A POSSIBLE NEO-COLONIAL ADVENTURE

Staffan Boije av Gennäs

A possible neo-colonial adventure
- We want to help you, but we want to own you





Scrambled Eggs, Coffee, and Bitching at the Jinja Nile Resort


"I asked for scrambled eggs….", an American woman is complaining to her husband, "and look what I got…this!"
And he replies, "No, those sure don't look like any scrambled eggs".
And I'm thinking: Why do all my clichés about Americans have to prove themselves right again and again and especially today?
It's my second morning in Uganda, and I'm trying to see through the mist of all my African preconceptions… and in the company of my American breakfast neighbours, who, with each comment, is cementing my world view more and more thoroughly, it is not getting any easier.
It's very early, I just finished my first cop of coffee, knowing that if the bus ride today will be as bumpy as the one the previous day, it will be very rough.
The husband to his wife "And the coffee!"
His wife "Tell me about it!"
And I can't help wondering if there isn't a bit of joy in the couple's mockery of the eggs; if it's not their thing to go on in this way, if it's not what nourishes their relationship. An encounter with bad eggs, and their day is made! Not a bad choice of kicks and lifestyle!
Amusing but strange. But hey, it's probably only the tip of the ice-berg in relation to what this day will carry in all its length.
Okay, unusual things happens quite often, so you shouldn't be surprised that they sometime do.
How about this for strange: in some hours we will arrive in a distant village where the inhabitants have been asked to take part in an art project.
Yes, it might sound like an average day in the contemporary western art world. But, no, not the typical question for the villagers to wake up to that particular morning: "Say what!" "Well, an art project: If you add an extra middle name, Hornsleth, to your other ones, you'll get pigs, sheep or goats, maybe two…as payment" "Huh?" "…and we'll take a photo of you, too." "Okay, photos, I see, you had me worried there for a while, thought you were kidding me or something… but this extra name how does that enter the picture? "That extra name. well, you see in western art… … …"
How's that for strange? Strange for them, and rest my soul strange for me. Thank God I'm only the biographer.
While thinking this, I see the sun rising over the Nile, the Ninja Nile Resort, the bungalows and the swimming pool. A waiter refills my coffee cup, and one of the crew's photographers, Jon, passes by and says that the bus finally has arrived. I'm thinking that "finally" is a bad word, and that it's too early in the morning to judge people on their taste in eggs–but I still do, and I can't help smiling inside because I feel I've figured out their thing. And, yes, it makes me feel superior to the couple.
A security guard is passing by with an old rifle over his shoulder. Cool! Or maybe I should say that he looks cool. I'm smiling to him, hoping that it will make me appear less as an arrogant tourist and more as a friendly fellow, he smiles back at me. There is a lot of his kind, armed guards, around these somewhat exclusive establishments. Does he expect a bandit attack from the Nile or from the woodlands behind? Last night we had seen a group of monkeys attacking the resort in search for remains from the day's human activities. Supposedly, they came up from the Nile side by swimming and jumping on rocks, the Nile is not a slim river. And then with full stomachs back across the river again, quite impressive!
If I have to get out of here, fast, I'll use the same path.
The bitching couple are still going strong. Now, if I told this couple that I'd been paid by an artist to write about his project We Want To Help You But We Want To Own You or The Hornsleth Village Project, what would they say?
As republicans they would probably think the title was too honest, that it could do with some disguise. If democrats, they would look for an ironic angle in the title, but finally end up not laughing.
And me? Was this a fun gag, an ironic parody of contemporary art or a serious project with interesting political implications? Not being tuned as much as Hornsleth towards media spectacles I felt a bit worried. I was not sure what this would lead up to. I had noticed the same feeling of unease under the surface of my travelling companions; was this really something that we ought to have gotten into? In many ways this project was more serious than many of his previous, but had he, somewhere in the process stepped too hard on someone's toes?


