A tale of two statues
I’ve just spent a week in Paradise. But don’t get me wrong. It’s not the Celestial City I’m talking about.
Kampala is a fine and friendly place, but it’s not yet anything you would call heavenly ...
No, I’m talking about the Paradise Terrace at the Sheraton Hotel in Uganda’s capital.
The Paradise Terrace is the bar and al fresco restaurant, shaded by lofty palms, enlivened by flowering shrubs, that overlooks a green and serene garden and looks down on the Speke and Grand Imperial hotels that mark the other points of a very special triangle in the heart of Kampala.
The Paradise Terrace is where you take your snack lunches, hold your informal meetings, and drink your Nile Special sun-downers.
It’s where you can linger when it gets dark, to listen to the music and songs of bands that rotate every night of the week.
Whether Afro-Beat or Soul, they overlay the harder and harsher sounds that would otherwise come up the hill from the Rock Garden alongside the Speke.
Down the slope, in daylight of course, you can see the back and broad shoulders of a statue.
When you walk down the path and get a frontal view you see that it is a statue of King George V.
It was presented by one Nanii Kalidas Mehta, Esq. MBE, “in memory of the glorious reign” of the colonial monarch, 1910-1936.
And, more usefully, Nanii Kalidas Mehta, Esq. MBE, donated “the park on which it stands to the people of Kampala”.
It’s rather like our own Jeevanjee Gardens, isn’t it, with its rather diminutive statue of King George V’s grandmother, the long-reigning Queen Victoria? A.M. Jeevanjee was also an Asian entrepreneur. He donated the park to the people of Nairobi as a place to rest.
That’s what the park in Kampala was supposed to be. “It was for the ordinary and working people of the city,” said my taxi driver. “It was where they could come and rest on a bench or on the grass.” He was using the past tense because no ordinary or working people are now let into the park.
Until recently, yes, it was a popular place for relaxing or romancing. But now it is well fenced and well guarded.
The only people you see on the grass are the security guards, the gardeners, or an occasional guest from the Sheraton Hotel, taking a stroll or doing a jog.
Or, especially on Saturdays, you will see wedding parties having their photographs taken – but they have to book with the hotel in advance and, presumably, pay a fee.
I chatted with one of the guards.
“Well, we have to protect you tourists,” he said, “we don’t want the bombings that are now happening in Nairobi.”
He seemed to have forgotten what happened on the night of July 13, 2010 when 74 ordinary and working people of Kampala were killed by al-Shabaab when they were watching the World Cup Final in a couple of city bars.
And, if you approach the Paradise Terrace from the park, you will find the gate securely locked.
You will be directed to the main door of the hotel, where you go through the usual screening.
But the screening in Kampala can be a bit cursory I found, especially if you are a mzungu.
At the narrow gate that leads into the Sheraton Park from the lower Nile Road, the guard waved his gadget down my left leg and it beeped as it passed my metal hip implant.
“What’s that?” he asked, as he pressed against my pocket.
“A handkerchief,” I said, just trying it on.
“Oh, OK,” he said, and he let me through.
But that is one narrow gate where a rich man finds it much easier to pass than a poor man ...
And the other statue? ... It is a much newer one. Before CHOGM – the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kampala in 2007 – there was a monument in the centre of the roundabout in front of the Grand Imperial Hotel. For months, the statue on top of its plinth was wrapped in black plastic.
The people of Kampala were guessing about who would be revealed when the plastic was unwrapped.
Some said it would be President Museveni; some even said it might be Queen Elizabeth, who would be opening CHOGM.
When eventually the wraps came off, it was no-one so controversial.
It was Edward Mutesa II, the Kabaka who became Uganda’s first President at Independence in 1962.
Though it was mainly a ceremonial presidency, he was ousted by his Prime Minister, Milton Obote, in 1966 – in an attack on the Kabaka’s Palace, led by the army chief, Idi Amin.
It was when I was taking a photograph of this statue that I was nearly taken off to the other Paradise ...
I was crossing the road when one of those thousands of boda boda motorcycles that plague Kampala these days came racing round the bend.
I decided to stand still so he could go round me. But at the last second, I had to sway aside like a matador, and the handlebar merely brushed the knuckles of my hand. I now agree with my Kampala taxi driver – the boda boda are a menace.
John Fox is iDC’s managing director