The 9am sun lit his dark, smiling face as he cordially interacted with his wife and daughter at the terrace as they enjoyed breakfast. On another table, a group of young travellers gesture and mumble conceivably readying themselves to request for a photo moment with Gen Edward Katumba Wamala.
When his table is cleared, the young travellers walk to his table and exchange courtesies with him. They ask to take selfies with him and he obliges.
This attracts smiles and poses on one of the terraces of Brovad Sands Lodge where we learn that he is staying for a weekend.
He could pass for another civilian in his navy blue dotted short sleeved shirt. Through the facility manager we land an interview with the Works minister.
As Gen Wamala descends to the poolside, he beckons one of the waiters and asks them to prepare two fish; one boiled and another deep fried for their lunch. The poolside is within sight of Lake Victoria whose waters are calm at the mid-morning hour.
The clouds are dark and the sunshine is only seen over the horizon. The general looks comfortable among other guests as he enjoys the serenity of Africa’s largest fresh water body.
Later on, during the chat he breaks into a hearty laugh when we ask him about the things that he would list out for tourists to visit Kalangala, in the Ssese archipelago of 84 islands.
“Your visit to Ssese is incomplete without tasting some fresh fish,” he beams.
That weekend, he was in the islands to relax and to also supervise and get an update on the progress of the Masaka-Bukakata Road which he says has cost government a fortune, thus the need to have it completed to ease movement for road users and residents on that stretch.
Then, the subject of marine tourism takes centre stage in the conversation.
“I have interacted with foreign tourists who have asked me about our plan for the lake given the potential it has for tourism. I have recently sent my team to do some research on what can be done to improve navigation so that we grow the potential of the lake,” he explains.
The weather here is moody and within minutes of the hovering dark clouds, the skies open and let go a drizzle. The General seems unfazed by this.
“In Kalangala, it can rain anytime,” the former Inspector General of Uganda Police Force says.
To matters of leisure, Gen Wamala calls on Ugandans to visit Kalangala to reconnect with Mother Nature.
“The national parks have wildlife which is good but if you need to relax, away from the hustle of Kampala or your town life, come to Kalangala and enjoy fresh air as you reconnect with nature,” the former army commander implores locals.
He hinges his call in the ongoing challenge of low uptake by tourism facilities of visitors, given the closure of Entebbe International Airport. He advises hotel and lodge owners to introduce incentives to attract Ugandans to their facilities, citing that foreign travellers and tourists might not be visiting Uganda soon.
Gen Wamala observes that the tourism sector has been hit hard as well as the complementary services such as transport. He estimates that if the airport remains closed, Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) will lose Shs160b in terms of revenue because of flights not coming in and going out.
“Look at the other related services; the cargo handlers, transporters, tour companies, hotels, it is a massive loss. The industry will take time to recover,” he observes.
Gen Wamala also argues that post-Covid travel is going to be expensive in light of social distancing in aircrafts which will mean airlines carrying less passengers and therefore a hike in the price of air tickets.
A local travel enthusiast, the four-star general lists Queen Elizabeth, Murchison Falls and Kidepo Valley national parks as his favourites, thanks to the variety of wildlife they have as well as flora.
The military officer was introduced to tourism at an early age, a time when Kalangala was virgin. Connecting to the mainland was a full day’s travel.
“We travelled using the babas. The ferry would leave Kalangala and go to different islands collecting people and their merchandise and head out to Port Bell in Luzira where it would reach at about 7pm. Today, transport is better. You can make a return journey from Kalangala to the mainland on the same day,” he observes.
Besides the MV Kalangala which plies the Nakiwogo-Kalangala and back route then the Bukakata ferry, and two more ferries; MV Vanessa and MV Natalie ply the Nakiwogo-Kalangala and return trips as well as to Jinja for luxury tourists.
There are also motorised boats on the lake.
“I have interacted with a businessman who is in talks with Asian partners to bring more leisure and business opportunities to Lake Victoria as they link the East African countries of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda.”
Besides official duties, the 63-year-old is motivated by a purposed life.
“Life is good depending on how you take it. I think sometimes we stress too much, but life is worth living and if you are determined to enjoy it as you work, go ahead. You are a journalist and it counts if you do it out of passion,” he says. “I always ask people who want to join the army, for instance, what their reason is for joining. If it is for the love of service, I encourage them to proceed.”
He is a Rotarian as well. In that capacity, community work and improvement of people’s lives draw him in. During his weekend visit, he takes hours off to check on a dispensary and nursery school in Ndajje, which the Rotary Club of Kampala Ssese undertook to build in response to the demands of the community there.
As a leader, he also makes general inquiries to find out how the people are responding to the challenges the covid-19 pandemic has brought. The only breather during the cool-off weekend, seems to be at meal times.
Duty seems to propel him in different directions. And the career trail of the distinguished military officer, a former Chief of Defence Forces, the highest military rank in the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), is one from which he draws two highlights.
“One of the highlights of my life was serving in police. I went in a very challenging institution by then, one which had no image whatsoever, one where many would not have gone to serve but I left with my head high. I think I made an impact. The little I contributed was felt,” he explains.
The other were the operations he led against the West Nile Bank Front in Koboko.
“I left Arua not the same, not only defeating the rebels but having left with good working relations with the populace,” he adds. When he went to study at The US Army War College in Pennslyvania in 1999, he impressed the college. Later he was inducted in the USAWC International Hall of Fame in 2014.
Life after work
Retirement has crossed his mind. He started preparing and working towards it a couple of years ago.
“At one point, I have to retire, and that is something that many of us in the public life make a mistake about. We don’t plan for the time we will be away from office,” he observes. With that in mind and seeing some of his friends bitter for not adequately preparing for their retirement, Gen Wamala says he started investing in areas which would enable him stay afloat after service.
He loves planting trees
“I do forest planting. That is not a short-term investment. It is part of my fallback position if I were to retire today,” he says. His advice is, someone needs to find a feasible investment because in retirement, you might not need a lot of money but definitely some of it.
“You can either do property investment, farming and forestry which give you assured income. I have my reservations on investment in transport because they are sometimes risky ventures.”
“At the age between 65 and 70years, are you ready to go into high risky investments? One which will give your sleepless nights?” he asks.
On the whole, he says that whatever comes his way, he embraces it.
“I have enjoyed all my transition from a military officer to a policeman. I remember the cartoons you (Daily Monitor) used to draw, with one side a policeman and another an army officer. I went in and enjoyed working as a cop. I have never regretted,” he adds, in a conclusive and jocular way.