Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Day Two in Fort Portal

After concluding our second day of the Peace Journalism seminar here in Fort Portal, I’m now comfortably back in my hotel room milling over the day’s events. On second thought maybe “comfortably” is the wrong word to use. My mind is still spinning trying to process the events of this rather long and extremely odd day. And one of the situations I found myself in was enough to make me wish I was back in the SUV fling down the dark road to Kampala from Entebbe.

Earlier this afternoon Andi and I each accompanied a different group of local journalist, as they hit the streets of Fort Portal looking for an election story to cover in a peace oriented way. I liked my group immediately – not least because they insisted I be part of their group, so I knew they had good taste –one person look the lead, made a suggestion, and everyone got on board and actively contributed in deciding what to report and how. So after some discussion, and lunch, we headed out to talk to one member of the current government, one member of the major opposition party, and one citizen about whether they thought peace was possible during the upcoming election cycle.

First we went to the opposition’s local offices because it was closer, but everyone was still out to lunch so no luck there. Next we headed to the current government’s offices – which were conveniently located on the other side of town – and after a 20 minute walk we arrived first at the local police official’s office. The man we talked to, from what I understand, was basically the local police chief.

Talking to the police anywhere in any setting is enough to make me uncomfortable, but the five journalist I was with just walked up to a police chief’s office door unannounced, knocked and we all filled in. No appointment, no warning, we just showed up. I remember thinking the police at home wouldn’t even let five journalists walk into the building unannounced.

Just the thought of what we were doing was enough to put me on edge, but the scene inside this office was like something out of a movie. First let me say that, at six ft tall, I was easily the tallest person in our group by five inches. From what I’d seen up to this point most men here are between five and six feet tall – with two notable exception: Tabu (Steve’s driver – who I’ll be writing about later) and Caesar (our driver for the Fort Portal trip) who are both over six feet. I mention this because the police chief was another exception, as was the Mayor who we talked to after the chief (and that story will require whole other post; you’ll understand when you read it). But now let me paint you the picture of what I walked into in this office.

The Police Chief

A thick multi layer coat of off white paint made the wrought iron lattice work office “door,” look even heavier than it surly was. It would have been right at home on a jail cell, but its purpose was to lock people out and equipment in. Past the door a yellow and white sheet that was tied off to one side, and it served as the only other barrier between inside and out. Once we were all standing in the office I instantly noticed how small the oversized dark worn wooden desk made the room feel, which had at least a 10 or 12 foot ceiling.

Behind the desk was the second largest object in the room: the police chief. I’m not sure how tall he was because he only partially stood to shake hands, but he looked like a giant compared to the journalist and myself. He was noticeably heavier than anyone else in the room too, as he was almost surely over 200 lbs. At first he seemed very uninterested in us. He sat back in his chair while waving his hand toward two other men, who were already sitting when we got in the room, telling us he was busy and we would have to come back later. Being the last through the door I was at the back of our group and the police chief didn’t notice the “Muzungu” (which is a non-pejorative name for white people here) in his midst.

Once he did see me his demeanor changed instantly. He was suddenly very interested to knowing who all these people standing around in his office were, and what it was we wanted. I would even say he looked excited, happy even. I wasn’t sure if it was a good or bad, and I was still cautious despite his zeal and charm. After the journalist and I all took turns explaining who we were, and that we were part of a peace journalism seminar, the police chief told us he was very happy and he though what we were doing was very good.

After the journalist conducted their interview, which went surprisingly well, we made our exit and I began to feel a lot better. Surely nothing we would do next could be as uncomfortable as that. However, my feeling of relief was dashed when Edward, one of the journalists I was with, told me we were going to the Mayor’s office next.

(I’ll have the story about the Mayor posted later on today. I had to break it up because this was getting too long, but the event’s that follow what I’ve just explained are, hands down, the most bizarre of my life. Update: I've decided, for several reasons, not to post this story until I get back in the states.)

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