return journey, four hours by fishing boat rather than the more roundabout road-and-ferry route, many of the regular commuters, aware that an overloaded boat had sunk that weekend, packed orange life jackets in their briefcases. Passengers were carried one by one through muddy, thigh-deep water, dense with hyacinths, to a sun-bleached fishing boat heaped with dead and dying fish.
The journey, rocking under a clear and burning sky, was broken only when a boat drew alongside and threw more fish inside. Large sacks of mukele, the small dried fish which forms the livelihood for many of the islanders and whose dead-hippo-like smell pervades Bugala island, were also heaved on board.
I steadied my eyes on the horizon, while the young policeman next to me - who was returning to Kampala after a nine-month stint in what he regarded as the lifeless pit of Ssese (no discos and only five murders since the New Year) - was discreetly sick over the side.
Getting there: Competition is increasing on flights between Britain and Uganda. Alliance Air (book direct on 0171-312 5040) flies nonstop on Mondays and Fridays between Heathrow and Entebbe; Alliance is an offshoot of South African Airways (and uses an old SAA 747). The lowest fare is pounds 440 return including tax, but this must be booked by 3pm today; after that, the fare rises by pounds 20. British Airways (0345 222111) flies twice a week from Gatwick via Nairobi. Its lowest official fare is around pounds 700, but discounted tickets costing pounds 400 are available through agents such as Somak Travel (0181-903 8526) for travel by the end of March. British visitors no longer need a tourist visa for Uganda.
Accommodation: The government-run Uganda Hotel Corporation operates a network of comfortable lodges. Prices are around pounds 25 single/pounds 40 double per night, including tea and toast.
Further Information: Philip Briggs's Guide to Uganda (Bradt Publications, pounds 11.95); East Africa: a Travel Survival Kit (Lonely Planet, pounds 11.95).
The Ugandan High Commission is at 58 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DX (0171-839 5783).
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