Don’t check my bags if you please, Mr Customs Man.

Sartori in Uganda, part II

“Flying into Los Angelee-ees, bringin’ in a couple of keys, don’t check my bags if you please, Mr Customs ma-a-an”, (or my passport). Arlo Guthrie.

So….It’s August 1986, I have to fly to Uganda with my craftsman, friend and master builder, Bill, who’s only foreign foray to date is a van journey to Switzerland and back.  I don’t have a passport, because it’s been stolen, he only has a British Visitor’s Passport oh, and I haven’t yet bagged an aircraft to hitch a lift on.

For those not familiar, a British Visitor’s Passport was issued by the Post Office, and was valid for a whole list of countries, including most European and some Commonwealth countries.  Most importantly you could get it immediately at any Post Office on production of a birth certificate.  Interestingly, it was discontinued in 1995 because several EEC countries, notably Spain, had some problem with it – so much for Free Movement or, as it was initially sold, Freeedom of Travel.

I called the Uganda High Commission in London, they were clients of mine, but I didn’t know the clerks in the consular department.  I spoke to a woman there, explained my situation and asked her to confirm whether the BVP was acceptable as a travel document for entry to Uganda.  “Yes”, she told me.  “Good”, I said.  Now I just needed an aircraft.

I called my friends at a small cargo airline started in 1983, owned and run by Joe and Daisy Roy, a lovely, engaging and entrepreneurial Ugandan couple.  No problem, they had a flight out of Amsterdam ferrying back to Entebbe, empty after a flower run from Nairobi.  I could grab two jump seats but I’d need to get a flight to AMS.

Called another friend and the Amsterdam leg was sorted too, out of LGW, in plenty of time to connect with Joe, who was also Chief Pilot for his airline.

Another lovely Ugandan was Chief Pilot, my dear friend, Jack Calnan of Uganda Airlines.  Jack was mixed race, I believe his father was Irish, and he and his beautiful and knowledgeable wife, Nina put me up in their lovely little house in Entebbe for a few weeks, a few years earlier.  She and I became very close, she was just a few years older than me but she mothered me, which, when you’re young(ish) and away from your own wife and family, is a lovely thing.  I remember she had a huge scar on one leg, about a foot or more long.  I plucked up courage to ask her about it one day and she explained that as a young woman, she had been bitten by a snake, a Green Mamba as I recall.  Her mother had quickly made up a “magic” poultice using ingredients I can’t recall.  She then took a sharp knife to Nina’s leg and drew a long slit, folding back the flesh and packing the resulting wound with the poultice, before sewing it up, the full length and bandaging her up.  I was in awe of this story, both the bravery of mother and the daughter and the traditional yet scientific knowledge that had been handed down.

I got introduced to Robert Ludlum by Jack and got through many Ludlum volumes on that stay, it was my introduction to Jason Bourne, which gripped me inexplicably.  Still does.  The movies are great but the books are so much better, unless of course you’re a literary snob.

Something just happened.  As I write, I now have tears running down my cheeks and I’m really, really devastated.  My memory isn’t perfect, these days, after thirty odd years,  and I have to Google to remind myself of things.  I just Googled Jack Calnan and I came across this

Nina was hacked to death and strangled by thieves, burglars, who made off with a stereo and a mobile phone.  I’m beside myself. That beautiful, loving woman.  It happened 17 years ago but it only just happened for me and I’m deeply, deeply upset.

Prior to 1986, most of my memories of that amazing country are good ones.  I remember planting an avenue of sticks, one foot lengths of the trunk of something or other, on each side of Jack’s crescent-shaped driveway.  Six months later, it was an avenue of trees. The deep red soil was so fertile, the sun always shone and the rain always fell.  That’s what the equator is like, just amazing.

