US & World

Dispatch from East Africa: Glimpses of Chinese interest in Uganda

KPCC’s Shirley Jahad is traveling in East Africa on a Ford Foundation Fellowship from the International Center for Journalists, where she's exploring the push by China and others for uranium, oil, rare earth metals and more in the region. Shirley will be sending back stories and observations as she travels in Uganda and Tanzania. View more of this series

It’s hard to get accurate information about China’s activities in Uganda. But those who welcome it say they like it because it is tangible; the evidence is in front of you. There are roads and buildings to show for it, they say.
This is one of the buildings China built in the city center of Kampala.

It's the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. China built the building that houses all the offices of diplomacy for Uganda.

China is also just finishing this one:

It’s the new building for the executive offices of the president and prime minister of Uganda. China built this twin tower that will house the executive branch of government in Uganda. This photo is taken from far away because armed guards out front will stop you from taking a picture of it. One armed guard who threatened to take away my camera told me that it is for security reasons.

Uganda has reason to be sensitive about security; in July 2010 the militant Somali group Al-Shabab carried out bombings that killed 74 Ugandans watching World Cup matches. Al-Shabab is angry that Ugandan troops have supported the Somali government.

But some things are far less clear. Right across the street from the almost-completed executive office building is this:

You would never guess what’s behind the tin corrugated wall. The Chinese construction crew building the president's offices lives here, right across the street.

I step through a narrow opening of the tin fence to take a look.

There's one man wearing a t-shirt with the Chinese and Ugandan flags on it in a kind of show of unity. He seems friendly enough but shy. Another worker with a playful disposition convinces him to let me take a picture.

The Chinese crew lives in these low-rise barracks with construction materials all around, while they work on the modern high rise across the street. To make things more pleasant and healthy, you can see they have created a small vegetable garden in the middle of their hidden-from-view home and work

Its unclear how many people live in these barracks -- maybe 15, maybe 50 or more. They say they don’t speak English, except for one young man who gets excited and says he listens to public radio when I ask to talk with him.

Right then a Ugandan armed guard with black boots, camouflage uniform and military rifle comes in, talks tough and tells me to leave. He acts like he might arrest me. We walk back toward the gap in the fence. He demands my official papers. Luckily, I just spent the better part of the day and over $100 getting my Ugandan media accreditation. I hand it to him and just keep talking, trying to cool things down. He stops and examines my media card. He absent-mindedly rocks the nose of his rifle gently, back and forth in his hand while the rifle butt rests on the ground. As we are out of view of the Chinese workers, he starts talking. He says the Chinese are doing a lot of projects but you never see them. The workers are always behind tin fences like this one. He says it was one of them who called him in to have me removed. I say, “But one of them did want to talk with me. That young man over there,” I say. “Ask him!” So the guard, who has completely shifted his stance, now goes and gets the 27-year-old Chinese worker. His name is Xiang. He wears shorts and a t-shirt like a Southern California college kid and says he’s a site supervisor. With the enthusiasm and sincerity of a Peace Corps volunteer, he tells me he came to Africa for a bit of adventure, and to help the Ugandan people. He says he has been here living in this space for two years so far. And he misses home.