In this season of infection, the stock market little more than a twitching corpse, in an atmosphere of alarm and despondency, I am reminded of the enlightenments of the strict curfew Uganda endured in 1966. It was, for all its miseries, an episode of life lessons, as well as monotonous moralizing (because most crises enliven bores and provoke sententiousness). I would not have missed it for anything.
That curfew evoked — like today — the world turned upside-down. This peculiarity that we are now experiencing, the nearest thing to a world war, is the key theme in many of Shakespeare’s plays and Jacobean dramas, of old ballads, apocalyptic paintings and morality tales. It is the essence of tragedy and an occasion for license or retribution. As Hamlet says to his father’s ghost, “Time is out of joint.”
In Uganda, the palace of the king of Buganda, the Kabaka, Mutesa II — also known as King Freddie — had been attacked by government troops on the orders of the prime minister, Milton Obote. From my office window at Makerere University, where I was a lecturer in English in the Extra Mural department, I heard the volleys of heavy artillery, and smoke rising from the royal enclosure on Mengo Hill. The assault, led by Gen. Idi Amin, resulted in many deaths. But the king eluded capture; he escaped the country in disguise and fled to Britain. The period that followed was one of oppression and confusion, marked by the enforced isolation of a dusk-to-dawn curfew. But, given the disorder and uncertainty, most people seldom dared to leave home at all.
The curfew was a period of fear, bad advice, arbitrary searches, intimidation and the nastiness common in most civil unrest, people taking advantage of chaos to settle scores. Uganda had a sizable Indian population, and Indian people were casually mugged, their shops ransacked and other minorities victimized or sidelined. It was also an interlude of hoarding, and of drunkenness, lawlessness and licentiousness, born of boredom and anarchy.
“Kifugo!” I heard again and again of the curfew — a Swahili word, because it was the lingua franca there. “Imprisonment!” Yes, it was enforced confinement, but I also felt privileged to be a witness: I had never seen anything like it. I experienced the stages of the coup, the suspension of the constitution, the panic buying and the effects of the emergency. My clearest memory is of the retailing of rumors — outrageous, frightening, seemingly improbable — but who could dispute them? Our saying then was, “Don’t believe anything you hear until the government officially denies it.”
Speaking for myself, as a traveler, any great crisis — war, famine, natural disaster or outrage — ought to be an occasion to bear witness, even if it means leaving the safety of home. The fact that it was the manipulative monster Chairman Mao who said, “All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience,” does not make the apothegm less true. It is or should be the subtext for all travelers’ chronicles.
The curfew — three years into my time in Africa — was my initiation into the misuse of power, of greed, cowardice and selfishness; as well as, also, their opposites — compassion, bravery, mutual aid and generosity. Even at the time, 24-years-old and fairly callow, I felt I was lucky in some way to be witnessing this convulsion. It was not just that it helped me to understand Africa better; it offered me insights into crowds and power and civil unrest generally, allowing me to observe in extreme conditions the nuances of human nature.
I kept a journal. In times of crisis we should all be diarists and documentarians. We’re bound to wail and complain, but it’s also useful to record the particularities of our plight. We know the progress of England’s Great plague of 1665 because Samuel Pepys anatomized it in his diary. On April 30 he wrote: “Great fears of the sickness here in the City it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all!” Later, on June 25, “The plague increases mightily.” And by July 26: “The Sicknesse is got into our parish this week; and is endeed everywhere.”
A month later he notes the contraction of business: “To the Exchange, which I have not been a great while. But Lord how sad a sight it is to see the streets empty of people, and very few upon the Change, jealous of every door that one sees shut up lest it should be the plague — and about us, two shops in three, if not more, generally shut up.”
In that outbreak of bubonic plague, spread by rat fleas, a quarter of London’s population died.