I was so taken with it that I started working with a young local entrepreneur, David Chambadi, as I recall, though that spelling seems more Indian than Bugandan.  David had a dream to export pineapples from Uganda, I made that dream come to fruition for him and for me.  It was a painful learning process.  Damages were frequent.  Cold storage at Entebbe was intermittent, and expensive, as were the flights but we persevered.  Within months we were fetching record prices for pineapples at New Covent Garden market.  Harrods were our #1 customer.  Air flown pineapples from Uganda on the shelves of Harrods, it’d never been done before.  Pineapples were picked as green canon balls in the Ivory Coast and shipped by sea container in the hope they might just ripen, en route.  They never did, they were disgusting things.  You haven’t lived until you’ve tasted a sun-ripened pineapple, warm in the field and had the sweet warm juice run through your hands and all over your face as the delicious taste lights up your eyes.

Of course, we had our struggles, both down on the ground; handling, packing and shipping but also back home in blighty, on arrival.  The official handling agents at Gatwick, Gatwick Handling, were a bunch of thieves and vagabonds.  I tried every trick in the book to avoid their pilferage, running around 10-15% of the shipments, but they were so brazen and never, ever got taken to task by Customs or the police for fear they’d walk out and the airport would grind to a halt – and they knew it.  They were heavily unionised and some of the most despicable people ever to encounter, let alone to be forced to deal with.  Jeremy Corbyn was probably their shop steward back then.

With the pineapples successful, we looked at other things we could grow and export.  We moved onto Passion Fruit.  Not many people have ever experienced a Passion Fruit farm but it is an incredible thing of beauty.  A structure, not unlike a giant rose pergola, stretched over an acre or three of ground and the Passion Fruit vines climb up and through the structure.  The fruit hang down above your head making them easy to harvest by hand, without even bending.  Back home we were used to these shrivelled up things that looked like walnuts and about the same size.  These were the real thing, fat and plump and smooth, the size of a large lemon.  Indeed, we had two varieties, the traditional purple ones and a lemon-yellow variety.  I can’t describe how wonderful they taste, but I can remember it.  They were a huge success.  Then David found us a fantastic farm property on the shores of the Nile River.  The earth was so black it looked as if it had been ravaged by fire but it was fertile beyond anything I’ve ever encountered.  Add in the climate and you could literally grow anything, at three times the speed of anywhere else on earth.  The problem wasn’t growing, it was coping with the speed of growth.  Courgettes had to be picked three times a day, else they were marrows.  Tomatoes put on so much growth that whatever we erected to support them collapsed under the strain, until I went for the nuclear option, chain-link fencing strung between concrete fence posts, that worked!

Uganda was a war-ravaged hellhole with no economy, no government, no security, no reliable law enforcement, riddled with corruption from top to bottom.  But it had fabulous assets.  It had the kind of climate that meant you didn’t really need a roof over your head, a climate and a soil that meant you could never go hungry but most of all it had a people who every day got up and put a smile on their face and kept it there, all day and all through the evening, though they possessed little more than the clothes on their back and had no idea, from one day to the next, where the next fistful of shillings was coming from.  Lovely people.  Back here in the civilised West, I hear complaints of poverty and deprivation, of how the government must do this and should do that.  Quite frankly it makes me embarrassed to hear these spoiled brats with their first world problems.  These Ugandan fellows would emerge from their mud huts each morning, with a freshly, laundered shirt and pressed trousers.  Don’t ask me how.  They didn’t sell drugs, they didn’t steal or beat each other and they certainly didn’t knife each other.  They enjoyed a beer with friends in the little shanty bars and cafes by the roadside.  The biggest danger you faced were running the gauntlet of army roadblocks, official and unofficial.  The army never got paid, this was their way of solving that problem.  It helped to be a smoker, cigarettes were currency, and rolling your own was a magic passport to entry, they assumed it was ganga.   The teeny steps we were making to grow produce and to export it to the outside world, was more than just a business, it was a symbol to these lovely people of what riches they could achieve, if they could just be given the chance and the guidance.

