A Yellow Cab driven by a tiny African man named Bale pulled up to the curb and the Air Port Taxi authorities pointed me to his taxi. I threw my stuff in the back seat and we headed out to the hotel. I was in Canada this week. It's a long ride to town and I had once again climbed into the cab of a man who had lived to see his country change from a calm pastoral British protectorate to a boiling horrible dictatorship.

His didn't happen in six years. His happened in four months.

"Where you from?"


"How long have you been here?"

In a thick accent he answered,  "about 24 years."

"What brought you here?"


Bale was a child born of two tribe's people marrying. His father was a Gandan, the main ethnic population of Uganda. His mother, an Acholi. When he was born, this union was allowed in Uganda. But when Idi Amin took power in a coup in 1971, Ganda/Acholi marriages were forbidden.

"Acholies (sp?) and Gandans married before my parents. Who cared? Suddenly, something no one cared about....ever...was this big deal. Suddenly, my parents were being hounded for loving each other and raising a family. Idi Amin made the Acholi a target. Gays too were also not allowed to marry."

"So he went after Gays immediately?"

"Immediately." He looked me in the eyes through his rear view mirror. He shrugged, and then suddenly realized he didn't know where I stand on the topic.

"I hope I didn't offend you...."

"Not at all friend," I told him. "Not at all. So you saw Idi Amin."

Bale started talking and I started writing.

"He called himself President for Life and His Excellency Field Marshal. He said he was a doctor. Dr. Idi Amin Dada. You know he was completely koo koo. He had syphilis that had never been treated. He was so cruel. He was the cruelest man in the world."

"He hated Gays. He hated Jews. He hated Christians. Before him we had a mildly talented pro UN leader named Oboti (sp?). Amin was actually very loyal to Oboti but later overthrew him."

"The worst part was how fast it swept down on us all. I mean in my province, Acholis and Gandans and Lugbaras (sp?) lived around each other, no one had any problems with other clans that needed gunfire to solve. You understand? The worst part was one day they came and they started yelling at my father, these thugs. That he was married to an Acholi. My father's brother started pushing the soldier and they beat him with their rifles. Right there in front of his house."

He looked back at me. "The worst part is that the neighbors were not looking, they acted like they didn't see what was happening. These were the same people who we danced with and sang with and cooked with. It was so sad. So very sad."

"Did your uncle survive?"

"That beating he survived. Eventually they came back and pushed us away from the village. They finished him off when they returned."

"How did he get so powerful?"

"Well he was already powerful. But he rose to power by dividing people. You know he been with Kings African Rifles, and old British regiment. He learned military stuff really well and so when he was living somewhere and he was angry with someone, he would get ten guys from a competing tribe to go get him. You understand?"

"What do you mean competing?"

"I mean they hate each other since before time. The Tutsi and the Hutus...you know these?"

"In Rwanda? Yes."

(Ahead of us traffic had stopped completely. A fender bender and a few closed off lanes effectively meant that I would miss my meetings. The next half hour was me on the phone moving meetings around.)

"OK Bale. I'm done here. The Zulus in Rwanda."

"Yes. They hate each other since before a single white man put a foot in Africa. Amin recruited armies of Lugbaras to kill Acholis. He was good at that. And he was a big man. Very strong. Very intimidating. He had an army of thugs. Very soon, he used them."

"I could not understand how my friends who I grew up with, even my brother, would start agreeing with his thugs and his policies. I could not believe my brother who said one evening to me "What do you care about the Acholies?"

" `Your mother is Acholie', I told my brother."

"So? That means I should want more Acholies in my neighborhood? They stink. Mom is different."

"I was so upset. How could my brother act like this? Because he was afraid and id not want to be on the side of the weak."

"Amin's Lugbara thugs came into the town square and danced and recruited for Amin. They pushed Acholies around. Yelled taunts at them. By then though, we were packed, ready to go. I saw my half Acholi brother dancing with the thugs in the square. My father had borrowed a small Russian truck, it was waiting engine running."

"We are leaving," I yelled to him.

"He did not turn. I never saw him again. Dad went back into the square to try and get him but came with blood on his head. He said nothing. And that was that. I never laid eyes on him. Never heard a thing and have no idea if he is alive. You understand?"

