In the early 1990s, the small HIV organisation I worked for received a letter from a man in South West Uganda – let’s call him by his Ugandan nickname, Atwoki – who was seeking funding for an HIV support organisation he had started. We barely had enough funding for ourselves, so we couldn’t help him out, but we responded to his letter, pointing him to various aid agencies.
It’s because of this letter that in the middle of 1992, I found myself on the streets of Kampala, buying a Philly Lutaaya cassette. I’d decided to pop over to Uganda and visit Atwoki after going to Amsterdam for the International AIDS conference … via a safari in Tanzania…as you do … or maybe you don’t.
Looking back it seems a pretty hare-brained thing to have done. I’m bemused, and a bit embarrassed, by my arrogance in thinking that HIV organisations in Africa would have any interest in a white Australian woman spontaneously visiting them, even one from another HIV organisation. Well, it wasn’t entirely spontaneous. Atwoki and I had exchanged a few letters by then, and I wrote to say I was hoping to visit. I’d also made contact with people from HIV organisations in Kampala, Nairobi and Tanzania, while at the conference.
By plane, train and battered mini-bus I did the rounds of all my contacts. Everyone welcomed me very generously, and I learned a lot, but there was little I could do in return. Possibly I averted – or at least delayed – a few HIV infections in South West Uganda, because I bought a box of a thousand condoms for Atwoki to distribute. Or was it 5,000? It was a big box. Perhaps I made some people’s lives a little more comfortable with my other bulk purchase: paracetamol and antifungal drugs. It was very little, for a country that was then at the centre of the global HIV epidemic, with, rumour had it, entire villages of children orphaned by AIDS.
I think the people I visited may have been hoping for more, but I was just one not very important person, without significant connections to aid and advocacy organisations that could make a real difference. Australia, in any case, was not that interested in helping Africa; our aid focus was in our Asia Pacific region.
Philly Bongoley Lutaaya was the soundtrack for my visit. At the time he was one of Uganda’s most famous musicians, not just for his music, but for having publicly announced that he had AIDS in April 1989. He was one of the first African celebrities — and the first Ugandan celebrity — to challenge the stigma of HIV by disclosing his own HIV status. He died of AIDS in December that year, and was still vivid in people’s minds in 1992.
Everywhere I went, people would start conversations by asking me about HIV in Australia, and progress to telling me I must listen to Philly Lutaaya. So I did.
I also listened to people with HIV and AIDS, HIV service providers, healthcare workers, ordinary people who set up not-for-profits to help widows and orphans generate an income or get an education. People who were actively, creatively, passionately working towards turning the epidemic around. Uganda’s effective response to HIV is now famous, although from a starting point of such high infection rates, they still have a long way to go.
As well as immersing myself in the HIV scene, I did touristy things. I went looking (without success) for chimpanzees, saw the source of the Nile from the pillion seat of a bicycle, visited an illegal still making gin out of banana peels (waragi), boiled eggs in a hot spring, and spent a lot of time riding pillion on small motorbikes over impossibly rough bush tracks and back streets. Actually the motorbikes were taking me to visit people with HIV (with Atwoki) and HIV services (in Kampala). I liked it all so much I visited again in 1993, on my way back from Ghana — via a massive detour as Uganda really isn’t on the same plane route as Ghana.
And of course, I went dancing.
Although unlike the lovely Angella Kalule, no romance was involved.
I loved Uganda. It was hard to believe it was less than ten years since the country was freed of the brutality of Idi Amin. People were warm and welcoming, and so determined to get their country back on its feet. I loved the hot pink, or turquoise, or royal purple, of children’s school shirts and dresses, so bright and joyful against the lush greenery. I wished I had the time (and the stamina) to climb the towering mist-shrouded Rwenzori mountains. I devoured the staple dish, Matoke (green bananas) with fish stew or red beans. I spent a lot of money on batiks and bark paintings to bring home as gifts.
I’m sharing this snippet of traditional dancing purely because the moment the male dancers move aside to reveal the women swivelling their hips I catch my breath, recognising the movement captured in a batik artwork that now hangs on my lounge room wall.
When I got back to Australia, I played the Philly Lutaaya tape until it broke. I wrote about my visits to Atwoki and the East African HIV organisations for two HIV publications (one story is here), spoke at one or two seminars, tried to interest a charitable mail order shop in the Ugandan arts and crafts, tried to somehow make a difference for the people I’d met. And then … I had a baby with my Ghanaian boyfriend, thus cementing my connections, and my obligations, to a country on the other side of Africa. There would be no more detours to Uganda on my way to or from Ghana — too expensive, too time-consuming. Over the years Atwoki and I exchanged a few letters and photographs, but Uganda somehow slipped out of my life.
I don’t fully understand the lyrics for this piece by Geoffrey Oryema, but it reflects my sadness at letting go of Uganda, and the people I met there. Which is really a bit presumptuous, considering Oryema was smuggled out of Uganda during Idi Amin’s regime, and must have a far better understanding of loss, separation and exile than I could ever have.
My baby boy’s 19 now. Finishing school, starting out on his own life adventures. I’m free now to go back to Uganda, if I want. But maybe instead I will accept that it’s too far, and too expensive, and the money for the plane ticket would be better spent elsewhere – perhaps on donations to charities that support HIV work overseas, like Save the Children, or Oxfam, or those that support human rights, like Amnesty International. That’s probably a better way to use my white privilege.
At least, in the digital age, I have this to console me.
I just have to hope that one day virtuoso Kora player Joel Sebunjo will bring his wonderfully frenetic melodies to Australia. Are you listening, Festival of Sydney?
I’m finishing this week’s post with hip hop, because a post about African music would be incomplete without it, but also because weebale means ‘thank you’. Thank you, Uganda, for some wonderful times, important life lessons, and great music.
Uganda celebrated its independence day last week on 9th October, and this week will celebrate Philly Lutaaya Day on 17th October.