While my colleagues from my Intercontinental design class spent their spring-break connecting with our partner design teams in Makerere University, I was privileged to have been gifted a trip to Washington D.C by Mrs. Katy Reichert. We were a party of three more including Dr. Elizabeth Ndichu (my Kenyan friend, Eng. Henry Kiwumulo (my Ugandan colleague) and Ms. Earnestein Goods (Mrs. Katy Reichert’s friend of many years). On March 17th 2017, we set off to take Washington D.C.
For Henry, Elizabeth and I, this was to be the first time to visit Washington D.C so during this pilgrimage, if you may, we were giddy with excitement. Elizabeth was looking forward to meeting long-time friends in D.C, I was looking forward to seeing the Wright brother’s first plane while Henry was looking forward to seeing the White House.
The re-count below tells some of the most memorable sights I had in Washington D.C in a narrative from my perspective as a Ugandan in Washington D.C for the first time.
The Museum of Aviation history
Like many mind blowing events on this trip, the tour of the Aviation Museum came by utter serendipity. After a sumptuous consolation breakfast for missing tickets to the Infinity Mirrors art show by Yayoi Kusama, we branched off to the Museum of Aviation history on our way to the museum of African American History.
There, I had my highlight of the trip. I saw the wright Brother’s first in flight plane. It was more like a glider but it had a more aesthetically polished look than I expected two bicycle mechanics to build. I also found it amazing that the pilot lay down and used both his hips and hands to control the movements of the plane. The plane was 85% authentic! More amazing sights were a nuclear war head that was much bigger than I had always imagined it to be. I also touched a small piece of stone cut from a stone from the moon and saw the three legged part of the rocket that first landed on the moon.
Figure 1: Left: A nuclear war head (Long and pointy behind the plane) and Right: The Wright brother’s first plane.
The African American History Museum
Our trip to the American museum was a fortuitous one. We had failed to get entry tickets the night before because the tickets had sold out so fast. We decided to go and consult a “live person” to see if we could get more insightful guidance than we were getting from the museum website. To our surprise, we were allowed entry into the museum probably because we explained that we had travelled from far to see the museum but couldn’t get in.
Once inside, we descended to the ground floor and progressed to higher floors since the history was arranged in an ascending order by the years. The ground floor featured poignant recordings of real slaves’ recounts of their voyage from Africa to the U.S on slave ships. Having been to Bagamoyo (direct Swahili translation- “cut souls”) before- a district in Tanzania where rebellious slaves were slain- I could put the pieces together to continue the story from the time when they undocked from the coast in Dar-es-Salaam to the time when they docked on the South Carolina coast and the harsh years following.
The ground floor also featured women and men of color who fought slavery including Harriet Tubman (the underground railroad slave-escape heroine), Benjamin Bannecker (first African American to publish scientific work in the U.S), Phillis Wheatley (the poet guru), Elizabeth Freeman (one of the first people to successfully sue for her freedom) and many more.
Subsequent floors focused more on achievements by men and women of color and the continuous struggle that they faced even when slave trade was abolished. Two inspiring stories stood out: one was of the efficiency of the men of color when they were granted the opportunity to fight for their freedom in the civil war and the other was of the incredible story of the Tuskegee air men who surpassed the expectation of their commanders who had trained them just to prove that black men did not have it them to be part of the US Air force.
The top most floor featured the black ambassadors from my era like Michael Jackson, Chuck Berry (who passed-on the night of our visit to the museum!), Barrack Obama, and many more. The nature of the museum was such that the sad-history-invoked sorrow is replaced with a feeling of accomplishment. Just in case there was any more lingering sorrow, the clever architecture features a fountain at the top for revelers to cleanse their souls of the sadness. It was a day not to forget.
The following day, we were fortunate to have got tickets for the Yayoi Kusama art show. In my view, Kusama’s story made her art work even more valuable than the actual art would have been. The fact that Kusama has coped with psychological disorders and currently publishes her work from a mental hospital as a way to cope with her condition is the most amazing until one hears of how she gets her motivation from hallucinations she alone can see!
That said, the infinity mirrors art show was one of kind. My highlight were the mirrored boxes that gave one a feeling of being in an infinitely big room! Another amazing art concept was a
room with only white furniture whose walls and furniture the visitors would paste with colorful stickers. The room looked so beautiful. It also resembled many of Kusama’s polka dot themed art pieces, so in a way she had us do the grand piece to crown our experience: It worked!
Figure 2: Kusama’s infinity box (left) and the sticker filled last room.(right)
The Museum of Natural history.
