Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Kampala capers

April 5th

My first full day in Uganda. We’re all on holiday, so we get up late. As we come back from the showers we notice that there are monkeys living in the trees around the hostel; in fact the blasted things wake us up by bouncing around on the tin roof of our dorm! Honestly – in Gitarama the pied crows wake me up with their banging round; now here in Kampala its monkeys with feet as heavy as hammers!

We study the breakfast menu……. Being me, I throw away all restraints and order the full mega breakfast – sausages, bacon, two eggs – the lot! I mean, after three months in Rwanda where you just can’t get proper bacon or sausages, wouldn’t you all do the same?

We haven’t even started eating our food when Tina arrives. She’s flown up on the early morning plane from Kigali. Kampala itself doesn’t have an airport; the planes land at Entebbe which is about thirty kilometres away. Her journey has not been without incident. To meet the check-in time she has had to leave her hotel at about four in the morning – or she has tried to. The hotel door has been locked fast, with the doorman and night guard nowhere to be found and probably asleep on the job, and it’s taken her so long to find someone to let her out that by the time she arrives at Kigali airport the check-in time has long gone. However, nobody’s in a hurry and she ends up sitting in a plane full of passengers waiting for their pilot, who has overslept and is desperately late for his first flight of the day……

During breakfast we arrange our rafting trip down the Nile. There are two main companies doing rafting, and either can be booked from the Hostel. Even better, the price includes being picked up from the Hostel and returned to it, a free night’s accommodation at Jinja, and food and drink during the rafting day. So by eight o’clock we’ve already accomplished one of the day’s main aims. Soraya is not coming rafting with us because she’s done it before.

Suitably stuffed, we set off into town to find somewhere to change money. Soraya has enough shillings to pay our matata fare. And straight away we make another nice discovery. In Rwanda you sit four abreast in a matata, and it is a real squash (just ask my family). Here in Uganda the law says only three abreast. The seats are bigger; the ride is comfortable; the ride may be more expensive than in Rwanda but this is comfort we’re prepared to pay for!

Kampala is much bigger than Kigali. It is far busier, and the press of traffic in the middle of town has to be seen to be believed. Driving here is an absolute free for all; nobody gives an inch. The slightest gap in traffic means somebody will close up to within a hand’s breadth of your vehicle. And throughout all this confusion there are hundreds and hundreds of motos (here known as “boda-bodas” which weave their way around everything and everyone. If the roads are jammed solid, traffic simply uses the pavement – cars and lorries as well as boda-bodas. The pavements are covered with parked vehicles, so pedestrians have to walk out in the road most of the time. All that separates us from carnage is that the traffic is moving at walking pace and if a car hits you it’s more like a sharp nudge than being run over.

Close to the town centre there is a chaotic mixture of houses, factories, shops, and the odd remnant of fields with goats and cows grazing. In the centre itself the pavements are wide, but most of them are covered with tarpaulins full of clothes, watches, newspapers, so that simply trying to walk from one point to another is like following an obstacle course. But there are no beggars. We don’t get “muzungu” yelled at us every five minutes.

There’s a heavy Moslem presence, with men identifiable by their robes and skull caps, and women more covered up that the average Ugandan. I never saw any Moslem women in Uganda completely covered up, so I guess that here Islam is interpreted as liberally as in Gitarama. Young Ugandan women wear skirts which would definitely not be acceptable in Kigali, and there are relatively few women in African “traditional” robes. Everything we see here in Kampala gives us the impression that living standards are higher, people are wealthier, and things are more progressive than in Kigali. And yet Uganda endured almost as bad an experience as Rwanda’s genocide during and after Idi Amin’s rule. Uganda has had longer to recover, and has managed to do so without the unceasing guilt and bosom beating that characterises Rwanda.

Another impressive difference between Rwanda and Uganda is in the amount of newspapers sold. In Rwanda it is really rare to see newspapers on sale outside Kigali. In Uganda there are newspapers everywhere. There is a far wider choice of papers. And the editorial freedom is incomparably greater. Ugandan newspapers are sensational to the nth degree; no murder victim is immune from having her mangled corpse on the front page. On Easter Monday the headlines include someone who has run amok and killed four people in one family; someone else drowned in a boating accident; and an evangelical Christian who has killed his own wife on suspicion that she has been seeing someone else. Thereby he has left his own twelve children motherless. What on earth gives him the idea that a mother with twelve children would ever have the time and inclination to be carrying on with another man….? The features section includes heavyweight items such as whether circumcision improves your sex life (I’m tempted to ask whether it puts you a cut above the others, but the girls say such remarks are in bad taste), and a photo spread on the woman with the biggest hips in the world, who turns out to be a Rwandan exile living in the USA. Almost invariably there is no world news on the front page; sex scandals (“sodomised by teacher and then kicked out of school” runs one headline) and political intrigue are far more important than the world economic meltdown!

