On our way back to Entebbe from Kampala last weekend, we had to stop as the President of the republic, His excellency Yoweri Kaguta Museveni himself, was about to pass by, headed to Kampala. My hotel taxi guy called Puff (he says it’s short form for some biblical name) – a mad chap who drove too fast – pulled over at the shoulder of the road. He was wearing purple loafers. Purple! That’s a man who doesn’t give a toss. We sat in his car, his car radio cranked up on 88.5 Super FM, a local Luganda station playing some wonderful Luganda music.
I told l him I liked the song that was playing, the lady had a wonderful voice. He mentioned that she was called Rema Namakula.
“She’s good. Great voice.” I said
“She’s Eddie Kenzo’s wife,” he said in explanation. I don’t think her being good had anything to do with being Eddie Kenzo’s wife; she just happened to be his wife. I think she was probably good before she became his wife. Or might it be that Kenzo’s musical influence rubbed off on her. It’s hard to really understand what that statement meant.
“They must break into songs all the time in the house.” I said. He laughed and said, “Man.” I think it’s a Ugandan thing to say, ‘man’. “Man, you are lost.” “Man, we need to leave now.” “Man, extend a bit.” To ‘extend’ in Uganda apparently means to move a bit. Like if you were in bed with your wife and she was hogging all the space in bed you would say, “Man, extend a bit.” This is the kind of stuff that healthy Ugandan marriages are made of.
“I really love this song.” I said.
“It’s a good jam, it’s called Juice Wa Mango.”
(It’s actually called Yo Sweet. I googled it later at Entebbe International airport which has unlimited free wi-fi.)
“She’s singing about mangoes?”
He laughed and said, “She is saying that if you love her you have to treat her like mango juice.”
I kept quiet, let that important love advice sink in for a bit. It’s a fruity piece of advice, if you want.
“How do you treat someone like mango juice?” I asked.
Clearly he hadn’t thought this through. I don’t think many people have, really. Maybe it’s not crucial.
“If they are sweet, you treat them like mango juice.” he said.
“What if they are not?” I asked. “What if they are bitter sweet?”
He laughed. “I don’t know these love things, man. It is just a song, saala puleesa.”
We left it at that. It’s just a song about mango juice.
I asked him what Ugandans think of Eddie Kenzo, because I like his songs. He asked me what songs I know and I realised I only know one song, “Sitya Loss,” which is like saying you like “Bad” by Michael Jackson.
“He’s just theyia.”
“Where?” I asked, laughing.
“Mbu, he now only sings for party boys.”
“Yes, he goes there to Muyenga, Kisugu, for parties, and sings for the people in attendance.”
“Is that a bad thing, singing for people at parties?”
“Man, if you want to singi, you singi, if you want to singi at parties, you singi at parties.”
“I agree,“ I said, like singing for party boys, whatever that was, isn’t cool. “Where do you want him to sing?”
He turned to stare at me like I’d asked a foolish question.
“Of course, at the shows! The big shows and like in a stadium.” (You won’t believe how he pronounced stadium)
“We don’t sing in stadiums, back in Kenya.”
“Ahh, you Kenyans.”
Haha. Yeah, we Kenyans are a waste of creative space, using stadiums for sports and political party conventions. Complete waste of resources. And talent.
We sat in the car for a little longer. A presenter started talking in Luganda, which means it was fast-paced talk interspersed by him saying stuff like “iiii”, and saying “kakati” a lot. Outside, at the shanty kiosks that mark the side of the road, bodaboda operatives zoomed past. There are trillions of bodabodas in Kampala and they are all ridden by mad men who don’t fear cars. If you think our bodabodas are reckless, you haven’t seen one until you have seen a bodaboda in Kampala. Puff told me, “Man, they think the car should give them way. So I have to drive my car and drive for them,” meaning he has to think for himself on the road and for the bodaboda guy as well.
“What about Bebe Cool?” I asked. “Is he still cool?”
“Ah, Bebe is a star, man.” He did the horn-tutting thing with his hand.
“Only you Kenyans love Chameleone.” he said and laughs.
“He isn’t big here?”
“He is theiya.”
“Where?” I asked with a straight face.
“Just, you know, he has some nice songs….he’s OK.”
The first presidential escort whizzed past at a terrific speed, blaring warning horns and flashing lights. It was a saloon police car driven by a stern-looking military guy in full military fatigues. (I assumed he was as I could only see his hat and top. He could have be wearing sweats below the window.) Then another saloon car zoomed by with the same military guys inside. Two outriders with powerful BMWs followed. Then those open military modified vans drove past. It had four indomitable-looking soldiers lounging in the open back, two on each side, full military gear, big guns, big ski-shades stuck on their foreheads, the type you would see in World War movies, only modern. They sat back on their comfortable seats, looking at the civilian world pass by. It was a show of military might, intimidating, romantic and gung-ho!
Then the landcruisers passed quickly, two of them in a blur of black.
“He is in that next one,” Puff said, and I leaned over to his side to take a glimpse of M7. The Cruiser passed swiftly but he wasn’t in it. “He isn’t in there, he’s in that next one.” Puff said. Sure enough I caught a glimpse of the big man for a fraction of a second. He was wearing his signature hat, actually that’s all I saw, and a fleeting image of his face. He must have been reading the newspaper, his head bent down. Either that or he had dozed off. He seemed oblivious to the eyes seeking him or the mouths mouthing his name.
