|Behind schedule and back down to earth in Entebbe.|
For the second year running the connecting Ethiopian Airlines plane was late leaving Addis Ababa. This year the delay occurred as a result of Yemeni airspace being closed because of Saudi Arabian airstrikes against Houthi rebel positions.
Having been lured into a false sense of security, sat around drinking buna with Jas in a haze of frankincense smoke, a call went out: “could all passengers for flight ET330 to Entebbe please board the plane.”
Gripped by a sudden sense of panic, we rushed to get through security and onto the plane, gathering students as we went, only to find we were not the last to reach the plane. After around fifteen minutes sat on the tarmac, a swathe of Ugandan passengers boarded.
I was sat writing in my journal, all the time being rhythmically elbowed by the woman in the seat next to me, when the man the other side of me started shouting, “Why haven’t you taken that man’s walking stick? It is a potential weapon!”
The old man in question hardly looked physically able enough to cause any real trouble with his stick and the Ethiopian air stewardess stood looking nonplussed. The man repeated himself a little louder and finally the stewardess acquiesced and took it away from the old man.
I understood his sentiments. I think.
After a few more minutes of writing, the man next to me took hold of his sick bag and wrote on it, “Where are you from?”
“London,” I replied audibly, not wanting to get into a strange written exchange. “And you?”
“I am a Ugandan,” he said proudly, “but I am travelling from Sudan.”
“No, from Khartoum. I am working for the United Nations there. I am a trained engineer in water and irrigation projects, and I’ve been working for the UN for seven years.”
The whole time that he was talking, he wrote down key facts like “Sudan” and “7 years” on to the sick bag; a strange form of subtitling.
I asked him where in Sudan he works.
“Darfur,” he answered. It is a name that for many months back in 2003 filled news bulletins because of vicious attacks by the Janjaweed militia and the resulting rise in internally displaced people.
As with so many other stories the media seemed to forget about it and moved on to new stories, taking the spotlight of attention away whilst people in the region continued to suffer.
I asked him what Darfur is like now.
“It is in a state of relative peace,” he answered, “but it is unpredictable. You can never be sure what will happen. I work there for six weeks at a time, protected by guards, then have a week off. You are never really sure how stable things will remain while you are there.”
I enquired about whether he has a family.
“I have a wife and two young boys,” he said, showing me some pictures of two cheeky-looking little boys posing next to a shiny new motorbike.
“Do they not worry for you?”
“Sure, but the pay is good and means that I will always be able to afford the best for them. If I worked in Uganda doing a similar job, it would not be the same.”
Eric, as I discovered his name was when I saw his official UN passport, is a good travelling companion. He waxed lyrical on topics ranging from corruption, to infrastructure and small businesses, often punctuating the conversation with critiques of the pilot’s flying style.
In no time at all, albeit one hour late, we arrived in Entebbe.
Upon disembarkation there was a new form to fill; the Ebola screening form. We then moved on to have our temperatures checked by what looked like a small white handgun before heading to immigration.
Here, almost as expected, two students were selected to be ‘screened’. Huda and Idil, both girls of Somali descent, were asked to wait in a separate area.
Armed with a full range of documents, I went with them to wait. Tash joined us and we presented the relevant documents to prove that the two girls are A level students, under-18 and that we were legally obliged to stay with them.
Our friendly yet truculent manner panicked the guards and immigration officers. They argued that they were just doing their jobs and then argued with each other over who could fill the forms in the quickest.
Their supervisor came over and said, “Get it done and get them out of here.”
He was clearly worried that our being there might expose something that the immigration service weren’t keen about us knowing, or simply that it might look bad.
When we were done, Tash asked, “What is the criteria for selection? Age? Place of birth? Name?”
One man answered, “Just understand it is a procedure. It is random. You don’t have to worry.”
I pointed out that I’d been to Uganda seven times and by the law of averages I should have been selected for screening by now.
A second man smiled. He knew what we were getting at.
“Sometimes it is best not to ask,” he said. “Different people have different profiles.”
That said it all really.
We proceeded to baggage reclaim, explaining to the girls that their first experience of being racially-profiled should be considered a learning experience. I think they understood this, even if it wasn't the perfect way to arrive.