Article by Pier-André Doyon
African cities have a bad reputation when it comes to commemorating or remembering their past. Old and miniscule dusty rooms act as National Museums. It seems, generally, as if it isn’t in the African psyche to want to look at the past, especially when this past evokes barbarism.
Idi Amin Dada was Uganda’s dictator from 1971 to 1979. From being a renowned lieutenant to the British Forces in colonial East Africa, he became a pariah internationally, leading even to the breaking of diplomatic relations with the UK. His rule was characterised by extreme cruelty, corruption and nepotism. Very flexible in his alliances, Idi Amin went from being a friend of Israel to being besties with Gaddafi. His Uganda looked nothing like the emerging and hopeful nation that it is today. Maybe that’s why people are trying to forget about him. Nevertheless, at YPT, we have a bad fixation on dictatorship and found a few things to check out in a day-trip to Kampala.
The Kabaka’s Palace
Uganda is a republic, yes. That doesn’t stop the place from boasting multiple kingdoms. The country is in fact divided into five kingdoms, which were restored in the early 2000s after being abolished by the second president of Uganda, Dr. Obote. One of this kingdoms, arguably the most important one, is the kingdom of Buganda. Giving its name to the country, Buganda has its seat in Kampala and the Kabaka (the title of the Buganda king) rules from here, parallel to the president.
I said the Kingdoms were abolished by the second president. In fact, the first president of Uganda was also king of Buganda. Dr. Obote, by then, was Prime Minister, after being estranged from the king, Dr. Obote decided to attack his palace, sending none other than Idi Amin to lead the attack and push the king into exile. Dr. Obote became president until Amin decided to also send him into exile and become president himself…
So the palace went from being the King’s palace, to Obote’s Palace, to Amin’s Palace, back to Obote and, nowadays, after its renovation is completed, will be the King’s palace once more.
The outside of the palace can be visited for the quite extreme price of 35,000 Ugandan Shillings – somewhat ridiculous in a country where that price gets you a 10-hour ride on a fancy bus. The inside can’t be visited as it is being renovated and, according to our then-guide, covered in blood.
During a tour of the palace, we got to learn about the Kabaka and traditions around him, see pieces of destroyed cars of the previous Kabaka but most importantly for us, see a cannon given to Amin by Gaddafi. The cannon was gifted to Amin as he was fearing a coup and wanted to up his defenses.
Once these niceties had been viewed, our guide brought us to the piece de résistance – Idi Amin’s torture chambers. Located down the hill under the palace, four rooms of concrete were built by Israelis which were put under the impression that they were building an armoury. The four rooms were used as such for 8 months until their function turned into something much grimmer. The four small rooms without lights, windows, tools or equipment, the concrete coffins of barely a few square metres were turned into torture chambers, containing up to 500 people each. The corridor was guarded and flooded with electrified water. Jumping out of a room into the water meant an instant death and many prisoners chose that fate instead of dying piled up, crushed, against dead bodies and other dying prisoners. Amin used this room to kill over 15,000 people and Obote, when he took the reins back, killed an additional 15,000 people there. Nowadays, the rooms are empty and silent, left only with the footprints and handprints of the victims of a ruthless regime. On our way out of the demonstration of cruelty at its simplest form, our guide asked us for a selfie there, saying that she was an intern and needed proof of her tour. Not even the agonising deaths of thousands could stop the African youth from being a typical youth.
The Gaddafi Mosque
Right on a hill in the middle of Kampala, and almost impossible to miss, is the Central Mosque of Uganda. It is the second biggest mosque of all Africa, the first one being in Casablanca. At the time of British Colonialism, this hill was the seat of Camp Impala (now Kampala) administration. The place was chosen since the hill was central and overlooking the whole of the city. The surrounding hills were given to different religious confessions. One for the Catholics, one for the Protestants and one for the church of All-Saints. Although it was the religion of a big part of the community and the first monotheistic religion to be introduced to Uganda, Islam was left behind.
Idi Amin, being a Muslim himself, decided to undo that wrong after he “conquered the British Empire”. He planned to use the hill to build a mosque. Construction was started but stopped right after the foundations were built, as Idi Amin was exiled from the country. Long abandoned, the mosque project was only restarted after Gaddafi visited Uganda and decided to invest in its construction. Amin’s foundations were destroyed and, using Libya’s aid, a whole new mosque was built. Carpets from Libya, wood from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, tinted glass from Italy and chandeliers from Egypt, this mosque is a site to behold. It gives us a somewhat different of Gaddafi as here, in Uganda, his reputation is not as reviled as in the West.
A visit of the Mosque, guided by a lovely local who introduced herself to us as Mama Africa, costs 15000 shillings, it includes a climb to the top of the Minaret, where you can clearly see the surrounding hills from this central vantage point.
Around the Mosque, many communities of immigrants have established themselves — Somali, Yemeni and Eritrean restaurants offer a peek into those cultures often seen as off-limit.
Pier-André Doyon works as an international travel guide for YPT. Scuba diving, language and Maoist karaoke aficionado, Pier is travelling around hoping to create stories in all 193 countries of the world.