Black Mambas and Community-based Art

We had met up in Copenhagen Airport at 4.30 in the morning–all in all six grownups and two kids. It's a time of the day when you're not very interested in socialising.
The expedition's producer, Peter, complained about not having had or having made time to eat. According to him "There is time!" But Hornsleth, the artist and director behind this adventure, held back. Maybe because he'd promised us to take care of us during the trip, food and all. But sandwiches for eight at Copenhagen airport are another ballgame than sandwiches in Uganda. And according to Hornsleth the trip wouldn't start until the plane took off. There was irritation in the air.
Peter finally left to tend to himself. With him gone his son, Carl-Fredrik, got going.
"Are there lots of Black Mambas in Africa?"
"I think so." The answer came from one of the two still-photographers, Jon, the youngest of us, and maybe because of that, not so touched by the early hour, and judging from his appearance a person friendly towards wildlife and the outdoors.
"I mean where we are going, are there Black Mambas there?"
"Well I don't know. We have to ask someone when we get there, or Christian ornsleth's first name] might know, he's been there before."
"Christian, is there…"
"Hell yes!"
"No, stop kidding, I'm serious, are they the most poisonous snakes in the world?" He was very excited, but at the same time serious, strange. And he somehow seemed to enjoy his frustration.
"Hell yes! Do you want to take one home to Denmark? I'm buying."
Imagine that the words 'Black Mamba' can come as a relief and a welcome icebreaker. The two words soon pushed out all speculations about getting breakfast for free and what was really stipulated in our contracts. And it erased the thought of the threat of having to ask one another about life and careers. Something that we ought to do at some point soon, as few of us had met before.
But now logistics started kicking in and we found common enemies in things like metal detectors and flexible gate numbers.
*
Besides Idi Amin and The Lord's Resistance Army, the name of the airport we had landed in two days earlier, Entebbe, was one of few things that really had made its way into my Ugandan namedropping chart. Once, in the 1970s, PLO had forced a high-jacked plane to land here. As I remember it, filled with Israelis. The name, Entebbe, had existed in my memory since childhood, and only knowing that I'd land there carried its own excitement.
I'd brought a book on Idi Amin and an issue of ARTFORUM, the May one. The book on Idi Amin was by one of the few surviving ministers from his time in office, Henry Kyemba. It was my preferred choice of reading. I had hopes it would bring some hints about the high-jacking story. Instead it gave me some unexpected cultural insight; this thing with surnames, it turned out to be a recently new thing in Uganda, something that started up as a European inspired fashion, or maybe colonial heritage. And with this more relaxed relation to names… could that mean that adding Hornsleth to their present ones was not that big of a deal for the villagers? That is, compared to us who'd lived with this naming culture for quite some time?
And, I smiled while thinking this. Did this mean that Hornsleth and his art would lose its provoking edge when landing in Entebbe? More investigation into this issue was required.
"Does your hotel have a swimming pool?" I looked up from my book and memories. And there were two sisters, somewhere between six and eight, that had been raking the aisles of the airplane, making conversation with anyone at hand. "Well I certainly hope so. But I can't remember if I can swim, it's been a while since I tried it, can you?"
"She can swim!" The younger of them said, pointing proudly at her sister.
They told me that their parents were going to a conference on big monkeys, gorillas, somewhere in Uganda. But no, they didn't find that exotic in any way.
"Do you like monkeys?"
"I am only allowed to swim when my mummy or daddy is with me. But it's very warm in the water in the pool so I can play a very long time before I have to get up."
What fascinated them was clearly having fun in luxurious environments, rather than nature. But the excitation from the thought of the pool finally burned them out; soon they dozed of, one after the other, some seats away, and I was left to my destiny, meaning having to engage in my art magazine. My trip–as apposed to the sisters–was, after all, not all about having fun. There was this article on Community Based Art in it: THE SOCIAL TURN: COLLABORATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS [178-183]. And, believe it or not, this Hornsleth project– despite the fact that he has been labelled, by some people, the guardian of political incorrect art–seemed to have some of the ingredients to qualify it under the heading THE SOCIAL TURN and the category of Community-based Art.
I had already skimmed the article once, it was by a Claire Bishop, and quite well written. A highlighted quote in pink said: 'The discursive criteria of socially engaged art are, at present, drawn from a tacit analogy between anticapitalism and the Christian "good soul." In this schema, self-sacrifice is triumphant' [p. 182, May, 2005].
No, Hornsleth was not aiming to claim that 'good soul' and certainly not the playing on anticapitalism. Indeed, it was more the structure of the community- based artwork I was reading up on in relation to him; the kind of art where an artist together with a given community is running the project, collaborating on the actual outcome.
The article gave me some leads to go on in relation to characterising his work: In a way this artist, and critic of our everyday aid politics, is appropriating the structure of aid projects or the usual Community-based Art, just giving it an opposite political twist–that is neo-liberal–than the one we're used to.
But apart from not claiming the good soul–in real life, at the village, he was actually doing the same thing: developing the project together with the locals, working together to…
"What are you trying to read?" I'm interrupted again, my travelling companion, Bjarke, seated next to me, is making conversation. It's time to get acquainted.
The magazine has an oversized format, making it a little difficult to read, especially being squeezed down in an airplane seat. Like small talk about snakes, odd situations are also icebreakers.
"ARTFORUM"
"Art-what?"
"Just the usual shit about art. But in exclusive framing, just look at the nice print it has… important shit!"
I usually phrase my answers in a similar way when confronted with a question about my occupation; to avoid sounding pretentious when saying that I'm an art critic. By adding the word 'shit' in connection to art I usually manage to confuse people enough not to start lining up the usual kind of questions indicating that I think I know better then them. A pro-active strategy, as Bush would have put it.
"Aha, some shit. It seems to be hard to read." He's now explicitly referring to my fumbling with the magazine in the tight airplane seat.
My neighbour and fellow traveller had humour, and I might as well start loosening up.
"Very hard."