The centre of Kampala is a hollow in a valley, whereas Kigali sits across several hilltops. By mid morning the heat is intense. Uganda is at a lower elevation than Kigali, yet alone Gitarama, and you really feel the heat here. In fact the heat, from about 10 in the morning to about 4 in the afternoon, is the only thing about Uganda I find I don’t like. We slather ourselves with sun cream, but we all still get burnt. I’m wearing my cotton hat, but I can feel my head burning even through the hat!

In the middle of town they are tearing everything down and rebuilding, just as in Rwanda towns. There are rivers taking storm water through the town centre; these have become open sewers though in this rainy season they don’t smell. People squat beside these drains with cardboard boxes of watches, cheap jewellery and sweets to sell to passers by. At intervals they’ll suddenly swoop up their box of goods and leg it down the road as the green and white municipal enforcement jeep approaches, only to return a few seconds later laughing sheepishly and trying to act big.

It’s impossible to move around in Kampala without getting muddy, especially your feet. You get splashed by passing traffic, and there is just so much mud and so many puddles, especially just following a rainstorm. So people calmly take off their sandals and wash their feet in the drains at the roadside, and then carry on as normal.

What you notice throughout Uganda is the litter. The place is filthy with plastic bags, bottles, paper, bits of abandoned clothing. It’s everywhere. We begin to realise just how good the Rwanda have become at keeping their country pristine.

It’s Sunday and all the banks are closed, as are most of the forex bureaus. We really don’t want to use street money changers unless we’re forced to as a last resort. Fortunately we find we change money in a forex at a hotel; the rate doesn’t seem as good as some of the money changers were offering at the border yesterday, but at least we get exactly what we’re promised. (We also have to bargain to get the rate up. Whereas in England everything is offered at discount rates, here in Uganda everything is offered at a “starting price” and you have to negotiate a more favourable rate. Everything takes ages and after an hour’s shopping you feel wrung out.

Right in the middle of Kampala centre is the most enormous bus park, one of at least three in the town centre. This one is possibly even bigger than Nyabogogo in Kigali, and the chaos is indescribable. Matatas can’t get out because others are fighting their way in. There’s no such thing as driving on the left – if you see a piece of unoccupied road you go for it whichever side of the road it’s on. All available flat space around and inside the bus park is taken up by hawkers and sellers of this and that. The bus park itself is heavily cratered and potholed and there are pools of water a foot deep in parts. People – travellers, porters, women carrying enormous loads on their heads – are squeezing past moving buses in random patterns. Every vehicle is tooting its horn at everyone and everything else. It’s mad, mad, mad – and I love it!

There are public parks in the middle of Kampala; not big, but the mere fact that they exist sets it apart from Kigali. In Kigali there’s nowhere you can go to relax on a bench, under a tree, in the shade. Everything is built over. Here in Kampala the Victorian English tradition of providing civic parks has just about hung on, and right in the middle of town there’s a little piece of green like a city’s lungs where the noise of traffic fades somewhat and you feel less pressured by all the commerce.

Along one little road in the centre of town there is a line of breakdown trucks. Apparently, if your car breaks down in the centre you are not allowed to tow it away yourself; you have to get one of these professionals to do it for you (and pay their price). Despite the age of some of the cars we saw in Kampala, the breakdown trucks didn’t seem to be very busy on any of the occasions we passed them!

Above the city centre a swarm of marabou storks wheels and turns in the air. These huge birds look vaguely sinister and prehistoric in silhouette, as if a flight of pterodactyls has come back to life and decided to besiege Kampala. When they come to ground and perch on the edge of a building they look like gruesome gargoyles!

We go to a part of town where there are craft shops. Inside a courtyard there are a score of tiny sheds, all selling the most gorgeous craftware. Beads, bangles, necklaces, bracelets, earrings, shirts, dresses, pashminas, hats, and all manner of wood carvings. Drums, spears, bookmarks, woven baskets (some from Rwanda; others to completely different patterns), painted stones, wall hangings – the list is endless and the quality excellent. We end up just getting fazed by the variety of stuff on offer, and we spend our shillings fast and furious! (To anyone reading this in England, the Ugandan shilling trades at about 3000 to the pound, so 3 shillings equal one Rwandan franc, and thirty shillings make one English penny). Prices in Ugandan shillings always seem enormous (30,000 for a shirt, for example), and I find the best technique is to divide by three and then ask myself whether I could get the item cheaper in Gitarama.

