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September 21, 2009

You are most welcome in Uganda

I haven't been to Uganda for three years, which I regret, because it's one of my favorite places in Africa. Kampala was the first African capital I visited, and its oft-remarked upon charms -- sun-kissed hills, laid-back vibe, freewheeling media, generally cool people -- made me think I could survive a long posting on the continent. "Africa for Beginners," I like to call it, even though this place, like others, is much more complicated than that. (Read the Economist's recap of the recent political unrest.)

I once rode with a taxi driver named Lawrence. He inverted his "L's" and "R's" -- a common linguistic quirk in Kampala -- so for several days I thought his name was Rawlings. It wasn't until we parted ways at the airport, sharing a warm hug, that he saw the way I'd misspelled his name in my phone. He looked ashen.

Before heading back to Kampala yesterday, I dug out Lawrence's number. I dialed it this morning and at the other end there was a very happy voice. I didn't even have to introduce myself. "I had given up on you!" Lawrence said. He'd saved my number, too.

So many people in Africa seem to save phone numbers of faraway people like me. It makes calls to onetime acquaintances feel like long-awaited reunions. A lot of correspondents are more judicious about handing out their numbers; mine are printed on my business cards, for better or worse.

Some people flash or text more often than you'd like, and once in awhile someone will find your number to ask for money. But usually the relationship remains pleasantly dormant until you turn up in country again.

After we arranged to meet this week, Lawrence said exuberantly, "You are most welcome in Uganda!" And I felt it.


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Somewhere in Africa was written by McClatchy correspondent Shashank Bengali, who covered sub-Saharan Africa from 2005 to 2009. He's now based in Washington, D.C., as a national correspondent.

Read Shashank's stories at news.mcclatchy.com or send him a story idea.


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