Landing

Entebbe, the airport, was pitch black when we arrived. It was of course lit up like any airport, but still somehow pitch black. Maybe because of not seeing anything I wasn't disappointed, none of my expectations and memories from the high-jacking were refuted. And being there I realised that it probably was from here, the hostage freeing, that a whole generation had gotten their inspiration playing "commando soldier". What year was it? I've must have been around ten? 1976? My older brother told me then that no one but the Israeli security forces could have done it in such a professional way, not the Soviets and not the CIA, and maybe he was right.
There, in the middle of my nostalgic moment, while queuing to get my passport stamped, it started again:
"Are there lots of Black Mambas in Africa?"
"You've been asking that all day." His father replied a bit stern and protective in relation to the rest of us in the crew.
"I'm asking again." Carl-Fredrik, looked stern too.
"Well in Uganda, yes," I pitched in, "but only the big kind. Not the small one that eats frogs and small creeps. The small kind lives further down south. They have the big species in Uganda, the kind that likes to eat monkeys and dogs."
"No, no." the boy laughed while getting high on this wriggling frustration. "No, they can't open their mouths that wide, can they? To eat a whole monkey?"
His Black Mamba, it slowly strikes me, is somehow my Entebbe, an unfathomable piece of Africa, his 'Hart of Darkness'. Fascinating!
"Not the ones they have south of Uganda, no." I might as well give him the whole enchilada since that's what he's looking for. "But the Ugandan ones… and they have teeth too, the type they can bite with, like hyenas, they can take a peace of your leg without blinking." The moment is too true to life Freudian for me to stop adding fuel to his phantasm.
"How? No… But they are only in the jungle, right?"
"Yes, like in the jungle by the village where we are going."
"No."
"Yes, but not in the hotels." He's almost boiling over from excitement over the unknown, still all the way through not quite believing a word that I'm saying.
"In the hotels they have special Black Mamba guards making sure that no one gets into the rooms."
"No?"
"No, you're right, they still do! Get into the rooms!"
"No! "
*
Our collected gear and bags created a huge pile outside the entrance to the airport; a pile that we continually have to move around in order for it not to be in everyone's way while occasionally trying to answer one of the questions that never stops. That is, everyone but Hornsleth's son, Adrian, about fourteen, who is so concentrated on making tricks with his Yo-Yo that one of us has to follow behind him and redirect him to the new spot for our luggage pile in order not to lose him again: As his father expresses it: he has potential for becoming a professor.
Adrian wears his pants the way Hip-Hoppers do: so far down the ass that most of his underwear is showing. That is, his entire underwear. Moving fast with the Yo-Yo in one hand and the other securing his pants is impossible. And me being the slightly embarrassed type speculating about how the people in the Ugandan–MTV-unaffected –village would experience this fashion? All the time a loud Hornsleth is on the phone trying to locate the driver that was supposed to have come around with the bus to pick us up. Hornsleth never missing an opportunity to make friendly, but still mockery complaints, is giving the driver a mouthful.
"I'm standing here in the middle of Africa and my film crew are about to leave me and it's all because of you!"
"…" [the person he called on replies something]
"Why! You're asking me that! I'll tell you why; they told me that they would fly down with me to Uganda if and only if we would make it in time to the hotel to see the second half of the game France–Togo. You know the world championship. And now it has already started and you are not here and it has already started, and they are very angry with me and it is all your fault!"
Hornsleth is winking at us, his way of telling us that the person he's talking to knows his ways, and that there is a game on TV that some of us said that we really wanted do see, but that we now, overtaken by our first encounter with Uganda, has forgotten all about.
" …"
In Uganda, it seems, people are not embarrassed about looking straight at you when something sticks out, and we, with or without showing off our undergarments, did stick out. And hence the night was full of glowing white eyes trying to make sense of this strange spectacle. As the minutes passed the feeling of transformation from a sensible people of some kind into caricatures grew thicker and thicker.
"You're stuck in traffic ha! Well, I have other information; I have heard that you are watching football yourself. If they leave me you have to film everything for me. Can you do that?"
"…"
"You say you'll be here in about five minutes? Five minutes? Ugandan time? Well I tell you what: if you are not here in 30 minutes you have to… … …"
And in the midst of this turmoil Henrik, the hired documentary filmmaker,
is following all our moves.
It was probably not because of the spectacle we were putting on, but the attraction of the light from the airport, that so many mosquitoes had started to fly around us. Not shockingly many, but when one of us suddenly remembered that these animal are the number one killer of humans in the world, we all at once started to dig around in the pile of bags for malaria pills and mosquito sprays. And now we didn't care how we looked. We had one aim and that was creating a giant cloud of mosquito repellent that we could feel safe inside.
Danish doctors had told us that it was okay to take this new kind of malaria pill just one day before entering into an effected area–this would later prove to be wrong and mis-informative to the point that it could very well have lead to an abrupt ending of this Ugandan adventure.
Finally the bus pulled up. And three Ugandans that seemed to have taken Hornsleth's threats very lightly jumped out. I suddenly came to the realisation that his mockery kind of jokes were right in line with his art, and if I could dissect them I could probably come up with a fairly good explanation of his work.

