As a foreign correspondent, you often wonder if it is always worth going out of your way to be sure of getting a story. Only occasionally do you experience the opposite: you make the effort to go somewhere and you can’t use any of it. The time that sticks in my mind is when I went in search of the “Lake Victoria Free Trade Zone” in Uganda, a supposed Chinese-funded mega-investment which was announced to great fanfare in 2008 but then disappeared entirely.
It began, as stories often do, with a message from The Economist’s foreign editor. He had spotted a book which argued that many high-profile Chinese investments in Africa were phantoms – that far from grabbing tracts of African resources, many Chinese businesses had failed or never existed at all. “Go and find an abandoned Chinese farm or something”, he suggested, “and explain why it failed.”
This sort of thing is harder than it sounds. Chinese embassies in Africa generally do not answer the phone to Western journalists; Chinese businessmen I have called have pretended not to speak English. This unwillingness to co-operate is one of the reasons why China’s rise in Africa is so poorly reported.
By a stroke of luck, I found a blog by an academic asking what had happened to this free-trade zone. Unlike some reported proposals, it had looked like the real deal. Chinese officials had visited the site and met Uganda’s president. Ugandan ones had flown to Beijing for a ceremony broadcast on China’s state TV channel. The deal was supposed to involve 518 hectares of land, an air strip, farms and factories. More lurid accounts suggested it was to become home to 500,000 Chinese settlers. Yet none of it had happened. It sounded like the sort of hyped-up Chinese land-grab story I wanted to debunk.
I flew to Kampala where I met a lawyer, a smartly dressed lady who claimed to represent the Ugandan partners in the deal. She explained that it had fallen through because of political problems. The government was uncomfortable with vast amounts of Chinese money, over which it had no control, being transferred into Uganda. Now the development was to be built in Tanzania. And the original site? “We own the land and some of our people are building there. But it is going much more slowly.” I asked if I could visit. “That will be difficult,” she said, refusing even to tell me where the site was; but a Ugandan journalist offered to help me get there.
A little more than two hours on the road south from Kampala, we turned onto a dirt track, which got narrower as we drove into the bush. As the track disappeared, brick houses were replaced by mud huts. Alongside our car, children dressed in rags wheeled bicycles laden with water.
A sign marked Ssesamirembe City, with some rust-flecked Chinese characters, marked the entrance. Inside were a few half-built breezeblock houses, and no indications that the Chinese had ever been there. Trying to imagine who would have thought this was a good place to spend billions of dollars, I looked into the nearest dwelling. Out walked a woman who said, in an American accent, that she was from Connecticut, and asked what we wanted. Her 99-year-old mother was inside and she was busy.
Then up wandered a French-Canadian lady, who explained that she had been coming here since the 1990s. “The problem with Africa is the cities. Too many people, too much chaos.” These huts in the bush could, she believed, be the solution to Africa’s problems. People should live in communes, growing food and taking care of each other. She suggested I come and live there for a while. “There’s a lovely Dutch couple, too.”
The place, it turned out, was the scheme of His Imperishable Glory Bambi Baaba Baabuwee, a Ugandan who lives in a suburb of Washington, DC. According to his website, which has pictures of him in a slightly grubby sheet “initiating construction” of the half-built houses, “the organisation is guided by a Living Perfect Enlightened Being who instructs, guides and helps individual souls.”
Somehow, he had convinced some hippyish Westerners to move to one of the remotest corners of Africa. The locals I met spread all sorts of rumours – mostly that the cultists worshipped dead bodies. But in the end, this was a story about the gullibility, not the rapaciousness, of foreigners.
When I wrote up my article about Chinese failure, my editor, presumably seeing that this part raised more questions than we could answer in the space available, took most of it out. Sometimes when you dig up the whole story, you hit upon something that is just too strange for journalism.