The town of Kampala was a British colony and this was just before it was transferred to African politicians (basically, Idi Amin, who came in and killed everybody). It was quaint and very peaceful.
Kampala was built on seven hills and it was together. It had a hospital and markets. It was a British town. There were a lot of tea and coffee plantations. The world was coming apart around it.
Rwanda and Burundi had started civil wars between the Hutu and the Tutsi. The Congo's Moise Tshombe was having a revolution. There was unrest between the blacks and the Arabs in Southern Sudan. The whole continent was just teetering on the edge of revolution everywhere. It was a hell of a long way from straight. The only safe way out of this place was through Kenya. But, while I was in Uganda, it was bucolic.
In the interim I would wander around Kampala, seeing what was going on in this little capitol city. As I walked along, every day, I kept seeing the same guy – a kid. He was, oh, I don't know, 19.
We were probably the same age and he had a job somewhere where he had a big stalk of ripening bananas on a bicycle and he would push this stalk of bananas from one place to another place across town.
We got used to seeing each other and started stopping and chatting along the way. The kid spoke great English, and we liked each other. He had on the typical African thing – plastic shoes, a shirt with more holes than shirt, some beat-up shorts and that was it. His name was Impaki Mujabi.
One day I was walking along with Impaki again and he was all excited because he had just gotten an exchange student visa to go to Chicago. Families who took in the exchange students from Africa were usually Christians who attended churches with missions in these places. The missions would take smart native kids and send them to America.
He was beside himself, so we talked. I told him all I knew about Chicago. He had questions and we talked it over. Then I went my way and he went his.
I went wandering off out of Uganda and wandered around Africa doing a bunch of things in that general zone. When this trip was over, I finally made it back to Oregon.
I went out first thing to see my old friend Spider who was a senior at Gresham High School. His folks were from the Arkansas mountains and I loved hanging around with them because my parents were very well-educated and we lived in a different world. I loved their world. It was simple and straightforward and quite funny. I liked being there.
I went in to talk to Opal, to find out where Spider was. We were chatting and she said, "Ya know, youse in Africa."
"Yeah, I was."
"Dangest thing," she said. "There's a boy down there at the high school with Vernon and he's from there."
My ears perked up. My eyeballs got large. "What's his name?"
Opal replied, "I don't know. It was some African name."
"Is it Impaki Mujabi?"
Opal nodded. "Well, that kinda sounds like it."
"Holy mackerel!" I exclaimed. "They didn't send him to Chicago…they sent him to Gresham High School, Oregon!"
I raced out, hopped into my car and sped down to the local high school. It was lunch time in the old cafeteria. I parked, went into the cafeteria and there he was: my banana bicycle-pushing buddy from the streets of Kampala! He looked at me, I looked at him. We just couldn't believe it. We jumped up, we hugged, we danced around, we jumped up and down.
Impaki told me, "All these people, they don't understand anything about Africa. I try to tell them about growing up in Uganda and what was going on. I just can't explain it to them. It's so different from here."
He said, "I'm staying with a real nice family in the suburbs. Could I get you to come out to dinner and explain to these folks where I'm from and what's going on there?"
That evening I went over to this regular ranch house and there was my buddy Impaki in his new threads standing around with the all-American white bread family. I went in and had a real nice evening explaining to them some fundamental differences between being a boy in Kampala and a boy in Gresham. I even did a slide show. They loved it.
It led to BIG resentment with the Hutu. The Western powers (the Europeans and the United Nations) demanded that they hold "democratic elections." The problem was the Hutus outnumber the Tutsi ten to one. The outcome was a landslide victory for the Hutus…who passed their very first law, which was that it was legal to kill Tutsis.
Only now, more than fifty years later, is there any peace in this place. Both peoples were just devastated.