Still waiting for the bus

Here comes the other still photographer, Bjarke. He's now trying to bypass my table, also telling me that the bus has finally arrived. But a rapidly assembled experience has taught me that it will be at lest 30 minutes before take off after the call.
Down there, by the shores of the Nile, small things are sticking out of the water. Every one of them could be an eye of a crocodile. But they're probably not. According to the hotel employee I spoke with the water is too turbulent down here below the resort. If I wanted to see them I should go upstream to the power plant. But one usually doesn't see much more of them than something sticking up from the surface, anyway.
But I won't have time for that today. No, we're off to the jungle and the village.
I like the sound of that word, 'jungle'… jungle, who doesn't?
It's the same bus that finally picked us up in Entebbe that arrived at the Jinja Nile Resort. Not good! It's completely without suspension.
Hornsleth is on the phone. I can spot some trouble, he's still making gags but he's a bit shaken. It's the passports that the Ugandan lawyer had promised to have in order by now, the ones proving that a hundred Ugandans have added the name Hornsleth as one of their middle names. They have not come through yet.
No, he really shouldn't worry, he still has ID cards though, and they look much better than any passport anyway, having an exotic African look. So, forget about these passports, let the photographers shoot the pictures with the IDs instead and let that be that.
I'm right behind him heading for the bus. His smile is knowingly forced; it tells me that he's talking to some one that is trying to pull something on him, giving him an excuse that he's not buying. About ten seconds longer into the phone conversation I'm hearing a lot of bad words, he's hanging up, and is letting off his steam in my direction. I'm telling him to "Relax, this is an adventure, things are supposed to go bad… at least in the beginning!" All the while he keeps on cursing–but in his own never actually real way. And then he says:
"And if things continue to go bad… then it's a tragedy. Tomorrow I'm going to the Kigali to see someone in charge of fucking me over, whatever minister. This was supposed to have been taken care of long ago. That lawyer… and now, suddenly, he tells me that we are not getting any…
You, no we, might as well stay at the pool all week until the airplane will take us home again. If I don't get any photos with the villagers holding the passport I'll have no art to sell… meaning that I will not get any money back from any of my investments, meaning that I'll go broke!
Turn around and go get your bathing suits and meet me at the pool in fifteen minutes."
As he is saying that we are continuing down to the bus. The sun in Uganda is extremely pleasant; it's the high altitude that makes the climate here so lovable. I'm starting to enjoy my morning.
But okay, a as soon as the bus has pulled out of the smooth Nile Resort parking lot the bumps in the road will start making us jump up and down. Okay, I'll have some minutes of pleasure before the bus starts
This bus driver likes to step on it, like all Ugandan drivers, and instead of slowing down when traffic gets bad he'll just lean on the horn, hoping that the bus will scare off all approaching drivers to the side of the road.
The bus has now passed the local airport, no longer in use, the marketplace, and the hospital. The horn has started to do its job, the road is full of pedestrians, animals, cyclists, mopeds, and two-wheeled bicycle taxis.
But this is nothing, at night, going back, there will be just as many people on the road but it will be pitch black. This will only mean that the chauffeur will use the horn twice as much. Then, at night, we can't see him smiling when we tell him to slow down.
Coming to think of it, up to this point I haven't really heard the artist explain any details of the work. I could always push for some. But if I'd ask him about it he would probably say that that's my job and that is what I'm paid to do: explain it. He would say it with a sincere look in his eyes, which you can't really tell is for real or not. It's probably a bit of both. Then he'd add a phrase like "It's your job to make me famous and my work intelligent! Now do it!"
And me, adjusting my tone of voice and temper to the situation, would respond, "I'll find and bring out something–even in your work–that no one can deny sounds interesting or at least partly acceptable!"
Well, well.

Going to the Village

We're getting closer to the village of Buteyongera in Kasawo sub-county. It's exiting.
Vegetation is getting thicker but there are still a lot of houses around. I never thought there was a thing like a densely populated jungle.
Anyway, everything will feel a bit strange for a while coming there, for the villagers and us. I know it from experience, but until "normality" arrives by itself one should not do a thing about it. If you start saying that a lot of miscommunication is going on and so on you only run the risk of having the "background oddness" taking the square root of it all and making things very, very awkward.
"Even if you don't recognise the omelette, swallow!" It's my new motto.
Welcome to the Hornsleth Village Project, the sign is hanging on pillars painted in the Ugandan colours: black, yellow and read. Hornsleth's name and signature, itself, of course being the most visible and having bigger lettering than the other words. This man and his name… what can I say?
Still, we all seem surprised seeing the sign.
"This seems to go beyond even your megalomaniac expectations?" I had to ask him.
"Yes, this is crazy. It looks good ha?" The artist jumps out of the bus, and the other passengers follow. I don't know all of them, we picked them up on the way over here. But from conversation I'd overheard two or three of them were journalists from Ugandan newspapers.
"How did this come about?" Peter, the producer, is as uninformed as I.
"I hired a local artist, a friend of David." Hornsleth replies.
David is one of Hornsleth's employees in the Village Project. He's also working for a Dane, Birger, who owns a bar in Jinja. David has some university degree, and is a born-again Christian with his mind set on priesthood. And more importantly he grew up in this village, his grandma lives here and she is one of the project participants.
People are gathering around, and again the cameras begin shooting and filming. And again Hornsleth is cracking jokes and talking to people from the crowd. The bus takes off, we are passing small huts and people, many of them wave–are we expected?–and we wave back.
After having waved and smiled for about 20 minutes my expression starts to feel glued on. But I keep it up, I feel partly as an intruder in this remote place, so if someone waves and smiles at me I will surely be waving back.
But why did they do it–look so friendly? Does any bus coming down this road create as much attention?
The "background oddness" is giving itself the square root without my involvement. One should always remember that paranoid questions are nothing to be ashamed of; according to Freud they are your best defence when you end up in complicated situations.
In the clearings we pass small clay huts one after the other. Kids, in groups of five or ten, usually dressed in some school uniform or some very worn-out t-shirt with enough holes in them to fit several extra arms, greet us with the highest energy, jumping and waving, some of them following the bus as long as they can keep up.
This mix between the extreme poverty that most people seem to be living here and this, and yes, cheerful mode, is very bewildering. What wouldn't it take to get people going in this welcoming way in Copenhagen?
To say it frankly: I didn't understand shit of what was going on out there. I'm almost wishing for another round of questions from Carl-Fredrik about the Black Mambas, it would have a calming effect on me.
The analogy, connecting this trip to The Heart of Darkness or in Apocalypse Now, had been knocking on my door for some time now. I couldn't resist it in any longer. The boat ride in the film, getting close to the camp… no, we were greeted with smiles, not spears. And I don't expect any spears either, but all this waving, I hadn't expected that either. Am I heading for some kind of imploded space, as in the fiction, in the riff between two cultures?
What promises had Hornsleth given them? Was I part of a scam, had the artist promised them heaven for the right to become a part of their middle names, or was I just part of the circus coming to town? When the bus stops, will I see a throne that the local artist built?


