When people in the developed nations talk about Africa as a basket case, I prefer to think of places like Kampala. (Have you noticed how often Westerners speak about 'Africa', which is bigger, far more varied and much more interesting than, say, North
America, as though it's just one single, undifferentiated country?)
Kampala is quiet, mildly prosperous, and easygoing. Its streets are green with the foliage of thousands of trees, its earth is that exciting East African red, its climate pleasant and cool, its traffic well-organised, its people polite and well-educated. The Kampala crime rate is that of a quiet English cathedral city. Wandering around on my own, even in its poorest areas, I have never felt even remotely threatened. Sizeable numbers of South Africans have been settling here, escaping the crime in their own country.
Once, when I was on an expedition to cover the troubles in Rwanda, I had to buy enough supplies to keep four people for two weeks: that's a lot of corned beef. Heading out of our hotel just as it was getting dark, I jumped into the first taxi I saw and headed off to a street market. At first, I tried to hide the fact that I was paying from a wad of Ugandan shillings, which was the size of a brick, but I soon realised that no one was going to rob me.
On the contrary, people volunteered to carry my bags of powdered milk, tins of sweet corn and fruit cocktail, porridge oats and salmon, and I don't think anything went missing. Instead, the other members of the expedition complained about getting so much tinned salmon.
Returning is a real pleasure. Not even our mission — to report on a bill before the Ugandan Parliament to impose the death penalty on gay men and lesbians under certain circumstances — has made things difficult for us. We've had a bit of a confrontation with a preacher who got quite fiery about the subject, but it never turned nasty. In fact, he undertook to pray for me. I thanked him and shook his hand. Partly to stop him laying it on my head.
I don't mean that Uganda hasn't had its problems. At the height of Idi Amin's reign, my friend Brian Barron, one of Britain's very finest TV reporters, who sadly died recently, made the dangerous journey to Kampala. Believe me, however fine an actor Forest Whitaker is, and however deserved his Oscar for playing Amin in The Last King of Scotland, he never managed even to hint at the paralysingly awful ferocity of the old boy.
The 70s were awful years in Uganda. Strange how places with noticeably pleasant people — Cambodia and Sri Lanka also come to mind — sometimes endure terrible things. There have been problems in Uganda ever since. Soon after he came to power, President Yoweri Museveni wrote an impressive book which suggested, among other things, that it was bad for countries if their leaders stayed in power for more than a couple of terms. That was in 1986, and he's still there. Maybe that's why he's not able to see me this time. Oddly, though, I've been interviewed here myself by various Kampala journalists, for something that happened even further back: November 1969, to be exact. I was a brand-new BBC reporter of 25, and my accent was quite startlingly cut glass.
King Edward Mutesa of Buganda, which makes up a large part of Uganda, had just settled in London after being chased out of the country after a coup by the unpleasant President Milton Obote. He was absolutely penniless, so a friend gave him a flat in Rotherhithe, in London's East End. In those days, the area was famously poor — now property there changes hands for huge amounts. He was universally known as King Freddie, and he had been at my college at Cambridge. He was 41. His accent made me sound like a resident of Rotherhithe.
King Freddie was charming. He made me a cup of tea, and was phlegmatic about his plight. Something would turn up, he said.
His neighbours were very pleasant to him, and life could be a lot worse. There was a statuette of Queen Victoria on his mantelpiece. We got on very well, reminiscing about people we had known at university. At 6pm I left, promising to keep in touch. I felt I had made a new friend.
The next evening's newspaper carried a big headline: 'Ugandan king dead'. Within hours of saying goodbye to me, entirely sober and perfectly calm, King Freddie had supposedly killed himself by drinking four bottles of vodka. Verdict: suicide. The local police wouldn't listen to my story. To this day many Ugandans believe Obote's agents murdered him, and I'm inclined to agree. I saw no sign of booze in the flat, and I doubt if he could have afforded four bottles of vodka. The whole thing stank.
Today in Kampala, King Freddie's statue stands in the middle of the orderly traffic, as slight and charming and enigmatic as the man himself. This is a delightful country, and though it's had its ups and downs, so have most interesting places. I love it, and hope to come back again and again.
John Simpson is the BBC's world affairs editor and can be seen around the globe on BBC World News, available in 200 countries and territories worldwide, and on selected British Airways flights.