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15 minutes with Lt. Col. Felix Kulayigye
Publish Date: Sep 05, 2009
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BY REBECCA HARSHBARGER

Travelling to the military headquarters in Mbuya to see the UPDF’s spokesman, Lt. Col. Felix Kulayigye, gave me a dramatic glimpse of Kampala.

As I moved up the hill by boda (who was impressed when I told him I was a munnamawulire), I was given glimpses of almost the whole of Kampala.

In the distance, I could see the suburbs of Kampala and the city centre's large office buildings, framed by both gray smog and Mbuya’s long vines of purple, fragrant flowers.

As we moved up Mbuya hill, the boda greeted a UPDF soldier we passed in Kiswahili, trying to confirm that the headquarters were up ahead.

Kulayigye had his own small, private building, right outside the headquarters’ premises, which were lined with long coils of barbed wire.

When we made the appointment to meet, Kulayigye had seemed friendly, and I came to the interview feeling relaxed.

There was no real reception in his building, and a woman wearing what looked like a cerulean blue flight attendant uniform greeted me somewhat coldly, giggling and shooting a pointed look at another woman, who stood in front of a small, TV, which looked like it dated back to the 1970s.

A man shrugged when he saw me and took me to Kulayigye’s office, where the spokesman was chatting with a curly-haired woman wearing a plain dress. As soon as we entered, the Kulayigye’s face twisted with rage.

Nervously, I gripped my notepad and began to ask if I should wait in reception.

“Of course you should wait!” he yelled. “I have someone!”

Yikes, I thought, and quickly stepped out and rushed into the informal reception area, where the women there glanced at me again, bored, and then began chatting.

Realising how angry Kulayigye seemed, I quickly began scanning my questions, hoping they sounded as professional as possible. Clearly, Kulayigye was a very serious man, despite his kind demeanor over the phone. When the man who initially led me to see the spokesman came back, he stood in front of me, quietly studying me. In a soft voice he said, “You may go now.”

I returned to Kulayigye, who apologised for his outburst. He is a short, chubby, but powerful man who seemed to exude both focus and aggression, from his eyes to the gruff words he carefully selected during our interview.

“Sorry about before,” he said. “The man was clearly confused!” I explained who I was, and he nodded.

We began to talk about the DR Congo, but phone calls and a brief visitor to his office interrupted us.

I looked around his office, waiting for our conversation to resume.

On his desk was a small but bright Ugandan flag, neatly displayed and a metal sign with his name and title.

There was a small pitcher of ice water and glass, as well as a DVD case from the Refugee Law Project, for the documentary Gender Against Men, about sexual violence and men in the Great Lakes region.

Framed on his office wall was a plaque displaying the different letters of his name, each with an adjective that describe him. For instance, F is not just for Felix, but for freedom fighter. The e in his name stands for experienced.

Experienced freedom fighter, I thought. Quite a description!

For most of our interview, we spoke about the troubled violence in the region, and how it dated back to the colonial period. “It is a disturbed neighborhood,” he said.

“This region has been affeceted by insecurity as a result of internal conflcits, from bad governance in some countries to ethnic conflicts.”

I appreciated the fact that Kulayigye named two of my favourite books during university, King Leopold’s Ghost and In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, in understanding the violence and conflict in the histories of Rwanda, Congo, Burundi, and other countries.

Clearly, the man had an intellectual side that gave him an advantage in his career with UPDF.

“What’s going on now is a current phrase of an old problem in the DR Congo,” he said. “The country had only 3 graduates when it got independence in 1960. The minerals there have been a curse.”

As an American journalist, I was immediately interested in finding out more about the UPDF’s relationship with the US army. “They have been working with us since the early 1990s,” he said icily, frowning at me as he looked at the newspapers in front of him. The Red Pepper, Weekly Observer, and Bukedde on his desk.

“They provide logistics, operational intelligence, and training in anti-terrorism and peacekeeping operations. They are helping the military to build its capacity.”

I tried to find out more about the LRA’s recent activities, but Kulayigye was cool when I asked about their movement in the DR Congo and Central African Republic.

“How can I speak about another country?” he said, when I prodded him with questions.

“That is a question for the Congo. Do I represent the Congo?” Throughout the interview, he barely glanced at me, preferring to scan Bukedde headlines.

Each question I asked seemed to slightly irritate him, but maybe I was being too sensitive.

Despite feeling timid, I tried to sit up straight and talk to him in a confident, calm manner, as Kulayigye went through the day’s papers.

When the interview was over, we chatted a bit about Saturday Vision; Kulayigye was a fan of Dr. Love’s columns, and he said he really enjoyed reading them.

I mentioned a website about gender issues I used to write for in the US, and Kulayigye told me he hoped to write for it, which happily surprised me.

The thought of my former editors in New York editing a commentary by Kulayigye on gender delighted me and he promised to send me an article, which I promised to forward on.

UPDF spokesman and journalist? I thought. All right!

Our goodbyes were brief. We exchanged business cards, and I took some photos (he put away the papers for a snap).

I returned by boda back to the main road, studying the military headquarters in the receding distance as we roared down the hill’s tarmac road.

I couldn’t help but think how lucky I was to have such an exciting life in Kampala, thousands of miles away from home.

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