Bill and I spent a day running around buying a swathe of new tools to take with us, everything we could think we might need.  I was building an hotel in Entebbe with a local partner, John Mukasa.  The first person I ever knew, personally, to die of AIDS not surprising, really, in the AIDS capital of the world.  John was an energetic local entrepreneur, a rabid philanderer, husband to multiple wives and father of many children, the daughters being regularly paraded, literally lined up on parade for me to inspect and select, as tokens to me of his hospitality (ugh).  I always politely declined, in case you’re wondering.

Our joint company, Palm Tree Hotel Ltd,  had got a large loan from the Uganda Development Bank, we owned the land on the shores of Lake Victoria, a stone’s throw from the airport, it was beyond special.  The building was half constructed and I wanted to set up one of the rooms with high quality fittings that I’d already shipped down there.  The idea was that Bill would construct and fit out the first one, showing the local builders how it’s done and leaving them a model to follow – I knew there was little possibility this would work but it was worth a try.

Armed with bags and boxes of tools, a pair of BV passports and a pocketful of cash, we hopped aboard one cargo flight in Gatwick and arrived at Entebbe on another, early the next morning, ready to start work.  A flight in your very own, personal 707, when it’s empty of cargo, is a luxury I never failed to appreciate but it spoiled me for modern air travel where I feel like a penned steer, literally being treated like cattle.  This was flying and it was fun.  We always tried to make sure the crew wasn’t too drunk to know what they were doing.  Though sometimes it was hard to get them out of the hotel bar for those 5am starts, sometimes we skipped the sleep part, or just forgot it altogether, until the load master had to try to get his fogged head around those tricky calculations.  Would we make it off the runway with this payload at this altitude at this time of the day?  One key thing to remember, make sure you check the fuel load, it doesn’t do to run out of fuel at 30,000 feet.  Not everyone remembered. In fact, many of the crews I flew with, didn’t make it to retirement.  Air Cargo is a buccaneer business, operating in and out of some decidedly iffy places, many of them war zones, most of them corrupt.  You always seem to be bending one rule or breaking another but if you didn’t, nothing would happen, the whole corrupt process would simply grind to a halt.

I guess I should explain that I had a company based in Uganda with offices in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, at Tororo on the Kenyan border, with my English partner in Mombasa and Nairobi, in Kampala, the capital city and another in the front, corner, ground floor office of the Entebbe Terminal building.  I was thirty-three years old.  Those who have seen the movie of the Israeli hostage raid will not be surprised to hear the facade of the building (and much else) was peppered with bullet holes but they probably don’t realise that it was further and much more widely damaged, three years later, when the Tanzanian Army backing Milton Obote invaded, as part of the Ugandan War of Liberation to oust Idi Amin.  In short, the place was a dire and decaying shithole but it was all they had.  My story takes place seven years after the war but in truth, you hardly knew it was over.  In the meantime, another war had occurred, this time a successful revolutionary bush war, I believe it was the first successful one of its kind.  The young Yoweri Museveni who had been exiled in Tanzania by Obote, formed the NRA, the National Resistance Army and we, my companies and I, had been active supporters supplying much needed assistance in a variety of ways.  In January of that year, Museveni came to power and with him, the father/father-in-law of my two stalwart employees, as Prime Minister.  Incidentally, Margaret Thatcher and Tiny Rowlands, of Lonrho fame, were also supporters.

My office had a prime view of the cargo sheds and the whole of the airport apron.  The eldest son of the Prime Minister, Samson Kisekka, also called Samson Kisekka, but Jr. worked for me as did the PM’s son in law, Fred Kamihanda.  Boy, it’s amazing how these names I haven’t thought of in years just roll off the tongue when I need them.  In other words, I had modest connections but then, so did everyone.

Accompanying the crew and Joe we presented ourselves to immigration…. but there was no one there.  This is not unusual.  There were only half a dozen flights a week into Entebbe from anywhere, and most of those were domestic.  Add to that the fact that government employees were rarely paid and, if they were, it was always many months behind and not worth a week’s worth of beer when it came.  Everyone had multiple ways of earning a living, much of that involved fleecing anyone you could in the form of a bribe to do the job you were rarely paid a paltry sum to do.  Why rush out of bed in the morning when there’s no work and no pay?

