British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Simon Templer
A Matter of Understanding
Kampala, 1961
The young Customs Officer sat at his office desk within the Custom House in Kampala, Uganda. He was ploughing systematically through the paper work which had come in for his attention. It was all very orderly. From time to time an office messenger came in with a pile of correspondence which he deposited in the officer's 'In Tray' and at the same time collected up all the paperwork which had accumulated in the 'Out Tray' for distribution to various other offices within the building. Routine stuff, the product of a long established and efficient colonial governmental system. Once or twice a week the officer would get ahead and find that he had some time on his hands before the next round of the messenger, in which event he was able to spend time studying the Laws and Departmental Procedures in anticipation of his promotion bar examination later on in the year. There were three distinct advantages to such practice; firstly, if anyone came into the office he was seen to be busy, secondly, actually gaining useful knowledge and thirdly he was not having to use up his own precious after-hours time in the study work.

The afternoon was typically hot and sticky and the collar of his white uniform tunic was stiff and uncomfortable as usual. Oh for half past four when he could go home. There was a knock on the door. The office messengers did not knock so this had to be someone else, probably one of the clerks from the outer office. The officer called out the usual invitation and indeed, there was one of the clerks together with a European man standing behind him. They shuffled in and the clerk explained that the accompanying 'gentleman' had a problem which was too difficult for the public counter outside to deal with and with that smartly withdrew.

The Customs Officer sat the visitor down in the chair opposite and invited him to explain his problem. It appeared that the newcomer was a Belgian but normally a resident of the former Belgian Congo. That country had achieved its independence from Belgium not long before and had very rapidly degenerated into civil war and general anarchy. Those Europeans who had stayed on in the country were obliged to flee for their lives and a considerable number were unsuccessful. Now here was one more who had managed to get away and made his way into Uganda, then still under British Administration, and so 'safe'. Over the last few weeks there had been a steady trickle of such refugees and they would travel on through Uganda and Kenya until they reached Mombasa where they would take ship for Europe with what little they had with them.

So far as the Customs Officer was concerned, it was merely a matter of regularizing the man's entry into Uganda because he had had to use unauthorised back roads and tracks to enter Uganda, thereby bypassing the official frontier post where all formalities were normally conducted. These were exceptional times so a blind eye had to be turned upon the illegal journeying of the refugee. In any case, it was good of the man to report in at all; many had not, only to fall foul of the Customs people further on, including the Immigration Department, who were a quite separate authority. Those were intolerant colonial days when penalties were handed out without hesitation to the defaulters.

The Belgian refugee rambled on with his dramatic story of how he had only just managed to escape from the Congo in his pickup truck with guerillas just behind him all the time and practically no personal possessions except for a very few, also in the truck. His command of the English language was very poor and his accent was dreadful. In fact so bad that it was not at all easy to understand him. He was asked to make a formal declaration of what he had with him and it appeared from what he said that there was only the pickup truck itself and a very few personal and household possessions for he had had to abandon almost everything else he had over there in the Congo, such had been the urgency of leaving alive. The guerillas had been close behind him all the time.

The Customs Officer felt that despite the communication problem he had managed to absorb the gist of the refugee's story; it was not so different to that of many similar stories told by such refugees who had appeared recently with a few basic personal possessions to show. Fairly routine stuff. The refugee would have to be issued with a fourteen-day entry permit for his motor vehicle, assuming it was registered in the Congo, and the rest of his personal possessions would be free of any restrictions anyway. They would have to be checked for firearms and any other restricted imports, but the chance of finding anything of that sort was extraordinarily unlikely for the refugees well knew that they must not antagonize the British Administrations in East Africa if they were to enjoy safe passage through to the sea port of Mombasa.

The form-filling and rubber-stamping was concluded and all that remained was to go outside and examine the refugee's truck and personal effects. There it was, a thoroughly muddy but quite good truck with some large wooden crates on the back. The Customs Officer had half expected to find the odd bullet-hole, but there were none. Presumably the Belgian had managed to stay well enough ahead of the guerillas to be out of range or, more likely, they were just appallingly bad shots anyway. He thought that the refugee had nevertheless managed to pack up quite a lot of his household stuff, presumably the valuables, before he fled so had managed better than many. He peered into the driving cab and made a note of the indicated mileage run up so far (it was an American left-hand drive vehicle). Then he asked the Belgian to open the bonnet so that he could record the engine number and chassis number. All correct. The front number plate conformed to the registration papers as expected.

Now the crates in the back had to be inspected and possibly opened. The Officer hoped that the man had tools for it was his responsibility to do the opening if required. In that way if anything got broken or lost the owner could not lay blame upon the Department; in the ordinary course of events the Customs could look but not touch. The refugee had not suggested that there was anything of interest other than his personal possessions which he had just managed to load, with all those guerillas close behind him. The Officer moved round to the rear of the truck and gazed up at the three of four large crates. Then he stood staring in amazement. Each crate contained a young live gorilla. No false declaration had been made and suddenly the Uganda Game Department needed to know.

map of Uganda
1963 Map of Uganda
Colony Profile
Uganda Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 92: October 2006