On safari in France

Discovering a slice of Africa along the Languedoc coast sends <em>Giles Foden</em> into a childhood

Whizzing down to the south of France recently, just past the turrets of Carcassonne and the châteaux of ézignan, I found myself "indulging in a retrospect", as Henry James once put it. The occasion was the Réserve Africaine de Sigean, a magnificent safari park unaccountably situated between the vineyards of the Languedoc and the marshy beach land of the coast. We'd passed it many times before, but this year, with a nipper to entertain, we turned in and paid at the gates.

For me, they were the gates of memory, as it is not so unbelievable that some entrepreneur would put a game park here. Left to itself, the land around Sigean turns into something very like the rough scrubland and thorny savannah that I grew up on in Malawi and Uganda. It was a clever idea, too, to use the marécage, or marshland, as a border for the reserve, filling its lagoon with flamingos and crocodiles.

The inhabitants of the park seem happy, and fine specimens they are, too. A pride of lions lie on a hill in the tawny sun. A vast bull elephant sleeps standing up in his enclosure; with his front legs crossed, one over the other, and his ears flapping down, he looks like an old gentleman dozing over the paper. A baby zebra, its stripes still more brown than black, follows its mother to a waterhole, stripe upon stripe converging to a vanishing point. There is even a pair of white rhinos, which is something one would hardly ever see in Africa these days, as they have been hunted to near extinction.

But then comes a still greater surprise - a sign for boeufs watussis, as the French have it. Here are "Watusi cattle", the reference being to the Tutsi tribal grouping which, though most commonly associated with Rwanda, actually spans a vast area along the Uganda-Congo border. The cattle are also known as Ankole, after the Ugandan district around the town of Mbarara. My family used to live there. To see these magnificent, chestnut-pelted animals - with their long, thick, lyre-shaped horns - flung me back into a lost stream of life as surely as the bull would fling the toreador at that night's games in Narbonne.

The origins and genetic make-up of Ankole cattle are mysterious, some believing they were brought by nomads from ancient Egypt hundreds of centuries ago. They are to be distinguished from the various strains of East African shorthorn zebu, the ones with the humped backs, though they, too, can survive harsh conditions and go without water for long periods. The wide horn span (sometimes as much as six feet) is partly to radiate accumulated body heat.

I used to drive with my father down to the Rwandan border, where there was a grain store he had to check (he was an agricultural economist). On the way, we'd often have to part a large herd of Ankole with the Land-Rover; back home that evening, drinking beer on the veranda, we'd watch the same road as it cut through the green of the Bacwezi valley below us. Sometimes convoys of French lorries would pass, taking arms to the Hutus - dividing on the way those same longhorn cattle, associated with their ethnic enemies, that we had split that morning. This was two years before the genocide, in which France's tutelary role was, as it remains, one of the great unspeakables of international diplomacy.

Although butchered for ceremonial feasts, Ankole-Watusi cattle have something like the ven erable status of the Indian zebu, or Brahman. They are sometimes known as the "cattle of kings". President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda comes from this area (it was from Ankole that he launched his guerrilla campaign against Idi Amin) and he has one of the largest herds.

He is also a renowned breeder. Like soldiering, it's in his blood. Museveni - whose name comes from Abaseveni, a title given to Ban yan kole who fought in the 7th Regiment of the King's African Rifles during the Second World War - comes from a long line of pastoralists, a people to whom cattle mean everything. I admire him, despite the criticisms he has faced recently. He has done his best to reject the kingly direction African leaders so often move in. Having achieved a measure of political stability, substantial economic growth and reductions in levels of HIV infection, he has pulled Uganda out of the years of terror and can rightly claim to be one of Africa's greatest leaders.

Lately, however, there have been signs of rigidity in his administration. I suppose this is not surprising, after 20 years, but the president's decision to amend a constitution he himself formulated, in order to allow him to stand for a third term, caused grave international disquiet. Even Bob Geldof apparently said to him, at the launch of Tony Blair's Commission for Africa report in London in March last year, "Get a grip, Museveni. Your time is up, go away."

With the constitution duly changed, Museveni was voted in as president this February for a third time. Most observers considered the elections to be fair, even though Museveni had many advantages in being the incumbent. He clearly still has the support of the vast majority of Ugandans, who know that the material alternative could be much worse. The crust of civilisation is thin in the Great Lakes region of Africa. Does he make it thinner still by staying on, or is he right to try to preserve what he has built?

Thus the horns of the Ugandan dilemma. Like Blair versus Brown, the whole thing feels anthropological to me. It reminds one of the renewal ceremonies of African lakes tribes, Tutsis among them, whereby the old king is taken into a hut and killed by the priests and the new king (who has been hiding in the hut) is produced in a seamless transition. The problem in Kampala is that a successor has not yet emerged.

My hope is that one day Museveni will be able to retire to his farm outside Mbarara with his reputation and, more importantly, his country intact. It may be that those two things are con tradictory. In the meantime, back in England, having gone freelance from the Guardian, I muse about the possibility of importing Ankole bull semen from Uganda. A man's got to make a living somehow, and it is just the kind of niche activity in which one might thrive.

The film of Giles Foden's "The Last King of Scotland" opens on 12 January 2007