In Snakepit, Isegawa returns to the surreal, brutalizing landscapes of his homeland during the time of dictator Idi Amin, when interlocking webs of emotional cruelty kept tyrants gratified and servants cooperative, a land where no one–not husbands or wives, parents or lovers–is ever safe from the implacable desires of men in power. Men like General Bazooka, who rues the day he hired Cambridge-educated Bat Katanga as his “Bureaucrat Two”–a man too good at his job–and places in his midst (and his bed) a seductive operative named Victoria, whose mission and motives are anything but simple. Ambitious and acquisitive, more than a little arrogant, Katanga finds himself steadily boxed in by events spiraling madly out of control, where deception, extortion, and murder are just so many cards to be played.
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In the Air
Bat Katanga did his first and only job interview inside a military helicopter, the missile-laden Mirage Avenger, owned by General Samson Bazooka Ondogar. In the years to come, his first impression of the machine would repeat itself in his mind like a leitmotif. The thing looked surreal, the spinning blades like whirling knives, the sun’s rays its only decoration. The military-green colour gave the monstrosity the look of a toad, some creature made for children to play with, or to dump things in. He had the sense that it would not take off, or if it did, that it would drop them in the lake. It reminded him of his return from Britain a fortnight before. Entebbe Airport had been empty, his plane the only plane on the tarmac, aside from the Learjet belonging to a famous astrologer. Since the coup, air traffic had dried up, except for the weekly Libyan and Saudi flights which brought supplies and a few intrepid passengers. For a moment, it felt as if the Avenger had been dispatched to take him to exile.
He remembered waking up early that morning with the feeling that his life was about to change in some major way, and showering for a very long time, as if shedding his skin, and putting on his best suit. He remembered leaving his friend’s house with the belief that the time had come to rise and face his destiny. It was as if the ground were shifting, making things rock and vibrate. He remembered arriving at the Parliament Building and standing at the gate, in the shadow of the massive statue of Marshal Amin Dada. The statue resembled the hundreds of its replicas stationed in towns all over the country. He remembered the big dark Boomerang 600 which picked him up, the door held open by a soldier, and dropped him at the Nile Perch Hotel.
On the way to the hotel the events of the past weeks had rolled through his mind. A month ago he had completed his post-graduate degree at Cambridge University in Britain and decided to return to Uganda to seek his fortune. So much had happened during his time away. Fifty thousand Indians and 180,000 Africans from different countries had been expelled, leaving many places open in the civil service. It seemed that flag independence was giving way to economic independence, and he wanted to be part of it. He remembered the euphoria and uncertainty which had marked his arrival, the application letters to government ministries and parastatal organizations, and the encouragement from family and friends. Now he was on his way to meet the Minister of Power and Communications in the sanctity of his favourite toy, the Mirage Avenger. It looked almost too good to be true. He remembered exiting the car and walking on the red carpet to the steps, the wind in his face, all kinds of thoughts in his mind. Inside, he walked through a corridor to a comfortable compartment. The background was dominated by a huge portrait of Marshal Amin making the salute, huge fingers jutting, the medals on his chest shining. There were files on a table, a battery of golden Parker pens, a black telephone, and a general’s woolen hat.
Suddenly, General Bazooka’s imposing frame obstructed the light. He had emerged from another compartment and stood erect in an immaculate uniform adorned with medals, a gleaming holster at his side, a swagger stick in one hand. He measured Bat up for one long moment before stepping forward, bending a little and gripping his hand in a crushing handshake which was meant to show him who the boss was. He sat down with a grin on his face, commented on the fine weather, patted his hair, strapped himself in the seat and gave the order to take off.
“I am sure that we are going to have a very good working relationship. You can tell a man by the way he shakes hands. First, I am taking you on a tour. If at the end you are unimpressed, then I will interview somebody else. But I have never been wrong in my estimation of a man.”
“Thank you, General.”
The Avenger took off precariously, like a creature off balance. It veered to one side, then the other, making the shrill noise of a tormented beast. Bat looked out and saw the city fading under him, reduced to a patchwork of coloured roofs, cut by the road network, dotted with treetops. A church steeple loomed in the distance, menacing like a spear sharpened to impale condemned sinners. For a moment he thought about the astrologer’s Learjet and he wondered whether the man had also been interviewed in the air. From what he had heard about the sensational spread of astrology in the country, and the evidence of it he had seen in the newspapers, he concluded that if astrologers built churches the skyline would be crowded with their spires. His mind wandered and he remembered stories about British tycoons who held business meetings in private jets, aboard yachts or from inside golden coffins. It struck him that the General might be playing at that kind of eccentricity in a bid to impress or intimidate.
“The most beautiful city in the world,” the General said emphatically as if anticipating stiff opposition.
Bat did not agree, but said nothing. He looked out the window as if to confirm his views.
“Do you know why? It is because I own a fifth of it. I own a fifth of everything in this country. That comes down to about four million people, ten million fishes, two thousand crocodiles, twenty islands and much more. You can imagine the feeling. There is nothing like it, I can assure you,” he said, looking outside for a long moment, as if to make sure the city was still there, a smug smile on his face.
