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A bit over an hour into the five-hour drive across the ferrous red plateau, heading south toward Uganda’s capital Kampala, suddenly, there’s the Nile, a boiling, roiling cataract at this time of year, rain-swollen and ropy and rabid below the bridge that vaults over it. If Niagara Falls surged horizontally and a rickety bridge arched, shudderingly, over the torrent below, it might feel like the Nile at Karuma.
Naturally, I take out my iPhone and begin snapping pics.
On the other side of the bridge, three soldiers standing in wait in the middle of the road, rifles slung over their shoulders, direct my Kampalan driver Godfrey and me to pull over.
“You were photographing the bridge,” one of them announces, coming up to my open window. “We saw you.”
“Taking photos of the bridge is expressly forbidden,” the second offers by way of clarification, as the first reaches in and grabs the iPhone out of my hand. “National security. Terrorists could use such photos to help in planning to blow up the bridge.”
“Do I look like a terrorist to you?” I ask. “And anyway,” I shout as Soldiers One and Two walk off with their prize, oblivious, “I wasn’t photographing the bridge. I was photographing the rapids. The bridge was precisely the one thing I wasn’t photographing!”
To no avail. I open my car door and begin to get out—but the third soldier pushes me gently back and then leans into the window, peering amiably. “And besides,” I continue, “there were no signs forbidding such photographs. Anyway, if it’s such a big deal just give me back the phone and I’ll delete the photos. You can watch.”
I’m beginning to panic. As with most of us nowadays, pretty much my entire life is couched inside that bloody little device: contacts, calendars, hotel reservations, all my appointment coordinates for the coming days.
“Ah no,” Soldier Three smiles in a silkily practiced manner. “You are not to worry. This is not an affair about you. This is an affair between Ugandans. It is your driver who was at fault. He is a Ugandan, he should have known about our national security and how no one should photograph the bridge. Let them work it out.”
And indeed, when I turn around Godfrey is no longer behind the steering wheel. He’s with the other soldiers, remonstrating away. “Don’t you worry,” repeats my guy indulgently, a broad smile spreading across his face as if we are the best of buddies. “Give them time.” And then, as if to pass the time himself, he adds, “So, how do you like our excellent country?”
Minutes go by with Godfrey and his two interlocutors on the other side of the road, locked in fervent colloquy—much hand-waving, arm-flinging, rifle-toying, shouting, cajoling, and then smiling, even guffawing—until finally, fifteen minutes and $20 later, Godfrey comes ambling back to the car, climbs into the driver’s seat, and hands me the iPhone.