After making a long queue to enter the museum of Natural history, you are instantly rewarded at the entrance. What greets you is the largest mammal ever found alive: A gigantic elephant! The other instantly amazing showcase was the size of the bear! The dinosaur skeleton was also mind boggling while the whale left me speechless. If not anything else, the museum of Natural of History is sure to blow you away with the size of the whale, dyno-skeleton bear, bison and of course the elephant killed in Angola. The preserved lions in hunting combat were also an amazing site to see.
Figure 3: Two lions in hunting combat preserved in action.
Figure 4: The largest mammal to be captured alive from Angola.
Non-museum wonders of Washington D.C
Apart from the museums, there were other infrastructural wonders of Washington D.C which included the subway train system that was an engineering marvel. It was in essence a huge underground tunnel connected by air-port-like underground stations all over D.C. It was my first time on a train of any kind so the electric Metro train really impressed me. It made me think of how decongested Kampala would be if only our government stopped spending big money on city “developments” only when the Pope or a U.S President is visiting and actually focused on building for the future like I realized the fore fathers of the United States did.
Another very impressive site about Washington D.C was the Senate building which is the United States Parliamentary house. The size of it qualifies it to be a monument in its own right. To enforce its status however, it is built in white marble. Looking at it, once again, like many times before during my stay in the U.S, the Makerere University motto came to mind. “We build for the future”
The fact that most of the gorgeous Smithsonian museums were free of charge to anyone, citizen and non-citizen alike, was also quite impressive! I juxtaposed the Uganda National Museum with many of them and quite frankly, the sole Uganda National museum could only compare to a mere wing of just one of the Smithsonians yet one has to pay to visit it. I wondered then, how the spirit of nationalism was expected to be cultivated among young people yet they have to pay to see their National treasures! From my perspective, these differences are not out of reach for a country like Uganda. The problem in my view stems from the lack of Nationalism from the leaders themselves who travel to these countries but feel less the need to replicate the amazing infrastructure back home. Rather, they continue to embezzle from the National treasury in the billions to secure the financial security of many generations to come in their lineages. Such callous selfishness!
The White House was rather not as impressive as I had expected. Apart from being noticeably a shade of white uncommon to building exteriors, it was just like any other mansions with a good compound. There were no guards in sight and there wasn’t any activity on the compound at the
time. Being there reminded me fondly of Gerald Butler’s “Olympus has Fallen” and Jamie Fox’s “White House Down”- two 2013 Hollywood blockbusters by my two favorite Hollywood actors on saving the revered White House from terrorist attacks.
While I did not traverse every museum in Washington D.C, I left with a feeling of contentment that I had seen all the major monuments and museums I had planned to see. I also had great pictures to show for it in the future. It was a great trip.
Honorary Mention: The Paradox of Liberty
Etched in history’s regrettable memoirs, yet still true today, is the contradiction brought to light by Benjamin Banneker, of one of the U.S founding fathers who fought against slavery, Thomas Jefferson.
The then Vice President of the U.S, Thomas Jefferson played a vital advisory role in the governance of the country hence his popular hand-written declaration (attached in the appendix herein) to Congress lobbying for a stop to slave trade.
In the letter, Jefferson, a well-intentioned aristocrat argued that men of all color are equal and should be independent since the legal permit for slavery was of grande detriment to human rights. In his arguments, Jefferson was right, but in his beliefs and actions, Jefferson was not the angel read in print and Banneker was the black man bold enough to check him on moral grounds.
In his letter to Jefferson, (also attached in hand-print in the appendix) Banneker questioned Jefferson on the irony that he himself owned slaves yet he was spear heading the fight against the trade and asked him to correct his “narrow prejudices”. True to Banneker’s deductions, Jefferson still held black men inferior to the white folks with the exception of Benjamin Banneker as stated on one of the slates about this correspondence in the Museum of African American History. Perhaps then, it is not so coincidental that the phrase “equal and independent” was the most omitted two-word combination in Jefferson’s hand written declaration, a total of 3 times!
More to this paradox is the fact that the “civilized”, “enlightened” society of the 21st century is still rife with Jeffersons- men and women of power who do not practice what they preach. Take for instance the “democratic” Jeffersons of the African continent who believe in life-long presidential terms, the ‘’peaceful’’ Jeffersons who kill all who do not conform to their religious beliefs, and my village local council “representative” who hopes to recoup his campaign expenses by swindling from the local government. To you reading this, this is a call to you to be like Benjamin Banneker and call out those involved in these wrong doings the best way you can so that together, we can fight this social disunity once and for all.