"What do you think about Bush?"

"Bush is a dictator. Did I offend you?"

"No. What makes him a dictator?"

"You cannot joke about killing him. Hell even under Amin we danced and sang death songs at him. He had a hotel complex that he tortured people in. The difference between Bush and Amin as far as that goes is that I knew where my relatives were being tortured, and no one knows exactly where the Americans are torturing their victims."

"Do you believe we are doing horrible torture to thousands or to a few?"

He thought about it and said "Is there any difference? My experience is that once torturers begin torturing, the torturers have a hard time stopping."

That really upset me. I persisted. "Seriously, do you think we are torturing thousands?"

He took his time. "They won't let you see one dead soldier. Even under a flag they won't let you see it. They don't tell you the truth about anything. They lie lie lie. My experience tells me this. I don't really know. But if I had to guess, I would guess that your government is doing the worst things you can possibly imagine. Liars are lying because they cannot tell the truth. When I see Bush speak, I don't see a stupid man as you do and many others. I see a man who is too shamed to tell the truth. He has caused so much pain and knows it, but if he admitted one little bit of it, it would come crashing out like a dam. You understand? Bush is in a lot of pain."

We pulled up to the hotel, I asked him to park and waved off the bellhop.

"What do you think will happen to America, Bale?"

"What do you mean WILL happen? What hasn't happened yet? You torture in secret. You invade for what? The government reads your e-mail and listens to your telephone and makes you take off your shoes and pull out your computer. For what? Who do you need to protect yourself against? Is your computer going to attack you? Who should you be afraid of? Your government is more scary to most people than any terrorist. I feel for you really. Because I don't think you have any idea how far down the road you already are."

"So you think we are already at a dictatorship," I asked.

"I think you are far worse than a dictatorship. You are in a dictatorship but most of the population is still living in another time. Once America was the cat's meow. The problem isn't so much your government. It is your population. Here you are have lost so much in freedom, so much in prosperity and so much in reputation, and you have to ask me if you are living under a dictatorship," He answered a call for a pick- up. "I will have to leave. There is a passenger across the street. But I will leave you with this. Dictatorship looks different to everyone. Some of them are disguised and people can't see past the disguise. In China, it was years before anyone questioned why they all wore the same close. In America, if you are rich or conservative, dictatorship can be very pleasant. You understand?"

"I understand," I paid him, and thanked him.

"Do you think I should flee America?" I asked him.

"I fled mine," he answered.

He gave me his card. I doubt I will ever see him again.

I wrote this three days ago. Since, I met a Guatemalan cabbie who had a pretty good story, but this Ugandan, who came to Canada to be free, like so many others around us, he has been through this before. He sees the signs and recognizes them from his childhood. It's hard to feel good about America  when you hear stories like this. But I have learned more from cabbies than I ever learned from a pundit. Hope this cautionary tale scared you as much as it scared me. UPDATE: What else he talked about. He aid he felt that the Cold War hurt Ugandans. Because there were always Egyptian, and Cuban and Russian military personnel trying to curry favor with the Ugandan government. One day he said thousands of AK-47s showed up at the train station, but next day then were sent somewhere else. He had hardly scene an armed gendarme before that moment. He talked about some of the kinds of tortured Amin would do, but they sounded only slightly worse to me than waterboarding. I didn't even get the satisfaction knowing someone else did worse tortures. He said also that in his opinion all governments repress someone. "The right wing Christian who believes everyone should worship Jesus will always feel put upon by a secular government. The secularist will feel the oppression of a Christian government. A free society has to have a certain number of enlightened people to be free. Only a real Christian can live with non Christians. Fanatics cannot live with anyone who disagrees with them and are so condemned to unhappiness. Because who can really live life to the demands of a fanatic? And for how long? Do you understand this?" That's about it. I have a few more notes but the more interesting things he said are down. As for me? If Bale is right, and there has to be certain threshold of enlightened people to create real democracy, then believe that there are not enough enlightened people in America to sustain an enlightened democracy. That said, it won't matter who is elected. The tyranny will only differ by degree.

Originally posted to Maccabee on Fri Sep 29, 2006 at 10:31 AM PDT.

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