aga khan is watching you

Since my ill-advised and much-regretted visit to Didi’s World, I’ve begun to notice the subtle omnipresence of Aga Khan in Kampala. This morning his kindly visage watched over me as I made my purchases in the local grocery store, and after lunch I saw an call for applications to the Karachi-based Aga Khan University in the New Vision. Now I’m sitting in the outdoor restaurant of his newest five-star hotel, the Serena, trying to unlock the mystery of this stately gentleman whose official portrait — swaddled in white, wearing a fez — is as prevalent as President Museveni’s.

Preliminary research (read: Wikipedia) has informed me that the Aga Khan, formerly Prince Karim Khan, was born on December 13, 1936 to Shia playboy Prince Aly Khan and Joan Guinness, the ex-wife of Guiness brewing fortune heir Loel Guinness. His parents divorced when he was 13, and his father later remarried Great American Love Goddess Rita Hayworth. Sexual intrigues of his parents aside, who is the Aga Khan? What makes him tick? And, above all, why is his picture plastered in every other commercial establishment in Uganda?

At the tender age of 20, Aggie rose to the position of Imam in an unprecedented generational skip. In his will, the Aga Khan III (Aggie’s grandfather) cited the discovery of atomic science as the main reason for choosing his successor. Why Aga Khan III chose young Aggie after taking such an interest in the upbringing of his son — even sending Prince Aly to Cairo brothels at the age of 18 to ensure that he attained a level of sexual prowess befitting the leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims — is beyond me, but the late Khan was not always known for his rationalism: his 1931 “If I Were a Dictator” speech proposed regular mandatory use for all world citizens of golf courses, tennis courts, cricket, football and hockey grounds as well as the recombination of African nations into five large states: Northwestern, Egypt, Sudan, Central and Southern (though “Natal, being so preponderatingly British, might be given the option to contract out”).

Aggie seems to have overcome some of his family’s eccentricities, though he shares his father’s penchant for beautiful women. In 1969 he married British supermodel Sarah Frances Croker-Poole, whose main claim to fame is the couple’s $78 million divorce 25 years later. He also owns the largest horsebreeding establishment in France, the intriguingly titled Aga Khan Studs, whose prize stallion Shergar the Wonder-Horse was kidnapped in 1983 by suspected members of the IRA (Aggie refused to pay the demanded £2m ransom, and the horse and his abductors were never found).

Though his horses and the whole overseeing the spiritual welfare of 15 million Muslims thing keep Aggie pretty busy, he still finds time for various other pursuits. His name graces the Aga Khan Development Network, which runs nearly 100 development projects in 26 countries and has a net worth of over $1 billion; he is also in charge of the most prestigious global architecture award, a network of five-star hotels throughout East Africa and Asia, two Canadian car dealerships and a world-record-breaking speedboat.

Some have questioned Aggie’s handling of the undisclosed amount of money he receives from Ismaili tithers each year, though the global consensus seems to be that the Aga Khan Development Network is among the most respectable, most effective development agencies in the world.

As for Uganda and why Aggie’s countenance smiles down upon me wherever I go, that question is still unanswered. I choose to view him as a benevolent Big Brother figure, trusting that whatever happens — whether I come up against a massive natural disaster or find myself in need of a $2500/night suite in Mombasa — the Aga Khan will be there for me, cheerfully helping me make the world a better place.

aga khan owes me one

After exhausting the locally available restaurant options and gorging ourselves on free wireless at the Speke Resort in Munyonyo, a friend and I decided to spend one afternoon of our three-day weekend (Happy Ugandan Independence Day!) at Didi’s World, an amusement park in Kansanga.

From the outside, Didi’s looks quite inviting, festooned with dual portraits of Mickey Mouse-as-Sherlock Holmes and Alvin and the Chipmunks. It’s not until you pass through the metal gates that it begins to resemble less a great place to take the kids and more Funland, home of sleezy mobs and bloodthirsty carnies.

The entrance hall is decorated with the requisite photo of Museveni (no surprises there) and a picture of a white man swathed in regally sparkling robes (what?). Upon inquiry, my friend and I learned the man was none other than British citizen/Imam of the Shi’a Imami Ismaili Muslims/enthusiastic horsebreeder/philanthropic developer Aga Khan IV. Ah.

The man in the center almost vomited on us.

