Stairway to HeavenThere are chartreuse grasshoppers everywhere as I make the long and winding hike up the great tower. They are flying and hopping and flopping and sometimes smashing into me, and dying on the concrete steps that spiral up the inside of the minaret which reaches high into the air above the Gadhafi National Mosque in Kampala.
It was completed in 2006 and financed, as you can guess, by Col. Muammar Gadhafi, the leader of Libya. It is the third largest mosque in Africa (numbers 1 and 2 are in Egypt and Morocco). I'd been told I wouldn't be able to go inside, but upon arrival in the parking lot I am enthusiastically greeted by rifle-hugging, camouflage-wearing police, given a guest book to sign, and directed to climb the steps to the mosque's massive front doors. On the way up the staircase, someone gently asks me to remove my sandals, which I do. Once inside, I ask the guard if it is okay to take photographs. He seems surprised at the question. "Of course," he says, "take all the pictures you like."
The vast white room is empty except for a small boy who wanders around some, gazes up at the chandeliers that were made in Egypt, and then kneels down to pray. Later he joins me, taking my hand for a while and laughing when I show him each photo after I take it.
At one point, the boy leads me over to the large Quran that Gadhafi gave to the mosque and stands next to it. I take his picture with the huge book then hold the camera out for him to see. He giggles loudly enough to make an echo. The guard scowls at us from across the room, and walks briskly to where we're standing.
I think he's going to scold us, but instead he affectionately rubs the boy on the head and takes his hand. "Let me show you the ladies' gallery," he says.
"Is he your son?" I ask as we walk.
"No, he's my brother's son, my nephew."
We go up to a mezzanine overlooking the main floor. The guard flips a wall switch and the chandeliers light up throughout the entire mosque.
"Wow," I say.
"Wow," the boy says.
"This place was designed by a very young man, a boy, really, a Libyan," the guard tells me. "He was paid much money by Gadhafi."
We walk down from the mezzanine and outside. I lean back and take a photo looking up at the tower.
"Can we go up in it?" I ask.
"No," the guard says. "It is much money to go up in."
"Ten thousand," he says solemnly. (That's about $5.)
"I'd pay ten thousand to go to the top." I hand him the purple shillings note.
"Fine," he says. "Webale, ssebo." He pulls a key from his pocket, walks to the door at the base of the tower, opens a padlock and we enter what resembles the interior of a chambered nautilus. And up we climb. And climb. And climb some more. I'm trudging and sweating; he's nearly galloping, not a bead of sweat on him.
He stops to wait for me on a landing and when I reach him he points at the floor littered with small light green cadavers. "Do you see the grasshoppers? They are going to heaven."
At the top, the reward is immediate: I step out onto the terrace and there, in every direction, is a view of Kampala that's even better than Google Earth. Straight ahead, the old and new bus parks. To the right, the Kabaka's palace.
And far, far below, in his new silver Toyota Ipsum, is my driver, Farouk. I wave for a long time but get no response.
When I get back to the Toyota, I tell Farouk I waved to him from the top of the tower. "I would have seen you, my brother," he says, "but I was napping. And I would have taken a picture -- if I'd had a camera."
"Webale, ssebo," I say.
--- Douglas Cruickshank