The Commonwealth Chronicles

Posted: November 28, 2007 in Blog

A meeting of Commonwealth leaders and a visit from the Queen has been looming since I arrived here in July.

In those first months, I spent a week in camps in the north, interviewing people whose lives have been ripped apart by years of rebel fighting. Two trips to Karamoja allowed me time to learn more about a land frozen in time and shattered by famine and tribal fighting, while a trip to Kenya opened the window to a country quite different from Uganda. That is the kind of reporting I came here to do, and to encourage, and yet throughout that time I was looking ahead to the Commonwealth meetings.

It was difficult not to. The signs of the coming meetings were everywhere: In the billboards; in the massive construction; in the chatter amongst friends and strangers about what the meetings would, or would not, bring to Uganda.

The meetings came and went with a bang last week. The first round of meetings, amongst youth delegates, began Nov. 14. But the real work began on the 21st, with the arrival of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh.

Beginning then, through the 25th, thousands of delegates, dozens of presidents and prime ministers and hundreds of journalists descended on Uganda for a series of meetings.

On the 21st, I visited the media centre for the first time. The facility, in a newly-built hotel, had been constructed strictly for the Commonwealth meetings. What I found was a massive operation, built to allow scores of journalists to work simultaneously. What I also found was a hotel that had clearly been slapped together in a hurry. Despite charging $400 US a night, parts of the hotel’s exterior was still covered in construction wrap; toilets did not function properly; pipes leaked and the media centre’s cavernous main room was leaking from day one. A few days later, when a few of us wandered up to the rooftop terrace for a beer, we discovered where the water was coming from. On the rooftop, directly on top of the media centre, sat a half-empty pool that was slowly draining into the building. We laughed, shook our heads and enjoyed our beer with a sweeping view of Kampala.

On Wednesday, the Queen was scheduled to arrive in Uganda. I had been assigned to cover the Royal visit and so met up with other reporters to head out to State House Entebbe some 35 kms away to attend the welcoming ceremony.

Driving out there, it dawned on me how the symbolism of a visit from the Queen is manifested in everyday life. There, on the roadsides, were hundreds of people lined up hours before her expected arrival, hoping for a fleeting glimpse of the Queen. When a radio reporter friend called me on the way, I told her how electric the atmosphere was. She got out to the roadsides and spent the night filing live pieces about the mood sweeping throughout the crowd.

Security at the state house was expectedly tight. Upon arriving at the side gates, the guards were unsure of quite what to do. Have us journalists all get off the bus? Allow us all to pass? Or maybe just have those with cameras come off the bus to have their equipment inspected? After much discussion the chief guard came onto the bus and told us “If you have a camera, then come off the bus. If you do not have a camera, then also come off the bus.” So that leaves… right, everybody off the bus.

We surrendered our cameras, tape recorders and microphones for inspection as we individually went through a metal detector and thorough search. I watched through a window as an officer inspected each piece of electronic equipment individually. When he got to my camera, I watched him open the bag, dig through the pockets, then pull out the camera, turn it on and press several buttons.

With everything eventually checked out, we got into place for the Royal arrival. The grounds of the state house are quite impressive. There are lavish gardens, extravagant water fountain and pristinely refurbished (in time for the meeting) mansion that serves as a vestige of colonial rule when Entebbe was the base for the British governor.
State House Entebbe
Our group of journalists—British, Ugandan and me (a demographic make-up that persisted throughout the Royal tour)— gathered on one side as the convoy carrying the Queen and Duke wound its way up the hill that overlooks Lake Victoria.

The ceremony was brief. The Queen accepted some flowers from a young girl, then inspected the guard of honour before giving, with a nod of her head, her approval to their commander.

Queen inspecting Guard of Honour

She smiled and thanked him as she walked back to her post. He smiled and nodded in response. Following a 21-gun salute, the Royals and Uganda’s president walked into the state house for a brief welcome. We headed back to our bus, hoping to make a quick getaway since it was getting close to 7 and we all had stories to file on deadline.

But in the time it took to get things organized, we were held up having to wait for the Queen’s convoy to pass us by. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We tucked in behind the convoy, allowing us to watch the wave of emotion sweep through the swelling roadside crowds. By this time, thousands upon thousands were packed along the roads, cheering, singing and dancing. My photographer colleague from the paper spent much of the trip hanging out the bus window, snapping pictures of the crowds.

