Interview: Klaus E. P. Holderbaum

Deep down a lane in Kyaliwajjala, Kampala, German-born Klaus Holderbaum is conspicuous by his presence. Apart from being the only ‘mzungu’ in the area, he is also the tallest person around— at 6 feet and four inches! Holderbaum is the diplomat who never left; not by default, but by design.

In July 1999, when Holderbaum assumed office as the German ambassador in Uganda, he knew this would be his last posting. His first posting in Africa was in Lusaka (Zambia) from July 1974 to June 1977 as deputy ambassador, then Abidjan (Ivory Coast) from May 1980 to November 1983 as deputy ambassador, then to Bamako (Mali) from October 1986 to February 1991 as ambassador. Then Yaounde (Cameroon), after which he was also accredited to Chad, Central African Republic and Equatorial Guinea – from October 1995 to June 1999 as ambassador.

He could have chosen any of those places to retire. But it was Uganda that suited him best. He charted out his ‘post retirement’ in Uganda two years before the day arrived. A day after he stepped down as Ambassador, he became Advisor to a German company, Gauff Engineering, on July 1, 2003. During his second last meeting with President Museveni, while he still held office, Holderbaum also discussed how he could potentially help his new resident country after retirement. From September 1, 2003 (for the next three years), he was Advisor to the Ministry of Tourism, Trade and Industry (now Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities).

In this role, he travelled back to Germany to promote Uganda tourism, and convince tour operators to include The Pearl of Africa in their tour packages. There was a steady increase in German tourists during those years. However, Holderbaum says, “Tourism is a sensitive sector. Incidents such as terror attacks and the Ebola outbreak can hamper the increasing numbers. It takes time and enormous efforts to revive confidence and explain incidents such as these as singular.”

Over the next few years, Holderbaum served as Independent Consultant, Advisor and member of the Board of Director of various organisations, including United Assurance, Gauff Engineering, Nnabagereka Development Foundation, QNet Ltd and on the Board of Trustees of the Duke of Edinburgh Award (U). Today, his crisp business card proud states, ‘Senior Presidential Advisor on Tourism and Investment’, and the 78-year-old is far from ‘retiring’.

He loves all things Ugandan, as is reflected in his living space too. “I know you cannot get everything in Kampala, but you can get nearly everything,” he smiles. Anyone who has met Holderbaum remembers him for his towering personality, literally and figuratively. And it is this attribute that provides fodder for several anecdotes.

Sharing one such incident, he says, “As an ambassador, I was quite often invited to events in the British High Commissioner’s large residence garden on different levels. These were memorable events such as the Queen’s birthday, with an eventual guest attendance of up to 3,000 guests. It was very easy to get lost in the crowd. As the evening would progress, I would notice groups forming around me, and when they reached a certain number, they would suddenly disperse. I noticed this over a few parties and was intrigued. One day, I decided to ask my colleagues. Amidst peals of laughter, they explained that it was an unwritten pact that if anyone got lost, they would assemble near the German ambassador when it was time to leave!”