The Best of Times in the Worst of Times

Even in the creepiest of locales, a war correspondent found an excuse to celebrate

JOE CLAIMED TO HAVE TAUGHT IDI AMIN how to box, and he didn't tolerate any trash talking about his protégé.

"Like this business about Amin eating people," Joe, a towering Irishman in his mid-sixties, growled, gulping down the rest of his ninth or twelfth Guinness. "That was just some concoction of his enemies."

In the autumn of 1986 there wasn't much to put Kampala, the war-ravaged capital of Uganda, on the top of anyone's social circuit. Idi Amin was long gone, yet Kampala was still a creepy place. I was a fledgling journalist, but the skills honed in my former profession—bartender—had convinced me there had to be a party going on somewhere.

I found it in the basement of the British High Commission. Every Saturday and Wednesday night, the downtown space became the watering hole of the city's white expatriate community, filled with diplomats, relief workers, shady businessmen, and old colonial-era hangers-on like Joe. In one corner was the dartboard. Behind the bar, two men in shirtsleeves deftly poured draft beers. It was fun—a swirling, staggering mass of people enjoying themselves to the din of old British pop tunes—in a place where fun was a rare commodity.

The reason the Kampala pub has stuck in my mind is that, for the first time, I truly understood the function of partying: It's about transcending everyday concerns, about being transported to a place where all is immediate and intense and unguarded—and where, with any luck, all will be forgotten by morning. As an outsider, I was instantly accepted and taken into others' confidence.

As in the case of Joe. Late that evening, after the Guinness had poured far too freely, he admitted that, yes, it probably was true that Amin had killed his son and eaten his liver. But then he wagged a finger. "But as far as him eating bodies, I think that was probably greatly exaggerated."

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