What do the saxophone, the worldwide web, the praline, asphalt, Bakelite, the contraceptive pill and the body mass index have in common?
Well, all of them are Belgian inventions that play an important role in our lives. The above statement was written by the Brussels Airlines CEO Bernard Gustin as foreword to their monthly magazine.
Reading the statement two days before setting off for my maiden visit to the European Union capital, Brussels, raised my already high expectations. A month earlier, we had agreed with the Belgian ambassador to Uganda after an interview that I should visit his country and do a string of stories about the European Union and the Ugandans living there and, of course, have an experience of the country.
I was so excited that I made sure everyone in my circles knew I was visiting Belgium. Never has time crawled at snail pace like that last week before my departure.
Nevertheless, I prepared; I checked my travel documents each day that week, read about Belgium and imagined how this country, which I knew as a former war zone of Europe according to my secondary school history, now really looked like. Soon it was Thursday and Saturday was nearer.
As I left work at around 7pm, I received a phone call from a cousin telling me my aunt had just succumbed to cancer at Mulago hospital. I could not help thinking as I travelled to the vigil; why did she have to die two days before I left? Why didn’t she wait for me to return and tell her all about ‘abroad’?
Well, kitalo, but I was going to Belgium no matter what. By 8:30pm on Saturday, I was aboard the Brussels Airlines flight en route Belgium with a stopover in Kigali. This was my second time on a plane.
My other poor, old aunt who raised me must be even happier, I thought to myself. She has always wanted good things for me; she always wanted me to travel the world. Was this God answering her prayers?
Brussels blows me away
We arrived in Brussels at 6:15am on Sunday and my first surprise was the fact that the sun was up, shining like it was 10am. I was in Belgium. I was on European soil for the first time.
“Welcome to Belgium, Jonathan,” a voice woke me up from my daydream as I emerged from the airport’s arrival lounge.
It was Fredrick Lavis, a diplomat working with the Belgium embassy in Kampala, but in Brussels to welcome his first child. Lavis was to guide me through my one-week stay. I was tired since I had not slept during the eight-hour flight, but this did not stop me from gazing out of the car window to admire the wonderful roads and beautiful architecture as we drove to my hotel in the heart of Brussels.
Lavis told me about his country; the names of buildings or sculptures and why they stand where they stand. It was too early to check into my hotel, and I could not have breakfast either, because restaurants were still closed. Lavis took me around the city until midday.
Armed with my camera, I dragged my tired feet to keep up with the athletic diplomat. He showed me buildings built in the 18th century with typical Flandish (Dutch) architecture.
Belgium has three national languages: German, Dutch and French, derived from its bordering neighbours. Brussels is in Flanders, the northern part of Belgium dominated by the Dutch-speaking people; however, being the capital city, every language is spoken in Brussels. Even Luganda.
English is not common. Since I speak neither Dutch nor French, when I was not with Lavis, life was harder. I made up my mind to enrol for French classes as soon as I got back to Uganda. Thrice I got lost in the underground transport network and no one could help, thanks to the language barrier. But thanks to the city map I carried in my pocket, I always found my way.
I met Ugandans who have made Belgium their second home during a dinner organised by the Ugandan ambassador to the Benelux countries, Mirjam Blaak. Only a few, however, turned up with many not comfortable to be in the home of the ambassador or near a Ugandan journalist.
Nevertheless, the few that turned up were eager to know how things were back home and to speak Luganda with someone from Uganda. They sent me off with messages to relatives back home.
However, not all glitters in Brussels; poverty is everywhere. Deep in the subway, I met homeless people who spend cold European nights there. Many beggars on the streets surprised me and approached me begging for change in Dutch or French.
The language barrier also gave me problems while ordering for food. I once ordered for something that up to now I don’t know; but who cares! It was delicious.
My entire visit I did not find any African food outlets to sustain the traditional man that I am. On many occasions, I slept on an empty stomach, because I did not know what to eat, save for finding solace in a bar across the street.
Of presidents Trump and Idi Amin
On my fourth day in Brussels, Lavis and I were treated to lunch by Didier Vanderhasselt, the spokesperson of the ministry of foreign affairs. It is not the lunch that was special, but the place and day.
On this day American president Donald Trump landed in Brussels just as I had lunch in the restaurant where former American president, Bill Clinton, had his during his last visit as president.
It is still on this day that I got myself a selfie with the Belgian prime minster at a cocktail party organised for journalists who were to cover the following day’s NATO convention.
“I know your country. I was recently with your president Museveni,” he said.
“Yes, you must know Uganda; it is the most beautiful country in the world,” I replied, triggering his laughter and a pat on the back.
The evening was only ruined by a Korean journalist working with Reuters who took me aside and asked why Joseph Kony is still killing Ugandans and why Idi Amin is not doing anything about it.
I froze and stood speechless looking at this clueless ‘journalist’. The words of my former editor Richard Kavuma echoed in my head: “A journalist has to read widely.”
Serious bicycle love
The people in this city live a simple life. Many capable of having a fleet of cars simply own a small vehicle for convenience. It seems like no one shows off here; no personalised plates on big cars as is the norm back home.
Then there is the bicycle trend. Everyone seemed to own one. Even policemen clad in shorts patrolled the streets on bicycles. I was surprised to learn from a big government official that he rides his bike to office because the vehicle could delay him.
“In Belgium no one cares whether you have money or not. What we care about here is the social status of the job you do,” Lavis explained.
Indeed, diplomat that he is, he preferred walking to appointment places with me, instead of taking a taxi. Brussels is built on legends and comics; one, possibly the most popular, is the great Manneken Pis, a statue of a little boy peeing in a fountain basin.
This statue that has been stolen several times has been a public fountain and a hero whose origin is shrouded in mystery and many tales. Then there is Tintin, the great traveller journalist from our comic books, who moves around with his dog Snowy.
Tintin is a fictional hero of The Adventures Of Tintin, the comic series by Belgian cartoonist Herge. Through his investigative reporting, quick thinking and good nature, Tintin is always able to solve the mystery and complete the adventure.
These two heroes are depicted all over the city in different forms from wall graffiti to small mouldings in different shops.
Belgium is not Brussels
We decided to try out some other cities outside Brussels and Brugge was our first destination. Many call Brugge the ‘Venice of Belgium’, because like the picturesque Italian city, it is literally on water.
When we arrived, a procession of some sort was going to take place and people lined the roads. Cars parked far away from the city centre. The city has more tourists than inhabitants. The tourists come from neighbouring Netherlands and other parts of Europe.
Not long ago, the city’s residents reportedly scoffed at government efforts to turn it into a top tourist destination. They said they already have enough tourists and would not want to have their home turned into a museum.
The city is filled with boats carrying tourists on water channels that run through it. A few beautiful gardens are occupied by swans and doves. Then came Gent, a university city. The University of Gent has faculties spread all over the city. Many of the top decision makers in the country have studied there.
Lavis said Gent is a majorly young city because it consists of students and the carefree mode is everywhere. Students were seen sitting by roadside bars having a drink while couples kissed on balconies.
The images were no different from Leuven, a city with a violent history and often referred to as ‘Old Leuven’.
French-speaking students once clashed with their Dutch-speaking counterparts and one student died. The government then decided to separate them by building a ‘New Leuven’ from scratch in a former potato field.
It is in the Old Leuven that I managed to eat a Belgian waffle. My stay in Belgium was short, I should say, but I am glad I did not leave the same person.
I left with life lessons, from patience, to living life the way it is served.