At the Village

The bus has stopped and we are getting out. The crowds, mostly kids, two to ten, gather around until we are cornered from all directions. If anyone or anything had become a "tourist attraction" in this part of the country, it's certainly not the crocodiles by the power plat in Jinja, it's us.
Children pouring in from all directions manage to dislocate the row of chairs that had been put out for our meeting with the village elders, scheduled for now.
We have no choice but to remain standing, each of us, as islands sticking out of an ocean. They're all looking straight at us with something that I can only decode as a sincere interest, but I'm not certain. Many of them trying to get eye contact. And us, or at least me, have no way of turning down that kind of direct friendly invitation. But keeping this contact with more than one at a time… no, it does not work. Still I try, is it considered culturally rude to look away? But do they just look at me as a funny character?
Some of the smaller ones seem very interested in the hairs on my legs. It hasn't struck me, until now, that hairy legs is basically a Caucasian thing, or?
The turmoil continues, I'm starting to relax, but the photographers seem to be in distress.
Then there is suddenly some movement. Carl-Fredrik and Adrian have placed themselves in the door of the bus and has started up a show of some kind. A peek-a-boo one; doing strange faces, appearing and disappearing with a new look each time; and it's gradually evolving and becoming more and more advanced. And yes, I don't have to worry anymore, as a stroke of good luck Adrian's pants and his hip-hop way of exposing his undies melts right in somehow. Now they're doing break-dances to Danish evergreens. It brings down howls of laughter. Most of the children forget about us not so entertaining elders; and in the backdrop of the show the elders in our crew and the village elders can finally sneak away to put up the dislocated rows of chairs in line again. With only a smaller section of the kid crowds still remaining around us our meeting gets going and Hornsleth can go through the courtesies, with Robert as translator, and then they agree to the schedule of the photo shoot.
But it's a brief moment of peace. The funny faces slowly get competitions from the cameras, computers and all the other equipment that the photographers are installing. And as the photo shoot–of the 100 villagers holding their ID cards–has started, the children have taken over again and all attempts to keep them out of the picture are useless. They are everywhere; and each of us has again an uncountable crowd around us–even me not holding any camera.
This time it's Peter and Jon who's figured out a counter strike tactic; with a Polaroid camera each they are slowly dissolving the crowd handing out the photos as they are working their way out of the centre. The small gifts create their own turmoil, but it's a turmoil that pulls attention away from Bjarke and his hundred models.
And after six hours of this, the sun has gone down, the motor of the bus has started and we're getting in and are carried away from the sea of children.
Another hell ride in the bus is in action, but it's easier to take this time. It's leading back to something relatively familiar: to the pool, the bungalows and the bar at the Jinja Nile Resort.
But what's this? The journalists, three in all–that in a bored way have been hanging out all day seemingly just waiting for the bus to take them back–are getting out. With one foot still in the bus they stop. They want money before they remove the other foot. And quite a lot, some kind of we-came-along-fee. It's apparently standard procedures.
And then after the number of drinks it takes to grind down all of the day's experiences some kind of firm ground re-emerge, and sleep can finally take charge.


Short-circuits

Oooyes, it is the Minister of Interior that we're going to see today. That'll be interesting. When I heard about it I just took it as one of Hornsleth's over the top jokes, but no, we're apparently going, all of us, except Bjarke and Jon.
And the two look like they know what they have coming; another day at the sea of kids, demobilized by their charm and interest, while trying to take photos, and without us around to divert the attention.
"You can't do it!" Hornsleth to Bjarke, and he continues, "David will come along, he knows some good tricks, I've seen them, they will keep the kids amused for hours"
"Yeah, yeah, as if…!"
We are all off to the city centre of the little town of Jinja, "Just to pick up someone"– another "just" another hour.
The buildings in town are Indian/Colonial British style. It's quite charming. Indians, besides the British, were the core of Ugandan economy and business before they were kicked out or killed. Idi Amin's feast lasted for about as long as their confiscated fortunes covered his expenses.
From Jinja Jon and Bjarke will drive a rented car to the village, a car will hopefully be waiting for them here. Only the thought of steering through the unknown traffic, the orchestra of car horns and the no lane system, makes Jon's already pale face even paler. An unfamiliar bacteria has started to do its job. It's not only his stomach that has gone bad, it's the majority of ours.
The bus is now stopping in front of SILVER TOUCH, the partly Danish owned bar.
Hornsleth has left the bus to see if the lawyer has arrived, Henrik is following him with his video camera, Peter is telling everyone to "Stay in the bus!" saying "Hornsleth has gone to talk to the lawyer, he'll just be a while."
Yeah right! Bjarke and Jon are getting out to shoot some pictures. Their rental car has arrived, but strangely enough not the keys for it. Adrian and Carl-Fredrik leave the bus to go buy some stuff in a store, and Bobi, the non-helping helper that's supposed to stay in the bus when no one else is in it, leaves to see what they are up to.
And I'm left in the bus with the driver, because Peter has now also gone with Robert to find out why the lawyer hasn't arrived. And as I leave the bus the chauffeur takes off in it. He probably knows that if he's back in an hour we will still be waiting for something.
"I need a beer now if I'm going to make it through the day," a pale Bjarke says when I'm catching up with him, and I decide that the same goes for me. By now we have given up our search for Fernet Branca in Uganda. It's supposed to do wonders for you if you have a stomach condition.
Something is finally happening, there's movement again, the lawyer and the keys have arrived.
The comparison of a short-circuit, that I've heard Hornsleth make in relation to his works, becomes more and more to the point for every bus ride, telephone conversation, meeting, that I see him involved in. He say's that he likes to create short-circuits, and that that actually is what his art is about.
And yes, from the moment of landing in this county everything has been in line with his analogy; if something is going smoothly he'll decide to add another circuit that will corrupt the previously harmonious ones.
But what's his strategy?
When things at the village are going okay, a good part of the hundred will probably have been photographed by the end of the day. Richard has signed contracts for buying the piglets, and the small goats and sheep. If he just left it at shooting the ID cards and just dropped those passports, he'd be doing just fine. But no, when involving journalists and politicians… what does he expect. Knowingly or not he's looking for some scandal; people in general are not used to projects of this kind and not used to seeing something in a more reflective light when it's produced under the epithet art. And in Uganda where this kind of art is unheard of…
But trouble means publicity and publicity means fame and fame leads too high prices. If he creates a scandal in Uganda it will not go unheard of in Copenhagen.
Why does the minister of interior want to see him? He probably wants to find out how this live disturbance, calling himself an artist, functions. He might expect that there could be military use for this talent.
"Mr Hornsleth, how do you do it?"
"Dear Minister, well, you see. You just have to create a mismatch between two harmonious points. Just take the title of this project; it consists of to statements, We Want To Help You and We Want To Own You. Connected they'll boost the strength of one another, you know the synergy effect. And from this original mismatch, this short-circuit will spread, and with such a speed that after just a few days it will hit government level!

