I APPLAUD a young Ugandan lady called Eva, whose second name I do not know and whose face I have never seen. All I know is that she is female, a Ugandan, and once lived in Beijing while studying something.
She now lives and works in Uganda at a location I will not reveal because I am not absolutely certain of it and have not secured her permission to do so – because I do not have her contact details.
Because she was a good Ugandan during her time in China, she saved me quite some difficulty last week by way of happenstance.
I normally go about on my travels wearing t-shirts boldly emblazoned with the Uganda flag for a number of reasons; top on the list is that this gives me an opportunity to start up a conversation about Uganda in which I get to stress the many good bits of my country.
It never fails, and during five days of travel last week I enjoyed many opportunities ranging from the hilarious to the deeply earnest.
There was the morning I was walking out of the breakfast room and a New Zealander pointed at me and shouted, “Hey! Uganda!”
He had me in a tight embrace before I could overcome my alarm, and standing together arm over shoulder he explained his excitement at seeing my tshirt with the Uganda flag right across the front.
“I am the Honorary Consul of Uganda to New Zealand!”
The odds were not high. He doesn’t spend all his time in Beijing so the opportunity to discuss Uganda with a Ugandan on a random morning in a country that was not New Zealand could not be allowed to go by.
Basil J. Morrison had many good things to say, of course, and asked about a few of his friends back home. Later in the day, atop the Great Wall of China, I bumped into Basil J. Morrison again – and with the same excitement as at breakfast, he spotted me easily in the crowd because of that t-shirt and his affinity for the Ugandan flag.
The one involving Eva, however, was the most surprisingly pleasant.
On our way back out of the country we got a one-hour window between official events to swing by a shopping plaza. Just one hour, mind, and nothing more – including the time it took to disembark, get a meal, dislodge from the group and fight off the eager shop attendants all saying, “I give-o you good price-o, my brother! Come-o here!” The Chinese people seeking to give me merchandise in exchange for currency were ready to have me as their sibling, such is the pull of commerce in Beijing.
In the melee, one of my colleagues went off with my phone power bank. My phone being down to 2% meant I would be marooned if plans changed and nobody could reach me by phone to re-direct me to a different rendezvous point – a contingency we had agreed had to be avoided at all costs, and against which we had prepared by securing Chinese-registered SIMs.
It was on the top floor of the Plaza, at the food court, that I came across Eva’s name. Opting to pick up a quick meal to walk and eat with back to the rendezvous, I went to the food court and placed an order with the fellow there.
After taking my order, he pointed at the flag on my t-shirt and said quite confidently: “Uganda!”
I was surprised.
Some minutes before that another fellow had pointed at the very same flag and said, “Ethiopia?” I shook my head and told him, “No. Try again?”
And he went, “Ummmm…” so I said, “Read this!” pointing at the word under the flag that said ‘UGANDA’.
“Ghana?” he went, till I made him actually read it properly (vehemence without violence) and then found myself in a farcical conversation in which a Chinese man claimed all Africans looked the same and a Ugandan man informed him that all Asians looked the same, and so on and so forth till he succumbed.
Back to the food court, I later learnt the young man who so clearly identified the flag was called Yang and is from Mongolia. When I asked how he knew the Ugandan flag so well he said, “I have friend in Uganda.”
Impressed but short on time, I sent him off to complete my food purchase and picked up the conversation when he returned. His friend was Eva – and he proved it by showing me his WhatsApp conversation with her (‘Eva@Uganda’). The conversation was recent (I did NOT read the messages though!).
Sensing a window of opportunity, I asked him if he could charge my phone and he very readily said, “Yes! iPhone? I have.”
When the food arrived, I stuck around a little bit to give the phone time to charge up a bit, and eventually he joined me clearly seeking more Ugandan contact.
I asked him if Eva had been his girlfriend and he unabashedly said she wasn’t, just a good friend. They met when she was in Beijing and she was kind, helpful and generally a good friend.
“Ugandans are good people,” Yang said, and sat down with me for part of my meal, disrupting my novel-reading window somewhat and even learning a new english word (“ludicrous”) out of the first page of my Bill Bryson.
The 20% battery charge Yang gave me, because of the kindness of Eva’s gentle Ugandan heart in Beijing, went a long way in ensuring the rest of my journey went according to plan. Eva’s being a good Ugandan also made me proud to be a Ugandan wearing the Ugandan flag out in public thousands of miles away from home, and for that, I applaud her and all people like her!
See, in the early days of this t-shirt policy the first response I received was, “Idi Amin!” proclaimed proudly by people emulating half-wits recovering from a decade-long coma and doing a form of cognitive stimulation test where they had to respond to pictures. Later, the responses always followed a political path that somehow still led back to Idi Amin.
Last week, thanks to people like Eva and other good Ugandans out there, I spent five days going through Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, and in Beijing, China, and back, and not once was Idi Amin mentioned.
Even the people who couldn’t sustain a conversation in English had a way about it – like the fellow who pointed and proclaimed, “Uganda!” and responded to my, “Yeah! Beautiful country. Have you visited?” with “Kampala.”
“Er…so have you visited?” I asked, hoping this was a lead into a conversation as the lift doors opened.
It wasn’t. He pointed at himself, in his indeterminate but well-stitched suit and tie, and said, “Algeria!”
I smiled widely, knowing he didn’t have the English for this, and said, “Yeah, but we have better climate, better hospitality, and much better t-shirts! Come and visit Uganda!”
I hope when the Algerian googles the phrases he finds the last bit stands out: “Come and visit Uganda!”
Thank you, Eva!