Frankly, we could and should have just gone on our way but Joe was concerned to follow the rulebook, because enemies in Uganda would have readily pounced on the slightest infraction of the rules, if it profited them, as it surely would.  He was what they hated, successful and respected.  He had his own airline for heaven’s sake!

So, we wandered through to the “airport hotel” where someone rustled up something vaguely like a mug of warm, sweet tea and we chatted and waited till the immigration man arrived.  I knew this fellow slightly from seeing him on multiple occasions but we’d never had any dealings and he certainly didn’t have any reason to like me. I was a white man that had never paid him a single bribe, I wish I had, now but what I didn’t know was that I had competition.  He was a small fellow with a small round face and a hare-lip.  He had a pair of NHS pebble spectacles, 1960s vintage, and reminded me of Goebbels.

We all wandered down to see him and I went first with Bill.  He didn’t acknowledge me but complained about our BV passports and claimed they were not valid travel documents.  I spoke calmly to him, pointing out that he knew me well enough (trust me, the local gossip machine meant he’d have known my inside leg measurement), that the Uganda High Commission had confirmed that it was a valid document, described how I’d had my original stolen at Parliament and suggested he called the Prime Minister’s son to confirm.  He was having none of it.

My guys, who should have been there to meet me (standard practice in case of events just such as these) had still not turned up.  He told me that I was denied entry to the country but that I could stay in the “airport hotel”.  You might wonder why I use inverted commas around that term, presume the worst!  What he seemed to be overlooking was that the hotel is “land-side”, not airside and so in inviting me to stay there he had actually granted me entry to the country.

The PM’s son in law turned up and spoke with the guy whilst Joe and I were having fun chatting and exchanging stories.  He eventually came back, red-faced, and announced that he’d achieved nothing and that someone, somewhere was pulling invisible strings, he was completely bemused. By this time, I was bored and I wanted to get home to my bed.  I told Joe we were leaving and that I’d go to the British High Commission next morning, get another passport and sort it all out.  We waived goodbye and drove the 40 miles to my house near Kampala.

I shared the house with another English guy, Ian Brebner, his name just came back to me.  His home was in Worthing and he ran a business in Uganda selling generators, big generators.  Your average Ugandan citizen nor business could ever have bought one of Ian’s generators.  The official exchange rate was, something under 200 shillings to the pound.  The unofficial or real rate was 6000 shillings to the pound.  To give you an indication of what 6000 shillings would buy you, apart from a pound – and buying pounds was illegal – I used to fill a shoe box to take with me in the morning, filled with cash, so that I might be able to buy lunch, if I could find anywhere selling something vaguely resembling food.  The place was a mess.  So, who did buy Ian’s generators?  People who had received bank loans, bought with plentiful bribes, from banks funded by the IMF or the World Bank.  In other words, your taxes.  They didn’t buy the generator just because they needed one, they bought one so that you could double or treble the price they actually paid and you would hand back the difference in cash, some of which may be used to pay back the loan, maybe.  Every one’s a winner…..

It’s not that people are corrupt, you understand, people were desperate.  They were also entrepreneurial and if the outside world was dumb enough to shower western taxpayers’ money into their corrupt institutions then it would be even dumber not to relieve them of some of their burden, so that you could send your kids to school or pay their hospital bills or, at a push, feed them.

So that was the business Ian was engaged in, much like every other foreigner and resident alike, one way or another.  Ian wanted me to buy the hotel generators from him.  Everybody needed generators if you wanted electricity and a hotel without electricity would not be a good hotel.  I had explained to Ian that this was my money I was spending, it wasn’t some government stooge’s money, it was my hard-earned cash so, sure I’d buy from him but it would be an appropriate ex UK price, just like I would buy from anyone else.  I knew that hadn’t pleased him and, sure enough, his prices were way higher than anything else I’d been quoted.  What I hadn’t appreciated is just how badly this had gone down with him.

