gulu rebuilding through wine and cheese

In Shadow of the Sun, his literary montage of more than 40 years as a reporter in post-independence Africa, Ryszard Kapuscinski writes of the incredible ability of people in violent areas to continue with their daily lives as if war were nothing more than a mild natural disaster. I am amazed by the resilience of many of the Ugandans I have met, both those who have been affected by one or more of the many armed conflicts this country has seen since independence and those whose lives have been touched by other, less violent tragedies: the death of a parent, HIV, extreme poverty.

The people I know have carried on through things I think would have destroyed me, and whether it’s because of a difference in our hometowns and cultures or if, under similar duress, I would remain just as persistently alive, I don’t know. I don’t know if there’s some innate sense of how to feed one’s family that exists in the widowed mothers-of-many who sell avocados and cigarettes to passersby on the streets of Gulu, or if I, too, would find a way to subsist were Kansas ever to erupt into war.

At the same time, though, there is a difference between surviving and thriving.* The tenacity of street vendors and roadside cobblers is admirable and inspirational, but it is not necessarily the sign of a vibrant, secure economy. Which is why I was pleasantly surprised, on my last visit to Gulu, to discover an abundance of new bars and restaurants.

Josh already talked about the wave of construction washing over the city, but this is something more: the growth of the entertainment industry, I think, is an even greater signal of the growing security in northern Uganda. Several years of relative stability have convinced Gulu that it’s time to rebuild — not only in terms of microbusinesses and village huts, but also in terms of permanent establishments dependent on a clientele that can now, finally, afford a little leisure.

One of the flashiest examples is Bambu, an upscale (entrees are 10-15,000 shillings) outdoor restaurant across the street from the Bomah Hotel/Restaurant/Health Club that serves, among other things, wine and cheese. The presence of cheese in Gulu is itself a rather remarkable development, but less someone argue that Bambu is less a sign of Gulu’s return to stability and more of a growing NGO presence directly related to the conflict (admittedly, it caters to the expat crowd), allow me to present The Embassy.

Near the market, The Embassy is literally a hole-in-the-wall — if you don’t know where you’re going, it’s easy to miss the tiny, duck-your-head entrance to this local hangout. The bar bears witness to its recent construction: sawed-off boards and chicken wire are stuffed into a crawlspace behind the tables. This, combined with the blacklights and full-size cardboard man inside the door, can contribute to a vaguely haunted-house atmosphere. Still, the drinks are cheap, and the pool tables and music — country, believe it or not — make The Embassy popular with everyone from average Gulu-ans** to young development workers to Northern Uganda Peace Forum ambassadors.

Bambu and The Embassy are joined by a handful of new local restaurants, a local dance club that is rumored to rival the legendary Havana, and a general sense of wellbeing and optimism. It’s a little trite to equate a new bar with hope, I know, but I’m taking these places as a good sign.

*I like “survival and thrival” better, but Webster’s tells me thrival isn’t a word. Should be, don’t you think? [back]

**Gulu-ers? Gulu-ites? Citizens of Gulu Town? [back]