I had made up my mind that yesterday would be my first time to vote.
Previous elections found me either unprepared, out of the country or on duty. This time, 5:49am finds me at Kyengera Catholic church polling station, hoping to be among the first voters at 7am, before hurrying to office to follow the stories of other voters.
By 6:30am, it is clear things are not entirely organized. Some polling officials are complaining that their colleagues have not yet arrived. About two dozen voters around have no idea where to line up. A part from demarcations with white tape, no one seems to know which group of voters – according to their name-groups arranged in alphabetical order – is supposed to be where.
It is now 6:45am and it is clear voting cannot not start on time at 7am.
“Please show us where to line up, otherwise people who come later might vote before us and we shall have wasted our time by coming here early,” a young man shouts at no one in particular.
The man in charge responds with a sneer: “Mhm! Voting materials have not yet reached the sub-county and you want to line up? To what end?”
Startled, I try not to read too much into what the man has said. Yet the hopelessness and indifference with which he has spoken keeps coming back to me.
By 7:15am, the crowd has grown to more than 200. Different polling officials now have registers for their allocated names. Voters are tugging at the papers to locate their names, which come with the same pictures as are on the national ID. I have no voter locations slip, but I have my national ID and a message from the Electoral Commission placing me in the “M-NAM” group. I locate my name with an elderly woman with an angular face.
“Great, you are now my Kiggundu. All I have to do is to go where they will allocate you,” I tell her.
She smiles and mutters something about her being a Kiggundu (the Electoral Commission chairman) of sorts.
7:23am: A buxom woman in a sleeveless dress scuttles in, fanning herself with a white handkerchief. She has four “letters” that officially designate the polling officials to man the various desks. She gives them out to four women.
“Semanda has said the rest will come at 11am, but whoever I have given, I want to see you seated at a desk. Just pick any desk, when they come we can move you, but get a desk.”
I am happy that my “Kiggundu” has got one of the letters. Still I am bothered; by 11am there will still be things missing? Does that mean some people will not be voting? Can some people start before others? What’s going on?
With my newspaper and a large diary-turned-notebook, I have desperate people asking me all manner of questions – where their names are, whether they will vote without a voter slip, when voting will start. I answer with calm. But inside, I am a storm.
8.30am: Still no smell of voting materials. I am now perpetually shaking my head. I take a sweeping look around. Perhaps 1,000 people are here. Some had gone to Daily Market polling station but they were told they are supposed to come near the church. I hope all of them were told, and that they actually came. The cacophony of polling officials explaining, voters complaining, and radio newscasts makes this a market place.
“I am sure in the villages people are already voting,” one woman is telling another, who agrees firmly: “Yiiii, you know it. Here they know we like Besigye; so, they are trying to reduce our voters. They know we have work to do and if you are not very, very keen, you just go away.”
I think about that. Soon, I talk to friends in Masaka, in Jinja, in Gulu towns. Same story. Voting materials have either just arrived at some polling stations or, in the case of Jinja, they have not seen them at all. By coincidence, deep in Kyesiiga village in Masaka district, voting has started.
9:00am: One of the youths who seems to either work for the EC or the NRM says the voting materials have no reached Nsangi sub-county. He catches me studying his face for a trace of credibility. We smile at each other, each seemingly wondering who the other is.
9:58pm: I see people dashing to queue up; word is, voting materials have arrived. Looking ahead of me, I am number 30 in the queue. Shame. I arrived here first. But it could have been worse. There are about 50 people behind me.
“But where is the vehicle carrying the materials?” one man asks.
It’s nowhere. The line quickly disintegrates. Apparently it was area MP Medard Sseggona who someone had mistaken for an EC official bringing materials. All the lines slowly melt into groups of four or six angry people.
It is not an official suspicion; the authorities are doing this deliberately. I learn that when Besigye was here days back, his crowd was “bigger than that of the Kabaka” (according to one young woman). So, the woman says, the NRM people have decided Kyengera should not vote.
“Haa, but this man!” one old woman is cursing someone. “And the way he calls us rats! He said we are rats and his daughter Musisi is trying to eliminate us. May be we are rats. But we the rats voted him into office and we the rats will vote him out. I will not leave.”
I now know the man. He has a hat. Could I be a rat?
“Fellow rats, how are you?” I joke as I pass the bitter old woman.
“My child, can’t you see how we are suffering,” she laughs. Everyone laughs.
In front of the Kyengera church, people are really agitated, the younger men equally animated.
“You people, are you still printing the ballot boxes in South Africa,” one asks an official, who smiles pitifully.
Another young man breezes past, smiling mischievously: “You people, they said voting was to start at 7pm; did you people think it was 7am?”
Sometimes, I remember a Luganda saying, you can be so angry that you laugh. I see a towering, balding man in threadbare, pure-white shirt shaking his head as he ambles away. I hold his gaze.
“This is terrible,” he tells me. “But we shall vote. Whatever time they come, we shall vote.”
10:40am: Still nothing. I am heading to my car to drive out. Duty has called. An elderly woman is arriving and she looks puzzled that no voting is taking place.
“I thought I was late, but what is this they are doing?” she asks me, as if I am supposed to know who “they” are.
“Everyone must have a sense of shame, but this now is shameless!”
10: 40am: I have started the engine. Then I see people darting to line up. I hurriedly turn it off and jump out to rejoin the line. I am probably number 50 in the queue. Still, I need to vote.
10:45: The local man in charge laughs at us. “You people, who told you the materials are here? I think they have just arrived at Nsangi sub-county.”
I am now too upset to move. Behind me, two Muslim women in black Hijab dresses are in despair.
“He should have let us vote so that we get some satisfaction,” one says. “For me, I think once we have voted, he can do anything with the results but at least we should have voted, instead of losing a whole day.”
I look at her critically, as if to see which “he” she is talking about. She seems really angry.
11:00am: This is it. I have to go to work. As I walk out, the old man with a pure-white, threadbare shirt is walking in, talking partly to whoever cares and partly to himself.
“Temugenda (don’t go),” he says. “Tulina okulonda” (We have to vote).
By 12:25pm, voting materials had arrived at Kyengera but voting was yet to start.