Power is so alluring, I thought. We wonder why African leaders hang on but when you look at that show of power, that privilege, it must give one some level of highness, being escorted by men with guns, chase cars, military men. Men salute you, roads opening up for you, children running to the road to stare at you, your pictures hang in shops, the Chinese coming and waiting outside your door with their hats on their knees, waiting to hand you buildings to say thank you, artists making songs about you, women dancing for you in stadia. You are like mango juice.
Two more vehicles passed quickly and then a large, bulky, white, caravan-like vehicle followed. Then an ambulance. Then some random military looking cars, maybe carrying an arsenal of weapons.
“What was that?” I asked Puff.
“That’s an ambulance.” he said.
“I know,” I said, irritatingly. “I meant the other big white one that looks like a caravan.” We eased back onto the road, driving towards Entebbe.
“That is Museveni’s toilet.”
I turned to look at him.
“Yes, he sometimes travels with his toilet.”
“Why does he need a toilet?” I asked ridiculously.
I stared ahead. “But between Entebbe and Kampala is less than 30mins for him, why does he need to use the toilet?”
He shrugged. “Just.”
That must be another Ugandan thing, explaining something with “just.”
I wanted to ask if his president had a bladder problem but thought better of it.
“Has he always moved with that toilet or is it a new thing that he acquired lately?”
He thinks about it for a beat then says he doesn’t know.
“Have you ever seen him use that toilet?” I asked.
“No.” he said. “But he uses it when he is going far, like Western Ugandan, for example.”
Museveni, a military intelligence mind, fought Idi Amin and Obote from the bush. I can easily see him stepping out of his car on his way to Northern Uganda and taking a leak from the bush because once a soldier, always a soldier, no? So his toilet baffled me a little. But I wasn’t even so shocked at the toilet – I mean, this is Africa after all, but I wondered about the man who drives that toilet. A man whose job description is to drive the president’s toilet. How old is he? Does he carry a firearm? Will he ever get a chance to shoot it? If he’s married, I picture him waking up each morning and having a normal conversation with his kids and wife.
His wife tells him to remember to settle the balance of the school fees as he dresses up. He nods, tucking in his vest. He then signs the young ones diaries because he never signs them and the teachers are beginning to think he’s an absentee father. He then fetches his gun from the safe and his wife says, “Mbazira, where are you going today?”
“You know I’m not allowed to say,” he says.
“I’m your wife, not someone who wants to kill the president.”
“That information is classified, dear. We have been through this before.”
She sighs and dabs powder on her face.
“OK, what time will you be back, or is that also classified?”
“By 8pm.” He says.
“Try come back earlier, because today is when your brother and his wife are coming over for dinner.”
“I can’t leave the president unprotected because my brother and his wife are coming over, Rose. My job is not an office job where I wear a lanyard around my neck.”
I wonder if this guy ever imagined he would be driving the president’s toilet when he signed up for the military. I wonder what his busiest day looks like. When he says he had a long day, what does he mean? What inspires him? Also how can you bungle a job like that? How often does the president use that toilet? And does he get in there with his big hat? Or is there another military man who holds the hat when he gets in? And if he gets in with his hat, does he keep it on as he sits on the toilet seat? Or does he sit there with his hat in hand, turning it over, deep in thought? You must have seen those digital images done by the Italian digital artist, Christina Guggeri, of world leaders doing their thing in the small room. I wonder how she would have depicted M7.
I’m not implying it’s beneath anyone to drive the president’s toilet, because it’s a civic duty, and allegiance to the state and to the commander in chief of the armed forces. I’m just wondering where you move to after you have driven the president’s toilet. What’s your ten-year plan? What are your career growth options? Is it pensionable? Who supervises you? KPIs?
I can see him, at a pub on his day off. He’s seated in a group of mostly military types, enjoying Bell Lager. A lady seated to his right turns and asks.
“So do you also work for the special forces?
“No, I’m with the Presidential Escort Unit.”
She: “Oh really!”
“What do you do for the Presidential Escort Unit?”
He will look bashful for a moment, “Oh well, I’m really not at liberty to get into the details of my job,” Blows his cheeks and exhales slowly. “It’s a security issue,…you know one those things we are not allo-”
“I understand, I’m not really asking for details I just want to know – “
Shifts in his chair. “ Let’s just say that I privately take care of Museveni’s shit.”
Her eyes open in large saucers, “Oh, wow. Like his right hand man?”
“Well, no, that would be an exaggeration and a gross misrepresentation in these circumstances.”
“You are being so modest..” Moves closer to him and leans on her hand, staring at him with a tilted head. “Tell me, how is it, anyway?”
“Quiet, mostly.” Sips beer. “Nothing exciting really ever happens.”
“Well, some days are a shit storm. But most days you don’t hear a sound.”
“Do you ever feel like you are putting your life on the line, is it dangerous?”
“Well, I wouldn’t call it dangerous, unless, well unless the president drastically changes his diet.” He chuckles at his own private joke.
She will have that “eureka” look. “Oh I now know what you do! You are those chaps who taste the president’s food and drinks to check for poison,” poking his arm playfully with one manicured finger. “You handle his food and drink, don’t you?”
“Eventually, yes. As a by-product.”
She will play with her braids and say, “You are so brave.”
“No, you don’t need bravery for what I do.”
“Yes, I think you do.”
She will say sarcastically, “What do you need then, officer Mbazira?”
“The ability to smell trouble.”
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