Almost seeing the minister

As we drive off, street kids, about six to eight years old, have gathered round our bus. They have come down to Jinja from the war up north, the Ugandan government versus The Lord's Resistance Army.
Carl-Fredrik gave them money yesterday and in ten seconds flat they were back in front of the bar with lighters sniffing the gas. A small aid project that went bad. It's easy to say, "We want to help you", but as it turns out not easy to do it. This little episode made Carl-Fredrik feel really bad. Birger told him to go buy some fruit and bread to give them instead. It helped; both giver and taker seemed satisfied.
The bus has stopped outside the ministerial area in Kigali. There is a map of it in my Idi Amin book. Amin has somehow become my Black Mamba. His few years in office supposedly set back the county's economy around twenty years. We're all starting to get effected by the harsh reality that this Uganda not all together has rid itself from.
I can remember how the TV-news during the 1970s reported that human remains had been found in the dictator's refrigerator after he was forced off the throne. On the trip over here I read that Amin often fired ministers by throwing them out from helicopters over the Nile, yes, by Jinja. In the medical reports it was called drowning. Here you can really talk about the Heart of Darkness.
Maybe I should stop reading this book; it leaves me in some kind of strange hyped Discovery Channel mood. Things I read come out more as interesting curiosities than terrible events.
The traffic on the street where we have parked is massive, we are approached by street salesmen, dealing everything from fruit to lawnmowers. Hornsleth, the lawyer, Henrik and his camera have left to go see who will greet us and where. Adrian is out on the street showing the salesmen tricks with his Yo-Yo. But Carl-Fredrik is not doing so good. He has been lying in the back of the bus not saying a word during the entire trip. We suspect, a bad stomach, but he does not show any other signs of it than paleness and fever. An hour goes by, then another, and then Henrik picks us up. No, it's not the minister that has agreed to see us, but we have been asked to present the case to one of his secretaries. And Peter has to be there, as producer, and he can't leave Carl-Fredrik, so we end up all going.
Having expected ending up in this kind of meetings I brought an old, but not to beat up Hugo Boss suit. Once in Mongolia I ended up in a position not too different from this, and wearing a suit then, looking respectable, very likely ended up saving my ass. But what will I get for keeping the dress code? Probably nothing, the others are dragging me down, dressed in shorts and sandals.
A guard is leading us through the row of metal detectors and indoor roadblocks. We must make out a strange parade; clothes wise one would guess we were heading for the beach, having taken a very wrong turn somewhere; judging by our sheet white faces as griever's looking for the funeral. And to top it off Peter is now carrying Carl-Fredrik.
We finally reach this big office–a big table, chairs and two pictures of someone on the wall.
Carl-Fredrik is placed on the floor.
The secretary calmly receives this odd spectacle that we must represent. I'm quite amazed that he has no problem with Henrik filming it all. He asks about the project, and seems to agree with the aid part of it, that animals has been bought locally, that they're going to be handed out to people in a very poor area, and he likes the idea of how part of the offspring will be redistributed to new owners.
Now, the passport issue; the lawyer goes through the legal part, telling the secretary that now, when all requirements have been fulfilled–fees paid, a hundred notices placed in newspapers stating that each of the hundred villages has added Hornsleth as an extra name– according to Ugandan law is illegal to not give these people their passports.
The secretary says that of course they were a bit surprised receiving name change and passport applications from a hundred persons all wanting to be called Hornsleth.
"It sounds very much like we could be dealing with a religious cult of some kind. I guess," he looks us over for some time "you're not."
But who could really blame him for worrying; with the likes of The Lord's Resistance Army around, who "in God's name" had their ways, I guess careful is the least you could be. It's not all that easy to de-code his small comments. He has humour, but which kind of bottom the jokes are anchored in is a riddle. He tells us that he will look into it. Hornsleth says he needs answers now!
"I'll give you a call in a while to tell you what is possible." It's his reply.
And we're off to the bus waiting for the next phase of bureaucracy to kick in.
Carl-Fredrik's fever starts peaking, he's not complaining about feeling sick any more, instead it's the view outside the bus that bugs him. "The palm trees, I don't want to look at the palm trees. Why are they standing there?" The fever is making him hallucinate.
We have to find a doctor fast.
The doctor thinks it's malaria, and the tests seem to indicate it. But actually it couldn't be possible after only three days in an infected area; it should take about ten days to get it. He asks if he could have gotten it in Denmark. But Peter says that we very much doubt that. And in the doctor's car they're off to the children's hospital in Jinja, it's supposed to be good.
The rest of us return to the Nile Resort for dinner. That is the remains that are still standing, 50% of the ones who left from Copenhagen. Malaria and bad stomachs, what's next?
From were I'm seated at the dinner table I think I can spot the route where the monkeys are making their crossing over the Nile. If the bacteria won't get me, neither will any one else!
At the village everyone seemed happy with the project. They used to grow coffee, but after some decease took their plants things appeared to be going downwards for them. This village project, at least according to some of the elders I spoke to, gave them new sense of a future, it was at lest something to believe in. But there were people that did not agree with it, of course I had realised that some people would. But everything around us had become much more fragile after Carl-Fredrik had ended up in the hospital. Humorous intents had stiffened, art was not only art, the way the secretary had pronounced the title of the project especially the part "we want to own you" now echoed in my head. The others round the table do not look too well off.
"You know in Mexico, the stomach decease that the tourists gets is called Montezuma's revenge. Do you think that the one we have gotten here is some revenge for being too humoristic under not so funny circumstances?"
It was partly said as a joke, even though my fever gave more and more reality to my any speculation. I don't know if I expected a "Hell yes!" from Hornsleth, but no, he does not look too well.