Soraya wants to take us to “Garden City”, a shopping complex some way out from the centre. We decide to travel by boda-boda. Now in Uganda you are allowed to take two passengers on one bike, and nobody ever seems to wear crash helmets. I’ve seen two passengers on a moto in Kigali, and especially in the Rwandan countryside, but it’s strictly illegal and the police would be after you in a flash. We argue whether boda-bodas without helmets are covered by our VSO insurance (probably not), but in the end we decide to go for it – taxis would be boring and life is for living (dangerously). I go on the back of one bike with Épi (lightest and heaviest), and Tina goes with Soraya. We barter and haggle for a good price, and then trust our lives to the Kampala traffic. It really is nerve wracking. The driver will head down the wrong side of a street if the road is clear, and swerve at the last moment to avoid oncoming traffic. But what’s truly scary is the procedure at road junctions. Firstly you ignore traffic lights – they are always for other people, and you are far too important to have to obey them unless there’s a policeman in sight. Then you play chicken with oncoming traffic; the most assertive always wins. This means your knees or your head frequently come within inches of heavy metal which is aiming for the same free space as your driver. You pull right out, from a red light, into the centre of the road junction so that traffic is coming for you from all directions. At the last minute your driver will accelerate and swoop and swerve round the nearest vehicle to find a space. When you’re inches from an advancing juggernaut lorry you start to see your life flash in front of you! Our elbows sometimes scrape passing traffic, we are that close. Honestly, Kampala boda-bodas aren’t for the faint hearted. Ugandans are madly aggressive behind the wheel, but at the same time kind and courteous by nature – it’s a funny juxtaposition. Accidents happen all the time, but fortunately as speeds are generally low the crunches are less fatal than you might expect.

We eat out at a streetside restaurant. I’m determined to make the most of Ugandan food and opt for “chips and chaps”. This sounds rather gay, but the “chaps” turn out to be a local version of hamburgers, heavy in onion, and fried and then roughly chopped into bite sized squares. They taste good, too.

“Garden City” is a huge modern shopping complex which wouldn’t look out of place in Birmingham or Bristol. There’s a big supermarket, and loads of specialist shops. From the top of the complex you look out over the Kampala skyline; over in this direction is the Anglican Cathedral with its two squat towers; on the hill opposite stands a lovely green and white mosque with two imposing minarets. On the skyline looms the bulk of the mosque started under Idi Amin (one of his maddest projects was to try to turn Uganda into an Islamic state); the mosque was finished with funding from Libya. Down in the centre of town there is a big open green space. It’s the site of the railway station. The Ugandan railway is one of the saddest tales in this country’s history. For thirty years it was neglected and starved of investment, until the track became too run down and dangerous to risk any more passenger trains. The passenger service simply stopped. And now even freight trains don’t make their way into the city centre any more. This is plain daft – given the state of the roads and the increasing volume of traffic, the railway needs refurbishing and promoting. One of the all time great journeys in the past was from Kampala to the Indian Ocean by sleeper train…….. Dream on, Brucey, you’ve left it years too late to enjoy playing trains in Uganda!

Back in the city centre we wander through a modern arcade of tiny clothes shops. These are so small that most of their stock is outside in the street, with rows of plastic dummies draped in brilliantly coloured fabric. The dummies are, of course, second hand from the west and invariably “white” rather than African. The dummies take up nearly all the car circulation space, so once again we have cars, people, porters and shopkeers all tripping over each other. Getting from one side of the arcade to the other is like a slow dance.

Getting a matata back to the Backpackers’ Hostel is, like in Kigali, a matter of trial and error. There are no signs saying where vehicles are going to; the system is far too chaotic for that. We know we want the Nateete Road, and eventually we discover our matatas leave from the roadside outside the main bus park. With a maximum of 14 people per vehicle they fill up far quicker than in Kigali, and we return to our Hostel pretty shattered by really pleased with ourselves. We’ve survived, and thrived, on a day in Kampala!

During the evening we’re contacted by the rafting company who ask us if we would mind postponing our rafting to Tuesday. In return they’ll give us a night’s free accommodation at Jinja. We shrug and say OK; we have intended to stay two nights at Jinja and have a day relaxing after the rafting; now it looks as though we’ll relax first and be totally laid back when we’re thrown around on the river!


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