By Joachim Buwembo
Fire fighters battle a fire at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi on August 7, 2013. REUTERS/Noor Khamis
Because the fire at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) did not kill anybody, the usually compassionate Ugandans quickly started making fun of their neighbours. Though I happened to be in Kenya, I first learnt of the fire on Facebook when someone posted a suggestion for the daily poll question on a Kenyan TV station thus: “Do you support the decision by the fire to burn JKIA?” More was to come.
Commenting on a photo of uniformed Kenya security men carrying buckets to collect water for fighting the huge inferno, a Ugandan likened them to a man whose car goes missing so he starts looking for it in his trouser pockets. Then a popular Ugandan lady journalist posted that she hoped the Kenyans had had the sense to remove all those duty-free perfumes when the fire started. The jokes on Kenya went on until someone asked what options for landing and take-off Uganda had in case Entebbe International Airport caught fire. It was a sobering question.
Everyone knows that the answer is a big “zero.” But the humour remained, because Ugandans tended to treat aviation matters like a science fiction show directed by others in which they have no role. The running joke, which resurfaced after the Kenya fire, is that Kabaka Mutebi’s palace in Kampala city should be converted into an alternative airport to Entebbe. There have also been some comical debates about reviving the defunct Uganda Airlines, which was wound up 13 years ago after its fleet was decimated, with allegations of staff selling off some aircraft, and its profitable ground handling arm being given to politicians, leaving the company with only a name that no buyer wanted in the privatisation process.
Now, the self-deprecating anti-revival intellectuals argue that Ugandans simply don’t have the brains to run an airline. The pro-revival leaders only talk of the strategic importance of a national carrier without articulating a convincing business case. Besides the realisation that Uganda has no alternative to Entebbe, unlike Kenya, which has Wilson and Kisumu as well as the Eldoret and Mombasa international airports to back up JKIA, the other sobering thought is that Kenya Airways is Uganda’s main carrier and JKIA our main airport. Buses from Kampala to Nairobi daily carry many young Ugandans trafficking themselves to Asian destinations through JKIA.
Our jocular approach to aviation issues is rooted in history. After the 1979 departure of president Idi Amin who had given us Uganda Airlines in 1977, the national carrier started becoming a subject of jokes, starting with its code QU being interpreted as “Quite Unreliable.” When its last large aircraft crashed in Rome a decade later, common talk in Kampala was that there was a Ugandan mafioso deportee on board who had to be silenced before appearing in court. The official crash investigation report was almost equally hilarious. It said the Ugandan pilots rejected instructions by Italian aviation authorities to land at Leornardo da Vinci and insisted on landing at the fog-covered Fumicino airport for “commercial reasons.” The plane’s altimeter also malfunctioned, telling the pilot that he was still metres in the air as he hit the ground. So the true jokes of Ugandan aviation go on.
This article was originally published on The East African.