My worst travel experience is probably thirty years old, and that would be losing £500 to a London pickpocket within a few hours of my first arrival in England. Of course I was later to have my pocket ‘picked’ of an identical sum of money more recently, but that would not count as a travel experience as such – because it was done legally by a foreign government in whose country I was living at the time, but more about that later.
For now, I will narrate my most pleasant travel experience, played out in the hill-city of Kampala. It was December and I was Kenya-bound for the 2012 Kwani Literary Festival, a guest of Goethe Institute’s Moving Africa project. Yet it was not possible to go to East Africa without visiting with my charismatic Ugandan in-laws, Filda and Dorothy, who had done Asaba the year before. It was also an opportunity to meet the Literature students at Kyambogo Uni and read with the exciting writers of Femrite, an ambitious literary group that was doing great things from Kampala. So I scheduled a few days in Uganda. The approach to Entebbe airport is beautiful, I am told: the plane appears to be landing on water because the runway starts at the lip of Lake Victoria… I will have to take their word for it. After an unscheduled stopover in Cameroon, I was dozing at 2 am when we touched down at Entebbe’s lakeside runway.
I sleep-walked though immigration and customs and, even at that inconsiderate hour, my hostesses were waiting to take me to my bed at Dorothy’s. When it was properly dawn, I realised I had lost both my phone and passport. The Femrite reading was scheduled for that day though, and later that afternoon I arrived at the courtyard event put together between Carolin Christgau and Tino Akware and tried to put a brave face on my personal crisis. Hilda Twongyeirwe introduced me to the Ugandan Women Writers Association, and I introduced my audience (which included quite a few men) to the Meme family in Diaries of a Dead African, some poetry from Memories of Stone, and some of the twenty-six stories in The Ghost of Sani Abacha. It is interesting how a story changes from reader to reader, from audience to audience. Once again my characters morphed as they made themselves at home in the lilting Ugandan accents that surrounded me. Animated conversations flowered in between my stories, conversations that grew more intimate at the evening wore on, for the rain arrived, a polite precipitation that didn’t soak anyone but forced us all under the single canopy in the courtyard. A signal evening, yet, at the back of my mind was the gloomy knowledge that I would have to cancel Kenya, if I didn’t find my passport in a couple of days.
The modern phone is a dangerous device. An alien intelligence that would take over the world need only make dumb the smart phones of the world to make an idiot of our so-called civilisation: I could not recall a single telephone number without my mobile phone.
Yet, that was the least of my worries. A traveller without a passport has one thing in common with an addressed envelope without a stamp: they’re both going nowhere. I had also lost my passport a few years earlier and it must have cost me £1,000 and the better part of six months to replace it, including the painful £500 visa reinstatement fee earlier referred to, charged by the UK Home Office for the five-minute chore of calling up a computer record and printing me a replacement visa. Added to my worries were my Nairobi engagements that would now be scrapped. It occurred to me that the alien travelers, Livingstone, the Landers and Co had not used visas and passports to range across my fatherland. Uganda and Kenya were contiguous countries… surely they had not run a concrete wall across their artificial borders… allied mad ideas ranged through my mind, but sanity prevailed. For the moment.
A relative took me to the airport. We spent most of the day there, sampling Ugandan courtesy. Lost-and-found offices. The Customs desk. The Immigration desk. Despite my dire circumstances, at the appropriate time my stomach rumbled dutifully and we went upstairs to sample a matchless matooke with delectable accompaniment of sauces from the restaurant. Back on the hunt for my passport, the CCTV footage was kindly reviewed on my behalf. The sleepy progress of Chuma Nwokolo was tracked from desk to desk and sleep-walking writer + passport + Iphone were seen to leave the airport building and enter the car park where the CCTV coverage ended. I tramped to-and-fro the said car park. My phone and passport stayed lost.
We repaired to the Airport Police Station which also maintained a lost-and-found desk. We drew a blank. Admitting defeat, I applied for a police report, which was the first step to procuring an Emergency Travel Certificate from the Nigerian embassy to extradite me back to the streets of Lagos. I wondered if the protocol for repatriating absent-minded writers was the same as for disgraced drug peddlers, whether Lagos State would also repatriate me to Delta State… Then we headed for the Nigerian Embassy, arriving just before they closed to the public.