Nurses and Kings

We had to go into town and buy a kind of white robe. And those of us not having any black shoes and dark long pants had to buy some it at once. It's easy to say, but in Jinja not easily done. After having had trouble all morning getting proper, of course, it came to nothing. The white robes covered the pants and the better part of the shoes.
Hornsleth being his own unrivalled spin-doctor had somehow, during the evening or this morning gotten us invited to the local King. One of six in Uganda. According to this spin getting a picture of him and a royalty in the papers would make the ministers Kigali more friendly towards us. The tribal kings are supposedly quite popular. Not a bad plan.
Any other day this visit would have felt quite adventures. But Carl-Fredrik was still in the hospital and with him there courtship is just not the same. If any peace of mind would return we had to go see him.
The nurse that showed us around in the hospital opens up the refrigerator door. The interior is, except for one blood bag, empty.
"We don't get anyone to give us blood anymore, no one dares to. No one wants to know if they've gotten infected by aids, by now the rate is between 10 to 20% of the population. There is no way of telling."
Carl-Fredrik had his own room, in rooms as big as his in this part of the hospital there were ten patients accompanied by as many relatives. He was doing okay again. Fever was dropping and he had started eating. One could even trigger a smile by telling him about our upcoming visit to the King.
Peter had donated a quite considerable amount to the hospital. To show her gratefulness she is really giving us the grand tour, taking us from room to room, Introducing us to staff and patients. Seeing all this, what could one say or do…? Bjarke and Jon grab their cameras and start to shoot away as if every kick from their camera is a "Hail Marry" that can clean out sins and make the sight of it all easier to carry. Me not having any camera just have to stand there and look.
This is no place to go if you already feel quite crappy, that much is certain.
And finally we're running to the doctor. We're getting some good news. In a day they think that Carl-Fredrik can come home, the malaria medicine and what else he's getting from that drop in his arm is doing its job. It's at lest something.
Were late, Birger is calling someone to tell the King we might not make it in time. He has brought gifts from his bar, food and drinks, it's for the customary exchange of curtseys. Seeing him arranging this one wonders if this royal visit isn't his thing. If he hasn't arranged our visit in order to go there himself.
It's with some envy Jon and Bjarke again climb into the rented car to go back to shoot the final pictures.
Still, things are about to be finished out in the village, they are seeing the end of the line of the hundred. It's their new guerrilla tactic that's paying off. They start off by taking walks in the outskirts of the village, just making rapid visits to the location of the photo shoot. It works, it's giving them the space they need. And yes, maybe they are not all that exotic to the kids anymore–if you've seen one pale person with hairy legs, you have more or less seen them all.
*
And as if in a dream, that is, in an actual fever dream we're off to the king. Our average condition is getting worse. As Carl-Fredrik is getting better, Adrian is going down, he has stopped throwing his Yo-Yo around; it's a bad sign.
We still arrive at the Kings place within respectable time. The gates are opened and we are greeted by servants and asked to take our seats in the garden. Everything is minutely arranged: servants, journalists, us and the royalty, all getting a seat in relation to status.
The King appears in his ceremonial clothing, something that he doesn't usually do. It's quite stylish, both African and Western at the same time. The press are probably more interested in a picture of him and his clothing than us.
A master of ceremony takes over, leading us through the motions.
And as rapidly as it begun it's all over "After a short photo opportunity the royal family and his foreign guests will go into the house for private conversation."
Hornsleth is not far behind the king as he moves to the spot for the photo session. And after some time he is asked to join the king on the stairs for photos, and yes Birger is also invited, mission accomplished!
Adrian is, however, about to go down, but he bites his lips and comes along. Inside the mansion it's nice and pleasant, placenta to the point of us forgetting about our health during the stay. Or is it our vanity and hype over getting invited in that's doing the job?
The King and four of his sons are there, showing us relics and old family photos and some with other European royalties, we're having a good time.
But as we are leaving the royal castle, the old fever returns and intensifies. We're stopping the bus on our way home, Adrian is getting sick and his father doesn't look like he's doing much better.
At the hotel, Hornsleth's again on the phone with the lawyer, but there's no longer any stamina behind his mocking attacks. Still, there's a new plan in action; in hoping that the photo shoot with the king went well and that some of the newspaper will bring them, the political climate might turn in our favour. It's hard to say if he quite believes it "Maybe it's a good Idea to leave it at that for now." The plan is to be happy with the photos with the ID cards for now, and then work on the passport problems, through the lawyer, from Denmark. And when everything's in order come back to Uganda and do a re-shoot with the villagers.
And from being in the midst of a war with time, with elements, the kids and our fever, everything has suddenly come to an end, we're all finished.
Everyone sits quietly, it's strange shifting gears in this way. Well, I haven't done anything other than hanging around taking occasional notes, but still. The job is done for now, the name change is official, the animals are bought and on their way to the village and the photographers' job is reduced to being finished.
The villagers have arranged a fest for us in two days, that's it, and after the party we're going back to Copenhagen.