Photographer hanging out window

I had kept my tape recorder running through parts of the ceremony in Entebbe, and so brought it out again to record the mood. Listening to it now, I hear men and women whooping, schoolchildren singing amidst a din where one crowd’s cheer melts into another as our bus passes them by. Over the top of this, I hear my mobile phone ring. “Alex, hi,” you can hear my voice say in greeting my editor. “Yeah, yeah, it’s crazy out here… We’re moving at a good clip, do you need me to dictate you the story now over the phone?” Then a pause. “Well, I’d rather write it myself when I get back… I’ll need about 20 minutes… What’s my deadline?” I recognize the tone in my voice on that recording as the one that surfaces when I’m on deadline. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a mundane story, a colourful one or front-page breaking news—If I’m on deadline, I get a surge of adrenaline that is addictive in ways I can’t describe.

Coming into Kampala, our bus slowed as the crowds grew larger. We came down a gentle hill, where I looked to my right and saw the rusted iron roofs of Katwe. I spent a day in that slum—one of Kampala’s poorest and most violent— to document life in a part of the city that is so close to the millions of dollars spent to get ready for the Commonwealth meetings, but in reality is light years away from the façade that the influx of money created for the thousands of visiting delegates.

There in that slum, gangs and thieves terrorize residents; few people have access to latrines and clean water comes at a price that can be difficult to afford. I remember sitting in the clapboard office of the local councilor that day, hearing the man tell me in that darkened room that he planned to organize roadside protests during the Commonwealth meetings so that delegates would see how most Ugandans live.

As we drove by, I looked for any sign of these people. I saw none. Only cheering, smiling faces. I wondered if any had come from Katwe. I also wondered if the man we met lying in the shade of a tree that day, shaking uncontrollably next to his wife, was still alive. (I had found out the BBC radio, having seen this article, would be hosting a show in that slum during the Commmonwealth meetings. They asked me to come on their program, but unfortunately I had assignments I couldn’t shift. Still, it was good to see the issue getting attention).

I arrived at the media centre at a dead run, as we had arrived in the city a bit later than I expected. I had pre-written parts of the story earlier in the day, which the news editor e-mailed me as I got back into Kampala with the subject line “chris update this story/ you have 20 mins max/ good luck”. Thanks.

After filing, a group of journalists got together at a bar to watch a football game and talk about the various stories we’d written and characters we’d met. It was a good, quasi-responsible way to begin a busy stretch. It proved to be a display of responsible behaviour that made itself scarce in the coming days.

Thursday had two main events scheduled. First, a speech by the Queen in the Ugandan parliament and secondly a late-night decision on whether Pakistan would be suspended from the Commonwealth because of its failure to meet deadlines on reform (namely to have their leader take off his military uniform and end a declared state of emergency).

Walking into the press gallery in Parliament, I was greeted by an unfamiliar din on the floor of the House below. There, the benches were packed with politicians— something I have not seen or heard of since moving here. During most parliamentary sessions, attendance is well below half. But on this day, everyone had shown up in their finest clothes to be a part of the occasion. If only they showed this much interest in everyday politics.

Queen in Uganda Parliament

The upper galleries were full of traditional leaders, religious leaders and diplomats. Everyone rose when the chamber doors opened to allow the Queen and Duke to enter. She gave a brief speech that alluded to the pride Uganda should have for overcoming so much adversity in its history.

Queen and Duke in Uganda parliament

The president then gave a speech that began with a promise that he would keep his remarks brief (he is notorious for showing up to functions hours late and then giving marathon speeches). He then spoke about the country’s dark periods and the state of optimism that he said exists in the country today.

When leaving Parliament, I gave thought to the piles of money invested in sprucing up the Parliament building for the Queen’s visit. The visit lasted about 20 minutes. A pattern was beginning to form. Mountains of money spent to prepare a site for a visit by a Royal figure or world leader during the meetings. Those visits would inevitably last a few fleeting minutes, perhaps an hour, and then the delegation would move on, leaving the refurbished site behind. I wonder how long the renovations will last before the paint again peels, the walls beings to crumble and the potholes make their inevitable return.

The rest of the day was spent mostly waiting. Journalists in the media centre had largely filed their stories and only now waited for the announcement on Pakistan, which was scheduled for 9 p.m.

But by about 8:45 we heard the announcement would be delayed. It was annoying, but many who weren’t still filing simply went to the hotel bar to visit, laugh and have a few drinks while waiting. It was an atmosphere that persisted throughout the conference. It was a building full of people working long hours, writing pages and pages of copy. But my god, was it ever fun. Jokes and stories would float from desk to desk. Languages blended together as clusters of journalists filed to their news agencies back home. By 6 or 7 o’clock each evening, beer bottles and food would begin appearing on the desks. Work would continue— often at a more furious pace as deadlines neared— but with loosened ties and rolled-up sleeves.

