“I ask not for a lighter burden, but for broader shoulders.”-Jewish Proverb
A sharp red line across the bottom of the TV in the hotel lobby catches my eye and distracts me from scrolling through my phone. Big white letters are flashing on the screen: Security warning for all westerners in Kampala.
I rub my eyes; I can’t be reading this right. I was just in Kampala last week and I’m supposed to be going back there tomorrow. My knees suddenly weak, I walk so close to the screen that I just about push my forehead through it. As I squint at the blur of pixels, the channel suddenly changes. I turn and stare at the concierge behind the front desk like I am going to kill him. I’m watching this. What part of me standing here with my face pressed against the screen suggests I’m not watching this?
I shout at him. He quickly apologizes and says he was only trying to help out by turning up the volume. I immediately feel like an idiot. Tension and stress make fools of us all.
When he flips back, a short stout Ugandan man dressed in green fatigues is on screen.
“Americans may be targeted for terrorist attacks in Kampala. The military has received information of possible threats at city locations where Westerners are known to gather. It’s possible that an attack may take place soon. Events planned at Kampala hotels have been cancelled.”
He clears his throat and then says with determination, “now is the time for Ugandans everywhere to be vigilant!”
Gruesome images flash across the screen. Dead bodies. In 2010, a double suicide bombing in Kampala’s club and restaurant district killed 76 people as they watched the World Cup final. The attack was carried out by Al-Shabaab, the Islamic militant group that’s based in Somalia and has ties to Al-Qaeda. This same group is the one that’s promising another attack.
Footage of Al-Shabaab appears. They’re marching in orderly rows like a well-oiled platoon, ready to kill. Each member is dressed in dark green fatigues and black combat boots. Black masks cover their head and face, leaving only their eyes exposed. Most have machine guns in each hand and wear extra machine gun shells around their shoulders and waist, like ghoulish suspenders. Black flags wave in the background with their logo and Arabic letters emblazoned in white. They look absolutely terrifying.
They want revenge against any country that participates in the African Union Mission to Somalia. AMISOM, as its known, was formed to support a transitional government in Somalia and to help train Somali security forces and to deliver humanitarian aid. As part of its duties, AMISOM also supports the Federal Government of Somalia’s forces in their battle against Al-Shabaab.
The images on screen make my stomach churn with a deep, deep fear that I didn’t know existed.
There is no pit in my stomach the fear just keeps going down through my legs and courses into my toes. A woman that was killed by the blast in 2010 is shown slumped over a white plastic picnic table. I won’t ever be able to unsee that. I can’t look at the screen any longer; I shield my eyes and listen. I can’t take this.
The inner enemy I’m constantly fighting is crippling enough. The doubts, the fears, the incessant questioning of my writing, filming and photography talents, or lack thereof. And then there is this broken heart that I’m trying to mend. Trying to do anything with it is next to impossible. It hurts so much that even bending over to tie my shoes sends a pang through it.
And as if dealing with all that isn’t already hard enough, I’ve been separated from my passport so even if I wanted to leave Uganda and fly to safety I couldn’t. I had to mail it back to the United States in order to get the visas I need to enter into Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.
I’ve quickly learned that when traveling overland, you can’t just show up at the doorstep of a country with a passport and a smile and expect to be let in. So with two weeks or so left to wait in Uganda before I can expect to get my passport back I now have to deal with this blood thirsty terrorist group that’s looking for Americans in the city I’m headed to. And at 6 feet 9 inches tall, with long hair and a tattoo that runs down my left arm, I don’t exactly move through Africa – or anywhere for that matter – without being noticed.
A gust of wind whips through the hotels open doors and into the lobby. I feel the most alone I’ve ever felt. Not lonely, just alone. Like I am the only person on the entire African continent besides all the members of Al-Shabaab.
Of course, I’m not the only person here. I’m not even the only American. According to the Association of American Residents Overseas, there are around 90,000 Americans living in sub-Saharan Africa. Note the word “living,” which factors out people like me, just passing through. What’s it like to actually be a resident, when anti-American sentiments seem to be at an all-time high?
The term “anti-American” first showed up in Webster’s dictionary in 1828 and was defined as “opposed to America, or the true interests or government of the United States; opposed to the revolution in America.” It’s easy to point towards recent events that have poured fuel on these kinds of flames – the Gulf War, the occupation of Iraq – but how does it affect the vast majority of Americans like me, who have no connections with the military or American political foreign policy? What’s our role in all of this? For the fanatics, this is an irrelevant question – we’re Americans, so we’re guilty.
And because Uganda is nestled between two of the most politically unstable countries in Africa, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, violence and fighting outside the bubble of anti-Americanism can spring up along the borders, making these areas unsafe for Ugandans and tourists alike.
However – a little context. Americans may be frowned upon in some areas of Uganda, but prior to 1986 it was equally dangerous to be a citizen. The Ugandan Bush War (1979-1986) claimed a truly appalling 300,000 casualties. Thankfully, since President Museveni seized control in 1986, the country has become relatively politically stable, and a destination for the adventure, eco-minded and cultural tourists like me. Tourism is helping the country’s economy get back on its feet, which helps fight poverty. Much has changed, and is changing still – and modern Uganda has now become a viable option for travelers.
And knowing all this, right now? It doesn’t help a bit.
I’m immediately skeptical of everyone in sight including the concierge who just tried to help me; it feels like Al-Shabaab knows my location and is on the way to ambush my hotel.
Even if they don’t attack, they’ve won, I’m afraid. Actually, forget that, I’m petrified. And that’s the thing about terrorism that really pisses me off; it’s about fear and intimidation. Their goal is to target people like me, a civilian, when all I want to do is travel across Africa overland and share my work in creative ways.
I stand in silence until the news ends and is replaced with a Mexican soap opera then I slowly climb up the steps and back to my room. I feel weak, leaden with horror. I inch past a group of Ugandan woman talking loudly in the hallway, go into my room and bury my head in my hands.
This feeling is starting to become all too familiar.
Not only does Uganda participate in AMISOM – so does Kenya and Ethiopia, the next two countries I need to cross if I want to make it out of Africa. And this doesn’t even account for the current dangers in the two countries after that – Sudan and Egypt, both towering mountains of risk.
Everything I’m trying to do is starting to pile up, and the weight of my world is crushing. I stare at the fan in the corner of my room and watch it go round and round and consider my choices. How much does this dream of mine really mean to me? Is it really worth it to risk my life in order to keep going?
My bus is scheduled to leave for Kampala early in the morning.
I have the night to decide.