Friday, March 23, 2012


Main Hall, Makerere University
Kampala is smaller than Nairobi.  Incontrovertible fact.  But it feels larger, faster-paced, and more congested.  The live-and-let-live accord between drivers and pedestrians that is the rule in Nairobi is not much in evidence here.  In Kampala, street crossing is a more Darwinian affair, made worse by the thousands of humming boda bodas that cascade around bends at ferocious speed with little regard for life and limb—theirs or anyone else’s.  It is also a bit more confusing to negotiate the city.  In central Nairobi the streets are laid out on more or less a grid pattern.  Of course, instead of memorising lettered and numbered streets you have to remember the names of African nationalists and post-Independence heroes, but the principle remains.
In Kampala, where stoplights are so rare that they’re actually marked on the map of the city I picked up yesterday, there is no such geometric order.  Instead, bending to the inexorable logic of geography, the streets resemble nothing so much as contour lines on a map, defined by the series of great hills that make up the city—with a healthy dose of inexplicable madness thrown in for good measure.

The street outside my temporary home in the city resembles a loading dock.  The sidewalks are wide and earthen—they’ll be a mess when the rains come—and from the early hours of the morning until well into the evening, people are loading flatbed trucks and pickups with mattresses, furniture, burlap bags, food and who knows what else, until these loads tower 15 feet above the street.

My first stop in the city was Makerere University, one of the oldest in East Africa and long the most prestigious in the area.  I think of myself as lucky to call what must be one of the most spectacularly situated university campuses anywhere home.  From Berkeley, you can see the whole of the East Bay, San Francisco when the fog indulges you, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin Headlands and, if it is particularly clear, the Farallon Islands out to sea.  Turn the other way and you can look up to forested hills full of wonderful walking paths.  Makerere gives this all a run for its money (it’s missing the water).

Atop one of Kampala’s hills, you can see across the city to the other peaks.  You can see Kasubi, Nakasero, the Cathedral, and the Fort and Mosque in Old Kampala.  The city has a red, hazy look, the same colour as the earth.  Makerere must be the favoured spot of the Marabou Storks which abound throughout the city, because they are here in impressive numbers.  Up at Makerere they all but darken the sky as great flocks of them circle above campus.  They perch above the tree-lined boulevards that make up the campus, squawking, clucking and making raven-like clicking sounds with their giant beaks. 

Between the trees and the lawns, Makerere is very green.  Its architecture is rather eclectic.  There are a few rather monumental stone buildings, like Main Hall.  Next comes the post-independence architecture that tried to Africanise the already-horrific concrete-block look some popular at the time, with predictably ghastly results (the library is one of these).  Finally, you can pick out the newer buildings that seem to be geared towards science or business departments...these look like shiny new office buildings of the kind common along suburban highways in East African cities.

I went into the library to register as a user, but the relevant desk was un-manned.  I parked myself in a nearby chair to wait.  People were friendly, and no fewer than two dozen of them stopped to ask if I needed help during the hour or two that I waited before a staff member who had gone in search of the missing librarian returned to say that he had gone home for the day, and could I return tomorrow.  I obliged, and made the trek back up to Makerere the following day.  Thought it was slightly overcast, I was drenched in sweat within minutes of starting my walk.  This time the librarian was in, and 10 minutes later I had my library card.

My next stop was the Uganda Wildlife Authority, which runs the country’s National Parks.  This entailed another walk along the edge of one of the hills, through a more suburban area.  I’ve only been here a couple of days, but already my sense is that Ugandans don’t make such a song and dance about foreigners as Kenyans do.  In Kenya someone’s always after you for something when you walk around the streets of any city or good-sized town, but that is not the case so far in Kampala.  My hypothesis would be that there are fewer tourists here and that most of the foreigners are working in the country with NGOs or the like and so are relatively self-sufficient, and that people realise this.  In any case, it’s nice not to be scrutinised so obviously.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority is down the same side road as the British High Commission, a kind of garden-like fortress.  The UWA officer sent me to the lobby, where the receptionist sent me to the research division, from where I was sent on to the library.  There, I explained myself to the uniformed librarian, who gave voice to my fears.  Most of the historical material had been kept up at Murchison Falls, but had been destroyed in 1980 (acts of historical vandalism are not as rare as one might hope—after the British destroyed many Kenyan records, the new government had to appeal to libraries and governments around the world to rebuild their records during the 1960s and ‘70s).  What remains is pretty paltry, but I got permission to drop by and work in the library any time I needed.  I assured him that I’d be back, not least because the building appeared to have a functioning air conditioning system, and I may very well have left fingernail marks in the woodwork around the door when I tore myself out of the wonderfully cool room.

My last stop on this fact-finding day was the National Library.  After inexplicably passing by its well-signed entrance twice (I’ll blame the heat), I went in and made a note to arrive early since the relatively few desks were full.  It was all very laid permits, passport or letter of introduction necessary, just a thousand shillings per day.  That sounds lie a lot, but when you get about 2,400 shillings for a dollar, it’s not too bad a rate!

After all that, I decided I’d earned a cup of tea somewhere in the shade...

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