Friday, March 30, 2012

Walking to Work in Kampala


For me, the decision to walk doesn’t, as it might for Ugandans, have anything to do with protesting President Museveni’s long rule, the arbitrary detention of opposition leaders and ordinary Ugandans, rising fuel and food prices (i.e. walking to work is all you can afford), and a general sense that the country is going in the wrong direction.  It’s simply a matter of getting some of what passes for fresh air in Kampala and a bit of exercise, while avoiding the insane traffic comprised of boda bodas (motorcycles), taxis (matatus, or extended vans, which seem to be subject to none of the rules that now regulate the number of passengers and speed in Kenya), buses, lorries, and private vehicles.  Of course you can’t avoid the boda bodas entirely, as they’re more than willing to use the sidewalks in their haste to cross the city.

When I awake in the morning, it’s usually to the call to prayer from the elephantine mosque situated at the top of the hill built by Idi Amin Dada as a testament to the conversion that won him the backing of Qaddafi when he made the fatal mistake of going to war with Tanzania (Qaddafi got the street I walk along to Makerere named after him—doesn’t appear to have done him much good).  I usually leave where I’m staying around eight o’clock, which is a bit late.  But I’ve learned that it doesn’t pay to show up at libraries or archives at their advertised opening times here.  People have a habit of telling foreigners what they think they’d like to hear rather than whatever is actually the case.  So when I dropped by the National Library, I asked the attendant when they open.  ‘Eight o’clock’, he replied.  ‘So if I turn up here at eight’, I queried, already sceptical, ‘you’ll be open?’  ‘Of course!’ he replied, looking injured at my doubt.  So I dutifully showed up at eight and spent the next hour sitting on the pavement outside.  I’d like to be able to report that people dropped coins in front of me, but it was a comparatively cool day and I mustn’t have been looking my usual dishevelled self.

The neighbourhood where I’m staying is a diverse one.  Just down the street is the Somali community centre.  Around the corner is the Kampala Sikh centre.  Ugandan South Asians, unlike their Kenyan counterparts, are a more visible presence in the city centre.  In Nairobi most live in the suburbs.  The route, whether I’m going to Makerere, the Library, UWA or anywhere else, inevitably involves some hills—they’re more or less unavoidable in Kampala.  Fresh air on the other hand, is somewhat in short supply.  There are mornings when I can’t see a hill that’s less than a quarter-mile off, so thick is the city’s smog. 

The city has a bunch of bright-orange, shiny-looking buses.  They may look in better shape than most of AC Transit or RABA’s fleet, but they’re packed to the gills, with people sitting (and sitting on top of each other), standing (and standing on top of each other too, I suspect), hanging on for dear life, and chasing furiously after the buses.  But they’re the very embodiment of calmness and order compared to the taxis that swerve around Kampala’s streets.  And the boda bodas have laws of their own.

Occasionally there will be a break in the vehicular traffic, and an entire oncoming lane will be filled by boda bodas, a couple hundred of them swarming forward at once, several across in the lane, and seventy meters deep, like some kind of motorized peloton.  I suspect the Hell’s Angels could do some serious recruiting in Kampala.  Their drivers, bent over the handlebars, squinting to negotiate hostile roads in pollution so thick that Kampala City Council could probably box it and sell it to cities that don’t have enough of their own, are wearing great-coats, windbreakers, t-shirts, ponchos, fleeces, and just about anything else you could imagine besides leather jackets.  Needless to say, helmets are scarce, but I saw one driver who, between his headgear and eye-wear, looked like he should’ve been flying Spitfires for the RAF.  The passengers are an equally motley assortment. 

There are people in suits.  There are people in t-shirts and sandals.  There are men with spotless white robes billowing out behind them, looking like scooter-riding super-heroes zipping in and out of clouds of black smog.  There are women in bright, floral dresses, perched daintily sideways on the back of motorcycles, high-heels scrambling to find purchase.  Wind-blown and occasionally rain-beaten, there are fezes threatening lift-off and turbans and head-scarves on the verge of un-ravelling.

I decided to take a different route back home from the Uganda Wildlife Authority yesterday.  When writing a postcard to an aged great-aunt unacquainted with e-mail the day before, I’d squinted at the picture on the front, thinking, ‘There’s nowhere in Kampala that looks like that!’  It was serene, lush, rather ritzy-looking.  But when I got hopelessly lost heading across Nakasero Hill, I realised that there was somewhere that looked like this.

The neighbourhoods were green, full of gated-off embassies, NGO headquarters, and fancy-looking restaurants.  Boda bodas were probably outnumbered by the rhino-horned SUVs with UN, USAID, Norwegian Foreign Ministry, DFID, and assorted other emblems on them.  Traffic was sparse, as were pedestrians.  There was a golf course, and massive, looming hotels, each with their sprawling garden.

After stumbling through some kind of police blockade, I made my way down to Jinja Road, the main thoroughfare in town which turns into Kampala Road and then Bombo Road.  And thence back ‘home’ for the evening, through much less bucolic streets, past the impossibly crowded taxi parks, and up the hill.  I had a dream that night about breathing the fresh air in Lassen Volcanic National Park... 

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