Kelivin Odoobo, a Ugandan working in Kigali recently travelled to his home country’s capital city- Kampala and was prompted to give an analogy between the two cities he is familiar with.
Here is the story: If you are well accustomed to the pleasant freshness of Kigali’s mornings, weaving and interweaving over the calmness of people going about their usual business, immaculate palm frond - lined avenues, lightly caressed and at times symmetrically divided by well tended, neatly paved green paspalum strips, Kampala will approach you as a completely riotous place.
The feeling one gets when you approach the city from Masaka Road, which if you went to Kampala by bus, will lead you into the heart of Uganda’s capital, is similar to riding on a restless river, before it approaches its mouth, at a lake or ocean, spilling its waters into the big mass, with lots of relief.
The occasionally pot-holed road snaking through the beauty of the green of the countryside, from the gentle-sloping hills, grazed or dotted with banana plants towards the small signs of urbanity.
The maisonettes dotting the green of the far countryside, of people of affluence, who went to the city, made some money and back-pedalled to the villages to revel in the wonders of unblemished life and scenery.
The big new campuses of twenty first century schools, the likes of the St. Lawrence’s, portray the new philosophy of secondary school education – cosy, metropolitan and comfortable.
This mishmash of unadulterated country punctuated by feeble human attempts at marrying civilization and nature conservation, breaks away as the real suburbs of Kampala;, Kyengera, Natete, come into view.
The chaos of Kampala’s unplanned urban expansion begins to rear its ugly head. A concrete jungle of houses, mostly brick made pointing in all directions, almost kissing and swallowing the besieged road; giving way for lots of dust, for Kampala’s to tread on, every day.
Kampala, unlike Kigali, is not famous for its cleanliness. It’s on record that perhaps the cleanest it ever came to in the near past was during Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), when the Queen of England’s royal Buick was to be driven along those same nonchalant roads (no wonder her handlers chose a much more off-road vehicle that is the Range Rover).
Along Kampala Road, towards Old Kampala, and Kololo neighbourhoods, it is clear that the handiwork of British urban planners has managed to survive long enough, but outside this, it is a beautiful mess of boom and gloom. But in the town centre, next to the old and new taxi park, it appears as if all the two million inhabitants of the city have descended onto commercial hub of the capital.
Multiple-storeyed building divided into small one-metre square shops selling everything, from mobile phones, to underwear, and around them, hawkers having a field day, preying on customers who are too impatient to squeeze into the crowds in search of what they want.
During rush hours, the taxis (fourteen seater minibuses) swerve and rave all around the rest of the traffic, hooting endlessly and needlessly. The conductors are engaged in an unregulated competition to shout their various destinations to mostly uninterested pedestrians.
“Wandegeya, Kamwokya, Ntinda.” One will shout and in the middle of it “Nakawa, Banda, Kireka, Bweyogerere.” If you are the stranger in Kampala, you will hear only one word, not three or four. If you stay longer to learn to decipher the different names, you will master all the suburbs of the city in one day.
In the thick of the traffic jam, you will be forgiven for thinking, in Uganda, taxis have right to drive left or right The road rules say keep left, but for some taxi drivers left, especially during traffic jams, can mean the pavements as well. Woe to you, if you think Kigali’s motos are fast and careless.
Uganda’s bodabodas, as their motorcycle taxis are known, are the perfect definition for urban anarchy. They weave between cars, buildings, pedestrians, between anything. They have no speed limits. They compete with fuel tankers. They can even climb stairs, depending on where you want them to take you!
In fact, one foreign resident in Kampala once claimed that the chance that you will be hit by bodaboda while crossing any Kampala street without checking is ninety nine percent.
So if bodaboda are a nightmare, how come they have never gone out of business? On an average weekday in Kampala, you will never keep an appointment if you elect to board a taxi unless you have the time to travel an hour before. The easiest way to make it is to park your car, jump onto one, and order the guy to fly!
Kampala’s nightlife is a mirror of the social psyche of Ugandans. When people are mourning they console themselves in beer. And when they are in a celebratory mood, they immerse themselves into – you guessed right – beer.
The less affluent suburbs are lined with two and three table bars while the posh ones read like a list of the most happening joints, with fancy come-get-me names like TLC, Mr. Biggs, Faze 2, to name but a few. It is therefore no surprise, that in 2005, the World Health Organisation found out that Ugandans drank more beer than any other county in the world.
Particularly in the suburbs of Nakulabye, Wandegeya and Ntinda, pork is the lingua franca, the legal tender. It comes fried or mostly roasted, with lots of spices; avocado, tomatoes, nakati and lots and lots of beer to wash all that fat down. It is literarily a daily massacre of pigs, a regular immersion into yeast.
‘Kampalans’ do not know the difference between Monday or Wednesday or Friday. All the time is party time. And who says the churches are to be left out? It is either lunch hour fellowship or overnight or weekend retreat. To be saved is in vogue, never mind whether one practices what they preach.
Followers drop the creative names of their flashy pastors, as if they were some red hot label. No wonder Pentecostal churches are a booming business.
In Kampala’s chaos of subsistence, shows through a certain uncanny attempt to survive, amidst harsh living conditions, competition, even beyond the set rules and laws.