My diary these days sounds a lot like Pepys’, though without the womanizing, snobbery or name dropping. The progress of the Covid 19 pandemic is remarkably similar to that of the plague year, the same upside-down-ness and the dizziness it produces, the muddle of daily life, the collapse of commerce, the darkness at noon, a haunting paranoia in the sudden proximity to death. And so much of what concerned me as important in the earlier pages of my diary now seems mawkish, trivial or beneath notice. This virus has halted the routine of the day to day and impelled us, in a rare reflex from our usual hustling, to seek purification.
Still writing gives order to the day and helps inform history. In my journal of the Ugandan curfew I made lists of the rumors and tried to estimate the rate at which they traveled; I noted the instances of panic and distraction — there were many more car crashes than usual, as drivers’ minds were on other things. Ordinary life was suspended, so we had more excuses to do as we pleased.
My parents’ habits were formed during the Great Depression, which this present crisis much resembles. They were — ever after — frugal, cautious and scornful of wasters: My father developed a habit of saving string, paper bags, nails and screws that he pried out of old boards. The Depression made them distrustful of the stock market, regarding it as a casino. They were believers in education, yet their enduring memory was of highly educated people rendered destitute — “college graduates selling apples on street corners in Boston!” My mother became a recycler and a mender, patching clothes, socking money away. This pandemic will likely make us a nation of habitual hand-washers and doorknob avoiders.
In the Great Depression, Americans like my parents saw the country fail — and though it rose and became vibrant once more, they fully expected to witness another bust in their lifetime. Generally speaking, we have known prosperity in the United States since the end of World War II. But the same cannot be said for other countries, and this, of course, is something many travelers know, because travel often allows us glimpses of upheaval or political strife, epidemics or revolution. Uganda evolved after the curfew into a dictatorship, and then Idi Amin took over and governed sadistically.
But I’d lived in the dictatorship and thuggery of the Malawi of Dr. Hastings Banda (“Ngwazi” — the Conqueror), so Uganda’s oppression was not a shock. And these experiences in Africa helped me deconstruct the gaudy dictatorship of Saparmurat Niyazov, who styled himself “Tukmenbashi” — Great Head of the Turks — when, years later, I traveled through Turkmenistan; the Mongolia of Jambyn Batmönkh, the Syria of Hafiz Assad, the muddy dispirited China of Mao’s chosen successor, Hua Guo Feng. As for plague, there have been recent outbreaks of bubonic plague in Madagascar, Congo, Mongolia and China, producing national moods of blame-shifting and paranoia, not much different from that of Albert Camus’s “The Plague.”
We’re told not to travel right now, and it’s probably good advice, though there are people who say that this ban on travel limits our freedom. But in fact, travel produces its own peculiar sorts of confinement.
The freedom that most travelers feel is often a delusion, for there is as much confinement in travel as liberation. This is not the case in the United States, where I have felt nothing but fresh air on road trips. It is possible to travel in the United States without making onward plans. But I can’t think of any other country where you can get into a car and be certain at the end of the day of finding a place to sleep (though it might be scruffy) or something to eat (and it might be junk food). For my last book, I managed a road trip in Mexico — but with hiccups (bowel-shattering meals, extortionate police, bed bugs). But the improvisational journey is very difficult elsewhere, even in Europe, and is next to impossible in Africa. It is only by careful planning that a traveler experiences a degree of freedom, but he or she will have to stick to the itinerary, nagged by instructions, which is a sort of confinement.
In fact, most travel is a reminder of boundaries and limits. For example, millions of travelers go to Bangkok or Los Cabos, but of them, a great number head for a posh hotel and rarely leave: The hotel is the destination, not the city. The same can be said for many other places, where the guest in the resort or spa — essentially a gated and guarded palace — luxuriates in splendid isolation.
The most enlightening trips I’ve taken have been the riskiest, the most crisis-ridden, in countries gripped by turmoil, enlarging my vision, offering glimpses of the future elsewhere. We are living in just such a moment of risk; and it is global. This crisis makes me want to light out for the territory ahead of the rest. It would be a great shame if it were not somehow witnessed and documented.
Paul Theroux’s latest book, “On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey,” was published in 2019 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
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