As I signed in at the security post, a Ugandan security officer greeted me familiarly. ‘Where have we met?’ I asked. My memory was not brilliant, but this was ridiculous. It was my first visit to Uganda and I was pretty sure I had never met this gentleman before.
‘We’ve never met,’ he said cheerfully, but I recognise your face from your passport. Somebody just brought it in.’
It is of course from moments like that that the most pleasant travel experiences are woven. It was just a passport that was brought in though: no phone. Yet, at that point, who cared about a lousy Iphone? The officer at the embassy refused to return my passport right away though, insisting on handing it over only in the presence of the finder. Here we go again, I thought, dreading another Nigerian run-around, but hey! I had found my passport! So another appointment was made for later that day. In the meantime, I paid a courtesy call on my amiable ambassador upstairs and we had a friendly chat about foreign postings and careless citizens. Then I went for the first Ugandan meal that I could really savour, fortified in the knowledge that my Nairobi trip was back on the schedule. Dorothy’s groundnut sauces inspired me to culinary adventurism and I packed both paste and recipe for Nigeria.
Later that evening, my benefactor arrived at the Embassy to find me waiting. He was a car-hire operator who had found my passport in a trolley in the car park where I left it. You’ve saved my life, I told him, exaggerating only slightly. He confessed that he very nearly didn’t. He once got into police trouble by returning a wallet, only for the owner to claim to have lost more money than was recovered. Mister Good Samaritan, his very sensible wife had warned that morning, don’t get yourself into trouble again! But – luckily for me – he had looked at my doleful photograph in the passport (My sense of humour was on vacation on the day I got the passport) ‘He could easily be my father,’ he’d said to his wife, ‘I won’t want my father stranded without a passport in the middle of a journey…’
I sighed an overdue prayer of thanks for my white hair.
‘Did you lose anything else apart from the passport?’ he asked.
‘Well,’ I replied, scarcely crediting my good fortune, ‘there’s the matter of a phone…’
So hearing, he leaned over and reunited me with my Iphone, pulling it out of a sturdy sock. The modern phone is an interesting accessory to the human brain: once again my memory became photographic: I could ‘remember’ the phone numbers of my family, friends and a thousand contacts across planet earth.
Next, the embassy put on an impromptu reception that made me über proud to be Nigerian. The chief minister rose and addressed the small group in the reception: He had been in the post two years, he said, and rarely did a fortnight pass without another Nigerian losing his passport. He handled the paperwork. He knew. And until today, not once had a passport been found on his watch and returned to the embassy. In returning the lost passport, my benefactor had restored his faith in people. He was now an official ‘Friend’ of the Embassy, with an invitation to a reception that very evening. Naturally he joined the embassy’s list of car hire operators.
Ah, the rewards of goodness! Were I to write so saccharine a resolution to any of my fictional conflicts I’d probably lose half my readers in disgust, but Dear Reader, all this actually happened – and I was yet to make my own speech of appreciation…
So how could Kampala improve on that? Well, the plugs, they were pulled out. Another scheduled reading took place at Kyambogo University on the 5th of December, where my story, The Redemption of Pati Mugodo (the first in the collection of stories, The Ghost of Sani Abacha) was already being studied by Dr. Okaka Dokotum’s literature students. As we approached the university’s main hall where the reading held, I found an arresting art installation on a university field. It was an array of red and yellow streamers with thought-provoking speech bubbles, arched walkways and sequined images. There was a section on the King of Buganda and another extensive section on the London Olympics. It mimicked in scale, works I had seen in venues as impressive as the South Bank in London. Is this a project of the Department of Fine Art? Is there an artist-in-residence here? I asked excitedly.
No, grinned Filda. It’s apparently the work of a ‘mad man’.
It was fun to read to a hall full of students who, with their dog-eared photocopies of The Redemption of Pati Mugodo, were looking for angles to the story that would stymie their lecturer. But first I – and a small delegation of Femriters including Beatrice Akite and Rosey Sembatya (who were clearly prospecting the talented audience for future members) were treated to performances from the students. Even Dr. Okaka performed his hilarious poem on the human nose.