The party

Everyone but Hornsleth is now doing fine. Before the party we're making one stop at a place to pick up about a hundred piglets. To carry one you grab them by their hind legs and just lift them up. And no matter how much they scream and kick you can't let go, because then you'll never se the pig again. The road to the house is too narrow for the truck to drive on. It's more than fifty meters between the house and the car. I hardly ever walked a longer fifty meters, and after the first walk with a pig, another will be waiting for you.
The artist himself is not helping out. He hasn't said a word all morning; he just sits in the bus staring at nothing. When the final pig have been caught and carried and we're about to take off, his time has come. David is finding a taxi for him, he's going back to Jinja and a doctor.
This time, three or four times the amount of people to our previous visits have shown up. The news of the village party has apparently spread. The big difference is that today there are as many grownups as kids.
I'm asking around, and this project, at least for now, seems to be quite popular with the village. Still, it's hard to say what this liking consists of. Something is happening anyway, something you can attach hope to. The schoolteacher says that it's created a new sense of community. When asked about the name issue, one of the elders, and a newly re-baptised Hornsleth, just says, "Anything that fights poverty is god, anything." It's somewhere here around this "anything" where good and bad meets up in this project. Is the relatively forced choice–due to the poverty–of selling a spot among your names something that is, all in all, up to the villagers to take? Is it something that we as outsiders should make judgments about, can't we trust in their judgments of their well-being? Does "We Want To Own You" also include the right of knowing better than the ones involved what's good for them?
Hornsleth has certainly come up with a short-circuit this time.
Peter will come around with Adrian and Carl-Fredrik later, Hornsleth is not recovering, the ones of us in the village are doing our best trying to stall things until they arrive. We're visiting huts, talking to the elders, and taking pictures of beautiful sights. But, there are a thousand people waiting for us, probably more.
A bull has been slaughtered and we've brought soft drinks for–hopefully–all.
Just to check on the situation we're approaching the place were the party is waiting for us. Instead of stopping it we're starting it. As we approache the music starts and after that it's all in motion, we're sitting down in sofas facing the better part of the villagers, and there's music and dancing and food, and it goes on and on. In the midst of it all Peter and the boys finally arrive. There's a good atmosphere between them and us. Richard's brother, David, a politician and Ugandan pop-star, is handling the translations of the speeches we as guests are all expected to do. At certain points during the translation people are laughing so hard that they have problems standing–Richard's translations are obviously a lot better then our speeches.
And then, before any official ceremony of handing out the animals have had time to start, the sun's going down. And when the sun has gone down it's all over. Henrik, Bjark and Jon are trying to make pictures involving handing over a goat and a pig to two of the new Hornsleths, but in this darkness and with the massive gathering of people it's not any use.
We're off.

Copenhagen versus Kigali

Directly after coming home to Copenhagen Hornsleth is hospitalised with an "undefined tropical disease." It takes days before they release him.
At first there's no reaction in Uganda. In Copenhagen, however, the papers, radio and TV are reporting. Apparently Hornsleth has hired the right press people. No journalist is really trying to nail him with tricky questions, he's getting of the hook very easily. And he's the artist that a lot of papers usually love to hate, strange.
In Kigali however, after initial peace, things slowly start to pick up, becoming a media affair. Political points can probably be won by picking on an outsider, and for this Hornsleth is a wonderful target. The papers aren't denying that the project seems popular in the village, a few hundred have signed up to join. It's instead a defence against a latent humiliation some think he is causing Ugandans in general; has the villagers' "souls been sold for a goat?". Is he not "ridiculing poor people?" And with references to the dirty words you can find on his home page and Hornslet's paintings, his character is being questioned, what kind of person has Uganda opened the doors for? I'm calling him to see how he's doing. "It will blow over soon, if you had listened to the radio you would hear nicer things about me, in Uganda the radio is more important than the papers, and I have made friends with the radio people."


Staffan Boije af Gennäs, writher and critic based in Copenhagen, 2006
This text was first published in the book: The Hornsleth Village Project Uganda, Copenhagen 2007