Tuesday, May 29, 2012

We All Are One

One thing I like about travelling is the opportunity to take pictures. When you travel even a washed out shoe on the beach sometimes make for a good reminder of where you’ve been. Unfortunately when you travel in Africa taking pictures can sometimes land you in big trouble. That I have learned from a previous experience in Cameroon. I don’t know what it is with my African brothers, but somehow pointing a camera is like an insult to them and you might literally get a rifle pointing towards you if you are not careful.

Yesterday we were traveling from Kampala to Pakwach, a small town situated about 400 km north of Uganda’s capital. I am always very cautious when I take out my camera in African countries; you never know who you might offend. In Cameroon when a colleague of mine took a picture of a dilapidated bridge, we ended up emptying our pockets to get her camera back. The police officer appeared from out of the blue and demanded that we explain ourselves to the “Police Chief” who was apparently sitting in a little shack further back on the road where we came from. When we reached the shack there was no Chief in sight and we eventually had to buy back her camera for 60USD….minus all the pictures that had to be deleted.

Yesterday as we were traveling to Pakwach, I tried to get one or two pictures of the surrounding area. At no point did I deliberately point my camera towards anybody, although in the end I did end up with a few faces on my shots. I took most of the pictures from the car as we were driving and obediently put the camera away when we stopped to take a leak or had biscuits to eat next to the road (no Shell Ultra City stops here). It was when we crossed the bridge near the Karuma Falls where we made the mistake of showing our cameras to any possible observers. The falls are not really that impressive, it is more like impressive rapids. We were more after the “been there, done that” type of pictures, but our driver told us that we were not allowed to stop on the bridge, so we captured them “on the fly”. Strangely enough in South Africa we would’ve constructed a special lookout point for tourists to snap away. In Uganda it’s a different story.

Then it happened….

From out of nowhere a guy in military attire jumped in front of our vehicle. Agreed, with his camouflage suit he was real hard to spot against the green lush background, but he appeared from nowhere just like the guy in Cameroon did. They seem to be masters at this “hide-and-seek” and then “suddenly appear” game. We knew immediately what was about to happen. He spoke in Swahili, clearly showing his disapproval. After about ten minutes of negotiations between himself and our driver, we were allowed to go. Our driver somehow convinced him that we didn’t have money on us and the opportunistic road robber wasn’t armed, so we got off easy this time. Phew, close call.

Our next bridge was the one crossing over the Albert Nile into Pakwach. We crossed the bridge and a police check-point with no problems…and no pictures this time either. The police officers were quite friendly and didn’t really ask any questions. Our driver informed us that we were allowed to take pictures on that bridge, because the last time he crossed the bridge he had tourist with him and they took pictures…no problem. We finished our business in Pakwach and decided that on our way back we would take a picture of the Nile, just for memories’ sake and for my blog of course. As we approached the bridge, we went for our cameras. Man, it was as if Houdini himself made his magic appearing-from-nowhere act, this time with an assistant. From absolutely nowhere TWO military guys appeared next to the vehicle. This time they were armed, so we were a bit more concerned than the first time. They spoke in English, told us to exit the vehicle and to follow them to their “Commanding Officer”. He took the camera from my hands before I could even shout “go!!!” At first we tried to convince them that we would delete the pictures, but they didn’t want to budge…it was “Commanding Officer or no camera back.”

We got out, we had no choice. I wasn’t going to leave my camera there. Unlike the previous time when the “Police Chief” was just a clever way of getting us out of the car, this time the Commanding Officer was an actual person in uniform sitting on a tree trunk reading yesterday’s newspaper.  They all spoke in English, which made it a bit easier for us to communicate too. With my big mouth I told them that there is no law against taking pictures and that they are just after our money. This upset them a bit. I could tell by the way they were waving their AK47’s in the air. My colleague was quite diplomatic and listened to their long explanation as to “why we should not take pictures without their permission, blah, blah, blah.” In the meantime he was trying to tell me to shut up as I was protesting for being harassed on my own continent which was not really strengthening our case. My approach was one of “we are all brothers from Africa who should respect each other”, while my colleague was using a more sincere apologetic approach for the “clear misunderstanding”. Obviously he could not play the “We are all One”-card as he is originally from the UK, a ex-colonialist returning to a country where his forefathers wasn't welcome in the first place. At least I was born in Africa, so I had a leg to stand on. I learned however today that the “we are all one” approach only works when you are bargaining for lower prices at the craft markets, not when you have an clearly upset rifle-carrying-man in a camouflage uniform in front of you.

We were told that, even though there are no signposts to inform the unsuspected tourist that taking pictures of bridges were a crime in Uganda, you had to ask permission first. This proves to be quite difficult as you don’t see them before it is too late. I think it makes them feel better if you give them the recognition as their country’s asset protectors. On the other side of the bridge there were two more guys sitting, also heavily armed. That is five people guarding one bridge from tourists’ cameras. I don’t know how many bridges there are in Uganda, but it clearly creates quite a few jobs, even if an outdated newspaper is read during working hours. After my colleague’s apologetic approach their angry faces turned into friendly smiles. We asked permission to keep the pictures we took and the Commanding Officer nodded his head. The two soldiers respected their commander’s decision and we were free to go.  

My colleague grabbed his camera and headed straight back to the car. I asked for a group picture but they rejected my request saying it was not allowed either. I invited them to visit South Africa…without their rifles of course….and promised that I would show them around in South Africa without confiscating their cameras. After all…in Africa “We All Are One”.


  1. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Poor beggars!

  2. I refer to your bikes photo. Now how's that for split laning!