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Even before he ran a step in the Olympics, John Akii-Bua was amazing. As the other finalists in the 400-meter hurdles stared blankly down at Munich's dried-blood-red track, grimly adjusting their blocks and minds for the coming ordeal, Akii danced in his lane, waving and grinning at friends in the crowd. Then, when it was over, after he had won the race in world-record time and kept on going past the finish, barely slowing while his victims slumped and dry-heaved on the infield, right then an attendant came over to take him to the doping test. The organizing committee had not allowed time for victory laps but the crowd was on its feet, calling, and Akii heard. He eluded his officious pursuer by bounding over a hurdle and then he floated down the backstretch, clearing each hurdle again, a crimson and black impala leaping joyfully over imaginary barriers where there were no real ones, creating one of the few moments of exultation in the Olympics. And after the Games had ended, on notes of violence and regret and disgust, it seemed that Akii-Bua most symbolized what they might have been. He seemed a man eminently worth knowing.
But John Akii-Bua lives in Uganda, which is even more beset with troubles than the Olympics. In an attempt to unify a country rift by tribal factions and economic crises, the xenophobic president, General Idi (Big Daddy) Amin, conjured up a mixed bag of scapegoats. Forty thousand Asian residents, branded "economic saboteurs," were expelled. Invasions from neighboring countries have been periodically announced. The Ugandan chief justice disappeared. Two weeks before I arrived last month, foreign journalists were accused of espionage, rounded up and pitched into a Black Hole of Calcutta jail. In rapid succession General Amin praised Hitler's treatment of the Jews, said Tanzania had invaded, and had four roadblocks erected on the 21-mile stretch of road between the capital, Kampala, and the airport at Entebbe. His army, which has a reputation for loose discipline and drunkenness, was given license to shoot anyone who did not identify himself at once, and to conduct vigorous searches for firearms entering and Ugandan currency leaving the country. If all this weren't sobering enough, I could always consider Uganda's crocodiles, black mambas, malaria.... As my plane banked in over the swampy expanse of Lake Victoria, the pilot came on the intercom: "To the left is a phenomenon which might be of interest to some passengers. That cloud of reddish-brown smoke above the water there is not smoke at all, but billions of flies, hatching out of the lake."
Stepping from the plane I was seized by a smiling, animated Akii-Bua. Dressed in gray slacks and a Commonwealth Games T shirt, he gave an impression of greater bulk than when seen running. His features are fine, almost delicate, and his complexion very smooth. His eyes are small, allowing his face to be dominated by perfect white teeth. He swept me through customs with a single telling phrase—"This man is with me"—and we got in a National Council of Sports car and started up the worrisome road to Kampala. Akii chuckled at my fears.
"This is a land of rumor," he said with a loose gesture that seemed to include all of East Africa. "I don't know why. We get enough news. But the rumors still fly. Last week everybody ran out of Kampala because rumormongers said there was fighting at Entebbe. There was none. I think you will find Uganda a peaceful country. Just maybe a little nervous."
The road, which ran through thick tropical foliage, was lined with black, yellow and red bunting and freshly set banana plants. The next day was the 10th anniversary of Uganda's independence. Dignitaries were arriving. The roadblocks had been cut to two, manned by soldiers bristling with automatic weapons. When we pulled up at the first, the sight of Akii transformed the dour men of war. They became schoolboys who flocked around the car to shake his hand, saying, "You did very marvelous in the Games. Thank you."
"Thank you," said Akii, and we were on our way. "It's easy," he said, "see?" I also saw a carload of Asians looking on forlornly as soldiers ripped through their belongings. Akii read my thoughts.
"The army is worse in the countryside and near the frontier. There they speak no English, not even Swahili, only tribal dialects. You can't compromise with them. They kill you like that."
There had been a crush at the airport, and we encountered more busloads of Asians coming out from Kampala. "Do you agree with making them leave?" I asked.
"Asians are not good people to me," he said. "I am not educated. I do not know much about economics. But Asians stay off to themselves. They don't want to mix with black people. Once in a busy restaurant the only place for me was at a table with three Asians. When I sat, they all went away from there without eating. I don't like that. So I don't care much if they leave the country."
We climbed through rich, red soil. "That hill there," said Akii, pointing out a slope covered with bamboo, pawpaw and tall serene trees he called kalitusi, "reminds me of home in the north. Look, do you know cassava?" We slowed by a roadside stand and he showed me the staples of Uganda: millet, sweet potatoes, beans, maize, bananas and dry, white sticks of cassava root.