On any other day, Bat might have panicked, but today he was determined to succeed and was not going to let anybody stand in his way. A man who openly boasted about owning a fifth of the country could be managed. All it took was studying his ways, finding his weaknesses, and going around him.
“Right now I am looking for somebody who is hungry and dedicated. Loyalty is paramount and disloyalty a cardinal sin. This government hates half-measures, I can assure you. You have it all or you lose the whole lot. You are either in, or out in the cold. It has taken me twenty years to get where I am and I like it. If you are ready to work hard, I guarantee you the fulfilment of your dreams,” he said sombrely.
“I intend to do all I can for the good of the ministry,” Bat said, looking the man in the face.
“I am flying you to Jinja to the source of the Nile. It is where I grew up. It is also my headquarters.”
Bat opened his mouth to say something, but the General cut him off.
“Flying makes a man a god, I can assure you. It is only from above that you can appreciate the taste of power and the size of the job at hand. As the boss of the Anti-Smuggling Unit, I deal with smugglers. Aided by the CIA, Kenya is destabilizing our country by encouraging those bastards to ferry coffee to her borders. They use my islands as their bases. I am going to crush them all and pin every dung fly on a stick up the ass. Where do you come into the picture? By taking care of business at the ministry,” he said, pointing at Bat with a very long finger. “When everything is running smoothly, I will concentrate on cleaning out my islands. I have given those bastards enough time and warning. From now on it is going to be shoot first, ask questions later. There are undermining our economy. They want to ruin us. Do you know that Rwanda is now listed as a coffee-exporting country? Whose coffee does it export? Our coffee channelled through Kenya. I believe that the time has come to take the war to the Kenyans. I am going to ask the Marshal to authorize me to bomb some of their islands. Take the responsibility for the ministry from me and see what I will do.”
“I will do my job to the best of my ability, General.”
For the first time that morning Bat felt relaxed and he started to enjoy himself. I have a job, I have a job, I have a job, he said under his breath. My dreams are about to come true. My gamble on returning home is about to pay off big-time. He made quick calculations in his head and realized that his financial worries were over. He felt so excited he wanted to scream out loud. He could hardly wait to get started.
“Most intellectuals are abandoning us, I can assure you,” the General began. “I am sure you have met some of them in Britain. I am not intellectual. I don’t understand what they think and I don’t care. I am interested in results, facts. Do you see the Owen Falls Dam below us? And the famous Nile? Some intellectuals say that this is not the source of this river. That it begins somewhere in Rwanda. What difference does that make? It is splitting hairs, I can assure you. I expect you to keep this dam running, supplying us with electricity at all times. Every time the power fails in my home, I will hold you responsible. I want you to keep the phones working, the mail delivered. I am not interested in details, but in results, progress and commitment. It is a mess in the ministry and nobody knows what to do. I place all those educated and non-educated bastards in your hands. You are free to fire anybody, any time, anywhere. If anybody gives you grief, report him to me and the bastard will lose his neck, I can assure you. My trust never comes cheap. Earn it.”
“You can rely on me, General.”
Bat did his best to appear calm and collected, but behind his mask of seriousness he was savouring this moment. The river Nile looked so white, so glorious as it pushed its way north through the rocks, bushes and forests. Lake Victoria beckoned in the distance. He experienced a moment of pure contentment. Here in the air, with no troublemakers in view, with the power to hire and fire faceless minions, it felt wonderful. He could wave his wand and all the backlog and the mess at the ministry would froth away. He hadn’t been this happy in the last two years. Everything seemed to have been building to this moment, his triumphant entry into the bastions of power.
“If you have any questions, call me. Bureaucrat One, your immediate boss, can answer some questions. But he is just a figurehead. You are the one I will be watching. The tour is over. A mountain of work is awaiting you at the ministry, I can assure you.”
The helicopter dropped the General at the headquarters of the Anti-Smuggling Unit and took Bat back to the city. He savoured the luxury and wondered what Damon Villeneuve, his only British friend, was doing. Damon wanted to become a politician and had asked him to stay in Britain. But Bat had known that Britain would make him wait for years if it was going to yield success to him. He wanted to return home where jobs were waiting, where he would be somebody, where his expertise was really needed. He had wished Damon much success. He thought about Mr. and Mrs. Kalanda, the friends who had put him up for the last two weeks. There was another friend, a professor at Makerere University. They were all going to have a big drinking party. Now that he had a job and good prospects for the future, he felt even closer to them.
The Avenger landed behind the Nile Perch Hotel. Bat could see soldiers in the distance keeping guard, patrolling the grounds. His eyes swept over the beautiful greens, the well-tended trees and hedges. He liked this hotel, its four floors, the laid-back greyish colour and its aeroplane windows. Heads of state, ambassadors and foreign dignitaries had slept there. He might also spend a night there some day, for the hell of it. He didn’t like the sight of soldiers, but this was a military government. He would have to get used to them. The fact that he had just been with a general made him feel a degree of contempt for these privates and corporals and sergeants whose futures looked bleak, whose lives meant little. The fact that he was not a politician filled him with confidence. I am indispensable, yes I am. Each successive government will need my services. All I have to do is do my job well.