Reflections on Kampala

Hotel viewIt’s been two interesting weeks in Africa so far. The pace is rather slow in general, which is nice in a way. It was hard during the first week, because we were in Kampala for a week without very much to do. We met with a couple people at TASO headquarters, but we were mostly waiting around for a ride to Mbale, which was made difficult because the crisis in Kenya meant fuel had a hard time coming in to Uganda (fuel prices went up from 2-3,000 to 6,000 or more per litre – that is, from $2 to $4.50). Some gas stations were rationing. There were long lines. I thought, oh, the 70s fuel crisis must have been like this.

Kampala is a big city, but feels much smaller. It just sprawls in all directions and is hustling and bustling, but buildings are mostly 3-4 stories (with some notable exceptions), so it doesn’t have a big city feel.

Touristy things we went to in Kampala:
* Ndere Troupe dancers – very cool troupe of dancers and musicians who perform dances from a variety of tribes within Uganda. The show lasted 3 hours and was like dinner theater; you could get food and drink while you were watching. It was a very interesting and fun way to kick off our African visit.
* Uganda Museum – a nice, albeit low-tech, museum of the natural and cultural history of Uganda. It included stone age and iron age tools and clothing, as well as traditional instruments and common animals to be found here. Animals included antelopes, insects, and the “Strange Pig-like Mammal” (aka, Aardvark).

We also learned how to take the “boda-bodas” (which can be either mopeds or bicycles), which are called that name because they used to function in the no-mans-land between the borders (such as Uganda- Kenya), where no large vehicles could go. People would get to one border, have a boda-boda take them and their stuff across the no-mans-land to the other border. . These can take you anywhere you’d like to go for a small fee. Of course, you have to bargain with the drivers because they will try to charge you an over-inflated “mzungu” (white person) price. They call out to you, “Mzungu, yes, we go?!” All are very friendly, and do not persist if you say no.

Our cook, Charlotte, took very good care of us in Kampala. One day, she accompanied us to town and taught us about the “taxis”, which we would call public transportation mini-buses (actual taxis are called “special hires”). Initially, it was impossible to tell where these were going and why and how and when; basically, it seemed totally chaotic when we first encountered these minibuses. Charlotte explained that they actually have set routes and you just need to know which route you want to get on, and find the right one by asking. Although there are no signs, people are helpful and it’s not that hard if you know what you’re looking for. For example, we learned that basically all taxis going in one direction from our hotel would lead to downtown Kampala, so that direction was easy. On the way home, we just needed to look for the “Wandagaye-Bwaise” taxis. Not too hard! The taxis themselves are minibuses with four rows of seats (including the front), with foldable seats near the exit so people can let you out. If you want to stop, you tell the conductor, who sits nearest the door and takes payment, recruits passengers, and tells the driver when to stop. A ride from the hotel to downtown (5 miles?) costs 500 shillings, or about 30 cents. A big improvement from the special hire fee of 10-20,000!

Charlotte also took us to the taxi park, which is a mess of minibus taxis loading up (?) or waiting. I’m not sure how they get out of there; it is just a seemingly disorganized parking lot of minibuses. I don’t know, maybe it secretly makes sense.

Next, we went to the market. Not the craft market (which was nice) or the food market (which we walked past), but the Western-donated-clothing-for-sale market. And by “market,” I mean “anthill-claustrophobia-heaven!” What a place. Firstly, the entrance was like the entrance to an ancient arena, with a darkening and narrowing passageway leading you in to the lion pit. Oh, I mean, no, to the market… with piles and piles of pants, shoes, bags, shirts, skirts, more shoes, more clothing, piles above waist height along the narrow passage-way. The passage-way floor is dirt, boards, stones, rocks… above you, there might be a bit of sky in between the rough-shod umbrellas, sheet metal, cardboard, or other covering each stall has constructed. It is dark, but you can see. There are people everywhere. You think to yourself, it was hard enough just *walking* in here, I wonder how long someone stays in here selling things? All day? It seems like the space is so full, it would be hard to move from your stall, to get un-stuck from the piles. And people are calling out to you, “mzungu, buy a shirt!” “mzungu, look here!” … some grab your arm, and hold on a little too tightly… After about 5 minutes, we told Charlotte we wanted to leave. Now. Right now. We want to get out.

Not to end on such a creepy note, I made a happy addition to my library with the purchase of “Wildlife of Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania” – a very nice book with photos of many birds, snakes, frogs, mammals, insects, and even trees. It has been very useful, as we were able to identify the Marabou Stork and Ruppell’s Long-tailed Starling (see previous photos under the First Impressions entry), as well as other birds, like Egrets and Pied Crows (ugly and loud!). We’ve also seen a predatory bird, which was either a Black Kite or Wahlberg’s Eagle. Trees I think we’ve seen: Yellow-barked Acacia, Flame Tree, Jacaranda (definitely seen this one – very awesome purple flowers), Frangipani, and palms. Our hotel in Kampala had a garden with many bourgainvillea bushes, which were beautifully blooming with paper-thin flower petals of bright fuchsia. The only problem with the garden was that it bred mosquitoes, which probably gave me 60 bites or more, including about 15 on my ring finger (which looked so weird, but has healed now) and 28 on my upper right arm (which made me look like I had measles or something).

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