Ian was at the house when we turned up that evening, it was evening by the time we got in from Entebbe.  Uganda is on the equator so at 6pm precisely, summer or winter, the sun falls out of the sky seemingly so quickly, it can catch you unawares.  It was dark when we arrived.  Fred dropped us off and Ian “greeted” us but I was confused by what seemed like a look of surprise to see us, despite me having telexed him a day or so back.  He was unusually edgy, sort of irritated and not his usual self.  At one point I remember he took down his handgun and showed it to Bill and I.  I knew he kept one there, I was glad of it, we’re talking a pretty lawless place here.  We had something to eat and before we all settled down to bed, I arranged with Ian to wake us in the morning and give us a lift into Kampala so I could pick up a car.

Bill and I awoke around 10 am, late.  Ian was nowhere to be found, nor was his gun.  I know, because I checked, as this behaviour was starting to concern me.  I was annoyed but more confused than anything.  I was particularly concerned because I’d wanted to get to the High Commission early to get the jump on this immigration thing before it turned into something big.  I called my guys and go them to come and collect us and take us into town.

When we got to the office, I spoke with my guys and asked them what was going on with the guy in Entebbe and why they hadn’t been able to square things.  I got a phone call from Joe Roy.  Things were kicking off and the little Himmler chap was demanding that Joe get me back to Entebbe to answer questions.  I told him I had to go to the High Commission first, sort out a passport and then I’d be over directly.

When we got to the High Commission, sigh, staffed of course by useless uncivil servants, their lack of concern, urgency or downright decency was something to behold.  I had a lengthy discussion with a Deputy Consul. He asked questions like, “Well, why did you leave England without a passport?”.  I had already explained the Speaker’s Regatta incident, the House of Crooks experience and the fact that I had checked with the Uganda High Commission re the validity of a BV passport. “I didn’t leave without a passport, as I told you, I had a BV passport”.  “Well, that’s not valid for Uganda”.  “I know that now but forgive me for trusting the British Post Office and the Uganda High Commission, the question is, when can I have a new one?”.  “Oh, that could take a week or two”.  “A WEEK!?”, “I’ve just explained to you that the immigration official at Entebbe wants me back there to answer questions and this could escalate quickly if I can’t give him a document he’s happy with, I need one now!”.

Eventually, he asked me to come back after lunch, by which time he would have made some enquiries.  How bloody British is that?  After ruddy lunch.  “I’ll just finish this game of bowls, your majesty, then we’ll go see about those Spanish and their little Armada.”

He was unmovable and unmoved.  I shrugged at Bill and decided I’d go and explain all this to Himmler, and then we’d come back that afternoon and sort out new documents.  Bill, I should explain, was petrified from the moment this all began.  He said nothing, not until several weeks later, in fact, but he was petrified.  He just followed my lead and did as he was told.  Bill is a guy that likes his supper on the table at a certain time, his slippers parked in the right direction and absolutely nothing unusual to ever occur, ever.

When we arrived at Entebbe, things went from bad to worse.  We were immediately “imprisoned” in an office, guarded by armed police.  All the police were armed but the soldiers were the ones to worry about, usually because they were either drunk or on drugs and frequently belligerent.

Samson Kisekka Jnr and Fred Kamihanda were both there, they kept going off to negotiate with Himmler and others and then returning to fill me in with what had been said.  Fred kept saying, “I don’t understand it, someone is pulling strings in high places and they seem to be one step ahead of us every time.”.  “They want to charge you, they want to put you on trial, they want to make a show trial of you.”.  I probably said something like, “Fred, speak to your father, how much do they want?”.  “It’s not money, he said, this is something else, they want you and they want you on TV, very publicly imprisoned and then deported”.

….to be continued…..


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