Question answered, we purchased our admission bracelets for 5000 shillings (approximately $2.75) and forged ahead. The inside of the park was where the Funland-ness started to truly shine through: the six or seven rides were all eerily silent, and the only other visitors were a group of south Asian men, one of whom sported a mesh shirt and alternated between leering at and coming dangerously close to vomiting on us.

Slightly daunted but still wanting to make the best of our afternoon excursion, we hurried onto a pirate ship before we lost our courage. The first couple of back-and-forth sways were manageable, but then the operator stopped the ship to let on Mesh Shirt Man and his companions. We did the awkward, “Hello, how are you, we’re the only people here, isn’t that somewhat odd, haha” nod and then tried our best to ignore each other for the rest of the ride.

This was unfortunately not to be, as Mesh Shirt Man began making uncomfortable faces each time his end of the ship swung into the air. By the fifteenth pass, he was clutching his stomach and grimacing fiercely, leaning over the metal restraining bar and arranging himself so that his vomit, should he vomit, would land right in our laps.

My increasingly nervous friend and I clutched our own restraining bar, scooting to opposite edges of the ship to give Mesh Shirt Man’s vomit as wide a berth as possible. When the ride finally began to slow, we breathed a silent prayer of thanks and ran down the escape ramp to safety.

At this point, my traveling companion was ready to go. I was determined, however, to make full use of our entrance fee, and foolishly insisted that we go on one more ride: the relatively innocuous-looking MonoRail, a three-car train on a small round track in the middle of the park. He gallantly agreed to accompany me, and we ascended a flight of rickety stairs to enter our car. I deserve full blame for what happened next.

The second the rather lethargic operator closed the hatch, we realized that what I had hoped would be a pleasant, relaxing trip around the park was actually more akin to, say, a daytrip through the stage of hell reserved for Bored Idiot Expats Who Should Have Known Better Than to Spend an Afternoon at Didi’s World. The hot, stuffy car circled around and around as we grew more and more claustrophobic. The tinted windows offered nothing more than a hazy view of the top of the restrooms, and the operator was oblivious to our polite requests to, after our first trip around, “Stop, please, we’re finished,” and then, after our third beastly revolution, “For god’s sake, STOP! WE WANT OUT!”

We stumbled out of Didi’s World an unpleasant shade of pale green under our sunburned skin, desperately in need of water and vowing never again to visit an amusement park. Next weekend I’m staying in the village.


breaking news: Ugandan sportswriters rambling, histrionic

In their October 7 Daily Monitor article on the Ugandan cricket team’s disappointing performance in Kenya last week, Hussein Bogere and Innocent Ndawula manage to use all of the following phrases:

  • the angel of death who plucks out the heart of our loved ones
  • Uganda’s batting problems stand out like spilled gravy on a white sheet
  • wake up and smell the coffee
  • media hullabaloo
  • cricket Czars
  • for heavens’ sake
  • cry the beloved country

And they say Uganda has no literary culture.

helping women succeed: the legalization of prostitution in Uganda

Following Ugandan Parliament Deputy Speaker Rebecca Kadaga’s announcement in August that Uganda is considering legalizing prostitution, last week a group of sex workers increased the pressure on Parliament by petitioning to have their profession legally recognized. Students at Makerere University immediately responded with a counter-petition opposing the legalization of prostitution on the grounds that it would “corrupt moral and cultural values.”

Writing for the Rwandan New Times, Henry Lule claims that in addition to corrupting Ugandan society, the legalization of prostitution would encourage homosexuality, discourage population growth and lead to the legalization of “sex no matter what age.”

Those advocating for the legalization of prostitution argue that current laws do little to prevent prostitution and that establishing a system of regulation would serve to protect both sex workers and their clients. Legally recognizing prostitution would give sex workers who currently lack legal protections a recourse in case of rape or abuse (1) and pave the way for increased social services for these women; mandated health checkups and condom use would help prevent the spread of HIV and other STDs.

Though many women are forced into prostitution by extreme poverty (often caused by violent conflict and/or displacement), the truth is that for many women sex work is simply the most economically and socially viable career choice. Compared to most other jobs available to women, prostitution is lucrative, and working hours are conducive to caring for children.

Legalizing sex work does not equate to legalizing the exploitation of children or to expressing approval of unprotected sex or the spread of STDs. Rather, making prostitution a legal career would improve the status of sex workers in Uganda and help prevent disease. Instead of punishing women who often have few other economic options, the Government of Uganda should establish protections for them and enable them to live as securely and healthily as possible while working towards a future that provides more career choices for women.

(1) Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University. “Prostitution.”