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, however, do you experience the opposite: you make the effort to go somewhere and you can’t use any of it. The time that sticks closest 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 in London. He had spotted a new book which argued that many high profile Chinese investments in Africa were phantoms – far from grabbing vast tracts of African resources, many Chinese businesses in Africa 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 tends to be 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 to avoid questions. This unwillingness to co-operate is one of the reasons why China’s rise in Africa is so poorly reported.
But by a stroke of luck, I found a blog by an academic asking what happened to this Chinese free trade zone in Uganda. Unlike some reported proposals, it had looked like the real deal. Chinese officials had visited the site and met Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni. Ugandan ones had flown to Beijing for a ceremony broadcast on CCTV, China’s state TV channel. The deal was supposed to involve some 518 hectares of land, an air strip, a new railway, farms and factories. According to some more lurid suggestions, it was to become home to 500,000 Chinese settlers. And yet none of it had happened. It sounded like exactly the sort of hyped-up Chinese land-grab story I wanted to debunk.
I flew to Kampala and began investigating. I met a lawyer, a smartly-dressed lady who claimed she represented the Ugandan partners in the deal. She explained that it had fallen through because of political problems. Apparently, the government was uncomfortable with vast amounts of Chinese money they had no control over being transferred into Uganda. Now the developers were going to build the thing 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.”
Not satisfied with this, I asked if I could visit. “That will be difficult”, my lawyer friend told me. She refused even to tell me where the site was. So I contacted a Ugandan radio journalist who had visited back when the Chinese had and he offered to help me get there. A little more than two hours on the road south from Kampala, we turned off onto a dirt track and watched it get thinner as we drove deep into the bush. As the track disappeared, the brick houses turned into mud huts. Alongside our car, children dressed in rags wheeled bicycles laden with water.
And then we found the entrance: a sign marked Ssesamirembe City with some Chinese characters, flecked with rust, and then a few half-built breezeblock houses. Trying to imagine who on earth would have thought this was a good place to spend billions of dollars, I walked up to the nearest dwelling and looked in. Out walked a lady with an American accent. She explained that she was from Connecticut and asked what exactly we wanted. Her 99-year-old mother was inside and she was busy.
Then, up wandered a French-Canadian lady wheeling a bicycle, who explained to me happily that she had been coming here since the 1990s. “The problem with Africa is the cities, you see. 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 and see for myself. “There’s a lovely Dutch couple, too.”
The whole place, it turned out, was not just a failed Chinese investment. It was the grand scheme of a man called Bambi Baaba Babuwe, a Ugandan who lives in a suburb of Washington, DC and believes himself to be the latest successor to Christ. Mr Baaba claims to be directly descended from a long-lost race of saints. According to one cult-tracking website, his ambition is to build a “spiritual city” that will “activate the cosmic energy that has been locked up in Africa and thus bring about a shift in the consciousness of the planet.”
Somehow, this self-proclaimed prophet had somehow convinced a dozen or so 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 stored their dead bodies and worshipped them. But in the end, this was clearly a story about the gullibility, not the rapaciousness, of foreigners.
I went back to Nairobi and wrote up my notes, trying to put in as much about my discoveries as possible. And presumably seeing that this raised far more questions than we could answer in the space available, my editor went back through my article and took most of it out. Only the key part – the Chinese failing – stayed in. Sometimes digging up the whole story, you hit upon something that is just too strange for journalism.