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Postscript : Reflections on Africa Revisited: Progress and Tragedy : After 14 years, Uganda and Eritrea are mending. Kenya struggles with overpopulation. And Rwanda's tensions explode.

August 02, 1994|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KAMPALA, Uganda — Some changes noted upon returning to sub-Saharan Africa after an absence of more than 14 years:

The last time I was in Kampala, Idi Amin had just been overthrown and the lobby of the Apollo Hotel was full of drunken Tanzanian soldiers who delighted in shooting out ceiling lights. The hotel had no food or electricity, and I drew my drinking water from a fire hose.

Today the newly renovated hotel is a Sheraton and a popular gathering spot in a city on the mend. Being able to direct-dial the United States from my room seemed truly revolutionary. A pianist played during dinner and the Nile perch was superior, even though it came from Lake Victoria, where the bodies of Rwandan massacre victims had been washing up on shore. I asked the waitress if South African wine was available and she said, "Not yet, but we'll have it soon."

The memories of my earlier time in Africa remain, and are often at odds with today's scenes.

* One of the first things most African nations did on gaining their independence was to start a national airline. The result was that Africa ended up with a gaggle of little carriers whose service and safety standards stunned even the heartiest of travelers. Kenya's former Atty. Gen. Charles Njonjo used to phone Kenya Airways on days he was scheduled to fly. If the pilot was a Kenyan, instead of an Indian or a British expatriate, he'd change his reservation.

Today I suspect Njonjo would be happy flying with a Kenyan at the controls because Kenya Airways, like a lot of other African carriers, is as good as any airline on the O'Hare-La Guardia run. Still, I was unnerved when the pilot announced over the intercom that we were flying from Nairobi to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, then added after a pause: "So far so good."

* Mile-high Nairobi used to feel like a large, pleasant country town. But Kenya never heeded warnings that its birthrate was out of control, and now Nairobi is starting to resemble Lagos, Nigeria--awash with too many people, too much crime and not much hopefulness.

I joined an African friend for lunch recently, and we talked about the future. He had been a strapping young journalist and aspiring actor. Now he was gaunt and wore a frayed suit. Four of his cousins had died of AIDS. He was out of a job and still bore the scars of two weeks' torture at the hands of the police. He had no idea why he had been picked up or why he had been beaten. Those things happen, he said without anger.

He asked me if I could give him $100, which I did. Why had things gotten so off track? I asked, and he replied with an evenness of tone that was unsettling: "Sometimes I wonder if Africans weren't born to suffer."

* After visiting Rwanda in the late 1970s, I wrote that despite a facade of stability, the country still seethed with tension and that the Hutu-dominated government had done little to foster equality for Tutsis. A government minister condemned the comment as ill-informed and said I would not be welcome to return.

I did return, for the first time, last month. The drive from Rusumo to Rwamagana was a chilling one: There were abandoned villages, looted shops, bloodied machetes. This had been Tutsi country, and now most of those who had lived along this road were dead.

* Eritrea, finally at peace after a 30-year war, is an appealing little country, though drought-stricken and very poor. A group of Eritreans gathered outside the library in Asmara on a recent morning. They were reading a notice taped to the window: The United States was holding a "diversity immigration lottery" that would offer legal residency to 55,000 foreigners. To enter, one had only to write a letter.

In the next month a dozen Africans--among them hotel doormen, waiters, cab drivers--gave me unstamped letters and asked me to mail them when I returned to the United States. It's a common practice in Africa, where the postal system doesn't work very well.

I didn't think much about them until I noticed that all were addressed to the National Visa Center in Portsmouth, N.H. Each contained a dream--to hit the lottery and win a better life in the United States.

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