Bob Baker gives us another of his delightful – and in this case instructive – tales of USIS service in Uganda.
When I was a USIS officer at the US Embassy in Kampala, Robert was the Ugandan editor of a small circulation English language newspaper there. Bright, funny and friendly, he became almost a member of my family. He often had supper with us and sometimes spent weekends with us, dandling my two little kids on his knee. He often joined me and Paul Theroux for beers after work at the City Café. He had attended journalism school at Columbia and spoke almost perfect American English. He was a cousin of Patrick, King of the Toro, another friend who also came often to my home for meals and parties.
Robert wanted to start a “Letters to the Editor” column to discuss local politics. He admired such letters in American newspapers. He complained to me that nobody was sending in letters and asked if I would write a couple a week using fictitious African names. I agreed and was the leading light of the “Letters to the Editor” column for a couple months.
Bored with the anonymous job because it failed to elicit other letters, I wrote a final letter inspired by developments in Peking. Chairman Mao had recently organized Chinese youth into “The Red Guard” as the vanguard of Chinese communist reform (and repression). Next door to Uganda, socialist Tanganyika (whose railroad China had built) had just organized a Tanzanian youth group called “The Green Guards,“ emulating Mao’s nomenclature, but happily, not the political ferocity of the Red Guards. They had beaten and terrorized millions of Chinese at universities, secondary schools and just plain peasants who were denounced as politically unreliable.
My last “Letter to the Editor” took a nationalistic tone and demanded that Uganda form its own youth group. I suggested that Uganda organize “The Black Guards.“ My letter was printed as written, but received no comment. In all Kampala, only Paul Theroux got my joke. Blackguards (pronounced blaggards) are villains in British English.
One day Robert suddenly disappeared. His cousin, Princess Elizabeth of Toro, came to our house worried about him and asked for help. She fearfully told me and my wife that Robert was in hiding because Obote’s secret police were after him for printing something that made President Obote angry. She convinced my wife of this story. She even made me feel Robert had to be helped to escape Uganda. To check out her fears, I drove over to Robert’s apartment in the African section of Kampala. Sure enough, it was empty. Elizabeth told me that she had appealed to her uncle, Chief of Police, but he said he was powerless against the President’s secret police. He could not help Robert.
A couple of nervous days later, Elizabeth came to my house again and said Robert had contacted her indirectly and needed to escape. The worry that my young pal might be tortured by the secret police was wracking. My then wife said Elizabeth had a scheme to save Robert. My wife demanded almost hysterically, that I let her drive Elizabeth across the border into Kenya with Robert hiding in the trunk of my car. It bore diplomatic plates and could pass the border checkpoints without being searched. I rejected the idea as far too dangerous.
Elizabeth then proposed that I lend Robert about a thousand dollars in Ugandan shillings. With that, he could bribe his way out of the country. I went to the bank next day, cashed a $1,000 check into Ugandan shillings and gave my then wife the money to pass to Elizabeth for Robert.
I was very green and naïve. Over the next few days, when the tension died down, I assumed that Robert had bribed his way safely out of the country.
Robert’s cousin, King Patrick, got fat royalties from Uganda’s only copper mine on his tribe’s land. Driving around in a royal blue Mercedes flying his royal pennant, he or Princess Elizabeth could easily have given Robert the thousand bucks. My wife would have known that, too. Given the sinister atmosphere at the time in Uganda, it did not occur to me not to respond directly to a friend’s appeal for help. It was my first post. I was young.
About a week later, I spotted Robert drinking beer publicly at his old haunt, the City Café. I asked him what had happened. He laughed and turned away the subject of my loan when I asked for my money back.
I later discovered from Asian friends that Robert had disappeared because he owed so much money to various merchants and back rent. There had been no secret police threat. I saw him several times later and asked for my money again, but never got back any of my thousand bucks.
Some time later, after I was back in Washington, Elizabeth had to flee the country from real fear of President Obote. At that point he had abolished all the native kingdoms. King Patrick had fled to Kenya. Elizabeth arrived in Washington exhausted and broke. She stayed with us in my house for several weeks accompanied by a couple of her family members.
She and my then wife were close friends. When Patty left with me and our kids for my next post, Bamako, Mali, Elizabeth cried and brought several dozen of her relatives to wave goodbye at the airport. Elizabeth returned to Uganda after General Idi Amin seized power from President Obote. She became his Foreign Minister, but fell out with him after defending his rule at a U.N. session.
As a young woman in London Elizabeth had been a successful fashion model, appearing in Harper‘s Bazaar, Vanity Fair, and various British and French magazines. As a commoner, I did not even get back my $1,000. Black Guards was right, up and down the social scale.
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