And so we sat around a table waiting for the Pakistan announcement, taking turns arguing why they would or would not be suspended. Finally, close to midnight, the announcement came.

Announcing suspension of Pakistan

Pakistan would be suspended (most expected the committee of foreign ministers to delay a decision). We all rushed back to the centre to file our stories. Most of us cleared out shortly after 1 a.m., tired after a long day. I returned the next morning to find two reporters who hadn’t finished work until about 3 in the morning and, figuring it wasn’t worth going home for only a few hours, ordered a bottle of scotch and a couple packs of cigarettes from the hotel bar and stayed up in the media centre all night.

Friday had a certain anti-climatic feel to it. So much had been written and recorded about the Pakistan decision that there was a sense of “Okay, what next?” I spent most of the day in the media centre, working with other reporters from the paper to cover off the various meetings. It ended up being a busy day, though, and when all the stories were filed I went off for a late dinner with another reporter since neither of us had found time to eat anything that day.

Over dinner we got to talking about the culture of journalism we were witnessing unfold. For both us, it was a new kind of reporting. We are more comfortable, and experienced, at reporting out in the field, meeting people, finding stories and putting together colourful pieces. Here, we were watching hundreds of journalists who had come to Kampala from all over the world, none of whom would set foot outside any of the host hotels for more than a few hours in the three or four days they were here. We got to talking about that bubble atmosphere, and what we would prefer since the type of reporter that usually covers these conferences are the top correspondents for their news agencies. So is that the trade off? That to reach that level you need to take a foot out of the “real” world and cover these conferences and summits of world leaders? For us, the Commonwealth meetings were a novelty but would we be happy doing this kind of reporting more frequently?

We also got talking about the lifestyle. We, like most others covering the conference, were working more or less around the clock and then going out to socialize for hours, only to catch a few hours’ sleep before starting it all over again. Is it possible to find a balance between loving what you’re doing and having a somewhat stable personal life? In amongst all this chatter, she said, “But really, think about it. Last night we were sitting around in a bar, waiting for world leaders to decide whether or not to suspend Pakistan so that stories could be sent off all over the world. Is there anywhere else you would have rather been?” It stopped me in my tracks. Because no, my knuckles would have turned white hanging onto that experience.

These conversations unfold often amongst the small group of us working here as journalists. Everyone is far from home, far from friends and far from loved ones. But amidst those thoughts is the sense of just how engaging it is to live in this type of environment. The stories are often jaw-droppingly fascinating, tragic or heart-warming. You find yourself constantly writing about the extremes, both good and bad. And as a result there is such a bond between those who immerse themselves in these stories. “Man, you’d have a hard time going back to covering city hall,” a Canadian reporter I met at the meetings said after we’d chatted for a bit.

Later Friday night, there was a party for journalists. It is supposedly common for a local media organization to host such a gathering, and this was a fun one. Live performances from Ugandan artists, speeches and dancing and drinks. Later in the evening, foreign journalists were given a wooden carving as a gift. I set mine aside to take home at the end of the night, but it later went missing. When it came time to leave, I got a ride home by a group heading my way. I got into their van, only to find the carving sitting on the dashboard. I smiled, figuring it was a fair enough trade-off for a free ride home.

One of our group here left at a somewhat reasonable hour because she had to be up at 6 a.m. to do a live radio program. I often jokingly tell her that she needs to get better at telling me it’s time to go home since she is often smart enough to leave at an appropriate hour. I, mostly, am not so smart in those ways. And so as she left that night she smiled and said, “You know, Chris, this is where I’m supposed to tell you to go home.” Yep, it sure is. Maybe I’ll eventually learn my lesson, but I wasn’t about to that night. And so I stayed on, with the others, sharing stories and dancing to the contagiously rhythmic Ugandan music.

Saturday was climate change day, with the expected announcement of a deal between Commonwealth countries. The previous day, the Commonwealth secretary-general had said in a press conference that the leaders were having a difficult time reaching a consensus on climate change. From what we were hearing, the divide was between industrialized countries who refused to commit to binding emissions caps unless industrializing countries like India and China also made the same commitments. We would later find out that Canada was the main opponent to these caps.

I spent the bulk of Saturday in Jinja, at the Source of the Nile site where Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall were to cross the Nile River and attend a brief cultural ceremony.

