Rain falling on a tin roof

Posted: August 8, 2007 in Blog

Last night started out simply enough. I returned home to find the power was out (again). So I began scrounging for a dinner that didn’t require electricity. I was halfway through slicing up some pineapple, mango and melon when one of the others in the house, John, came home and mentioned a bunch of them were heading to a Chinese restaurant downtown.

That sounded a lot more enticing than what I had staring back at me on the plate, so off we went to a rooftop restaurant downtown.

The 14 of us were chatting casually as we ordered our drinks and meals. But slowly, our end of the table began gravitating towards one man amongst us, who got to talking about growing up during the Idi Amin years, and the subsequent years of instability (Amin was in power from 1971-79 and things remained very unstable and violent until 1986 when the current president unseated the government at the time). So before long, he had six westerners hanging off his every word.

He described the unsettling silence that engulfed Kampala during those years. Even the wildlife disappeared. I found that hard to fathom given that, at times, it is difficult to get a word in edge-wise over the din of birds, monkeys, chickens and roosters. The only birds around at the time, he said, were vultures—drawn to the dead bodies that littered the streets.

“The sound of gun fire was constant,” he said. “Have you ever slept under a tin roof during the rain? That’s what the gun fire sounded like.” He was a man of slight stature, bright eyes and a smile. He talked with a sense of detachment, and later said that when he talks about those years it feels like it never happened. “It’s just too surreal. How could something so terrible have actually happened?”

He talked about how he got up every morning wondering why he even bothered going to school, since every day, it seemed, somebody he knew was killed, and there was no reason to believe he wouldn’t be next. Many of his friends joined the army, thinking that if they were going to die anyway, it might as well be as soldiers.

He laughed while talking about Amin’s quirks. Apparently he would randomly choose a day to celebrate his birthday. There would be parades, and a celebration at the stadium where tens of thousands would show up. Then, two months later, Amin would choose a day he liked better to celebrate his birthday and they’d do it all over again.

“We’d all go to these parades and the stadium and not a single person would say, ‘Hey isn’t it a bit odd that we just celebrated his birthday two months ago?’ Anybody who did would be a dead man,” he said, laughing.

People were regularly rounded-up and taken away by the secret police, and yet the practice was never talked about because people couldn’t trust one another. So from one day to the next, someone’s father would disappear and not a word about it would be spoken. He’d just be gone and life moved on.

Those secret police drove cars that had special license plates. He described the fear that would fill a car if those plates appeared in the rear-view mirror, and also the sense of relief they would all feel once the secret police car turned down another street. “We would get home and high-five each other because we’d all cheated death,” he said.

The secret police were easy to spot, because they dressed with scarves, tight shirts and bell-bottoms. “If you saw a guy on the street who looked like he just stepped off the set of Saturday Night Fever, then you were looking at a secret police,” he said, again laughing.

During those years, families would get rations of food— two packs of milk a week and one pack of sugar. Being the only male in the family, he would go down to the depot at 4 a.m. to get a good spot on days that food was to arrive. “Some days I wouldn’t come home until 9 or 10 at night, with ripped clothes, one sandal missing and only one pack of milk to show for it.” He said the scene was utter chaos as people fought for whatever food they could get. What milk he could get his hands on would go to his youngest sister. “I used to get so mad that she got all the milk,” he said. “Sometimes I thought about heating it up too much so that it would burn her mouth and she wouldn’t want milk anymore. Then the rest of us could have some.”

There was another job that went to the only male in the household. Whenever gunfights broke out and they hid in the house, it was his job to go out first and see if the coast was clear. “Man, I hated that job,” he said, as though he was complaining about having to cut the grass.

He also talked about the day in 1976 when Palestinians hijacked an Israeli plane. Amin let them land at the Entebbe airport, where the hostages were held during negotiations. In the meantime, Israeli forces attacked the airport and eventually all the hostages were released safely, except one. A woman was taken to hospital with a relatively minor health problem, but she didn’t come out alive. He described how someone he knew was working in the hospital that night and saw the woman being dragged down the hospital hallway. But again, nobody on staff that night talked about it because those who did would likely also disappear.

The next morning, the woman, along with every person who was working at the airport during the incident, was taken out of the city and never heard from again.

Dinner had long finished, and eventually we paid our bill and dispersed into the night. But not before I got that man’s business card, so that we could meet up again sometime.

  1. Brandon says:

    Wow, that story was way better than the Last King of Scotland. Uganda sounds so interesting, can’t wait to hear what’s going on up north.

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