My in-laws, Filda and Dorothy were treated like rock stars by their former students who seemed to pop up everywhere we went. I went for lunch with Filda and one former student, the poet-prof, Susan Kiguli where I had another opportunity to eat Ugandan and to talk literature – and old school days. Later that evening I attended a reading of Susan’s new bilingual volume of poetry at the Goethe Institute, Kampala. Finally met Beverley Nambozo in the flesh, and was pleased to support her Poetry Prize with a donation of a few books.
Then of course I visited the monument to the Ugandan Martyrs at Namugondo. You do not have to be a Christian to be swayed by the scale of sacrifice commemorated by this monument. Christianity’s African heritage is forever coloured by the missionary complicity in what is perhaps colonialism’s nadir: the Congo genocide, but when you steep yourself in the story of the Ugandan martyrs you can appreciate the life-changing discipline of desire. You can see how transformational a life can be when steeped in a single-minded ideal. An ideal that prompts the believer, not to kill for his cause, but to die for it.
Meanwhile, out on the streets, Kampala was in full football mode. The English premiership was just as popular here as it was on the streets of Abuja, but it was time for some football nationalism because the East and Central African CECAFA Cup was in progress. Uganda’s Cranes were eventually to lift the cup in a rousing finale against Kenya’s national team, but the really interesting football drama was being played out, not in the stadia, but on the streets of Kampala. It was a nail-biting match decided by an own goal: a game between a country and her citizens. The story was in all the papers: The Eritrean Football team had gone missing, along with their assistant coach! Very soon we read that they were in asylum talks with the Ugandan government. They had disappeared from their hotel rooms in an eerie re-run of those twentieth-century, cold war defections from Eastern bloc countries. In this particular drama, Eritrea played against Eritreans, with Uganda cast in the role of African El Dorado.
This was not the first time that Eritrea was losing its sporting talent to an asylum bid. A similar decampment by Eritrean nationals was made in Kenya 2009, as well as during the last London Olympics. The theme of the Kenyan Litfest was ‘Conversations with the Horn’ and I would have liked to have a conversation with these sportsmen, to find out more about this startling decampment, but my name is not James Bond, and I did not rate my chances of finding men who were hiding out from the Eritrean Secret Service. Anyway, my time in Kampala was soon over and it was time to continue on the road to Nairobi. It was all good, though, because I have the next best thing: an opportunity to have a longer conversation with Alemseged Tesfai, the Eritrean historian, essayist, novelist and dramatist who was due to to talk on the history of Eritrean writing at the Kwani Litfest.
Bring on the many Conversations with the Horn.
The final treat from Dorothy and Filda was a visit to the Ndere Dance Centre. Of course I was ‘absent’ for most of the performance, being transported to distant lands and ancient times by the percussive magic of dances and musical performances sourced not just from Uganda but from countries in Eastern and Southern Africa. My favorite was probably from Botswana (if I remember correctly), a performance in which a column of drummers entered the stage carrying – and playing – drums almost their size on their heads. A modern drum kit was a fine thing, all that snappy variety and versatility… but the authorial base of those guttural congas arrived at the depths of the bowels as from an ancestral place (one ‘heard’ these drums, of course, through a reverberating stomach, not through the ears). A sonorous waterfall of sound, a relentless thunder of melody, and the performance was over. The Master of Ceremonies – who also doubled as a cast member – invited the audience on stage for a free-for-all dance finale. I was the first on stage, as God is my witness… but there was a spectacular shortfall between my passion and my dancing talent and after a few embarrassing moments, I asked if I could play a drum instead. I was obliged. Wide grin: the virtuoso drummers were in full tattoo. It was easy to sound like a maestro when you are playing with maestros. Kampalan heaven.
It was not for nothing that Kampala was called the hill city. In my last night in Filda’s bungalow on a grassed hilltop in Kyambogo, it occurred to me that Asaba was way too flat. Living on a similar hill overlooking the River Niger would have done wonders for my poetry. Then sleep intervened, and on the morrow, goodbyes were said.
After this, it was hard to see how Kenya’s Kwani Litfest would not be an anti-climax, but I left Kampala with an open mind…