Prince Charles and the Duchess

This was one the sites that had tons of money poured into it, for what proved to be a walk-about that lasted only a few minutes. “All that work and money… for this?” I thought as we sped through the proceedings.

I was happy to get back to Kampala. I filed the article and photos just in time to catch the release of the environment plan. When the plan was released journalists dispersed to weed through the thick document and pick out the stories. But before long, small groups formed, all asking each other the same questions… Is this it? Am I missing something? There was nothing to it. No binding commitments, no caps. No requirements, just commitments that basically no Commonwealth country supports environmental impacts that will negatively affect the earth. Thanks for that, guys. Word spread fairly quickly that it was Canada that was most strongly opposed to a binding agreement under the belief that no agreement should be signed unless everyone, rich and poor, commits to it.

Later in the day there was time for a small dinner at the hotel restaurant. This place had become a bit of a running joke amongst everyone. The food was terrible and insanely over-priced. Tea cost 6,500 shillings (when I can get it at work for 500 shillings, or about 30 cents); local foods that cost a few thousand shillings were instead priced at 18,000 shillings. The service was laughable. At one point a reporter friend and I took advantage of a quick break between stories to get some tea. About 40 minutes after we ordered tea, we received two pots of coffee. It took about 30 minutes more to correct that mistake, and then the pot fell apart as I poured a cup. Some variation on that experience happened nearly every time we set foot in that restaurant.

Late in the night, with stories again wrapped up, everyone headed off to have a good time. We don’t need to go into details on this one, but the sun was preparing to crest the horizon as I got home. A few hours later I was awoken by a phone call from a colleague asking when I’d be coming into the media centre. “I’ll be right there,” I said a bit fuzzily as I picked my suit up off the floor and dashed out the door.

This would be the last day of the meetings. Aside from the closing press conference and resolutions, it was expected to be a fairly straightforward day. The atmosphere amongst journalists was certainly one of everyone having released a deep breath, knowing that the bulk of the work was behind us. It still ended up being a fairly busy day, however, writing wrap-up articles, reviewing what had, and had not, been accomplished and then covering the final meeting of the leaders before the conference was officially closed.

We also had fun putting together a piece reviewing some of the lighter moments that took place over the course of the conference—leaders falling asleep behind the Queen as she gave a speech, the pool leaking into the media centre, etc.

Frank and I

But by 7 or 8 p.m. things were wrapped up. I was heading off to the gym to have a quick shower (for the first time in longer than I would care to admit) when I got a call from a radio station in Rwanda that I had been filing reports to throughout the conference. They wanted a final report on what came out of the end of the meetings. As I dictated the report to them over the phone I found myself struggling to be even remotely coherent. I’d officially hit my breaking point, so apologies to anyone in Rwanda who heard that one.

After getting cleaned up, I went out with the Canadian print reporters who had come to cover the conference. We spent a few hours getting to know each other, which was great. But they had to be up before dawn to continue on to Tanzania so they went back to their hotel in good time and I went off to meet up with all the other Kampala-based journalists who were celebrating the end of a conference that had dominated their work for weeks, if not months.

Again, no need for details on this one. But it was a fitting cap to an incredible experience. Monday, I could not get out of bed I was so exhausted. I finally got moving, but only to pick up a pizza to take over to the house of a couple reporter friends. The three of us lazed about most of the day, enjoying our first chance to relax in quite some time.

Now there is a strange feeling that something that so consumed us is now over. I’m hoping to do a reporting trip in the next week or two to get back into the groove I had when I first arrived and to get back to doing the kind of reporting I came here to do.

But there are broader issues at play here, and issues that will certainly be good fodder for stories in the coming weeks. Uganda sunk mountains of money into hosting this conference—about $130 million. When you figure that the majority of Ugandans live below the poverty line; when 3 per cent of rural Ugandans have electricity; when its health care system is completely unable to serve a rapidly-growing population; and when millions of citizens are coming out of years spent living in camps because of rebel fighting in the north and millions more were displaced by flooding in September… when you figure all these things, you can’t help but wonder: will the new hotels, the for-now patched roads and the refurbished tourist sites help any of these people?

  1. Brandon says:

    Chris, what a story. Can’t wait to hear more about it and have some of those ‘no-details-necessary’ nights in Zanzibar.

  2. David H. says:

    Chris, stop having fun and do some work.

    Seriously that all sounds awesome. I wish I coulda been there. Say hi to the crew for me.

  3. […] Mason, of Caked in Red Clay, has a good play by play of Chogm, but most interesting are the questions he […]

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