Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Walking in Kampala*


Every day, walking to work brings a new experience, whether it’s finding a quicker route to circumvent some of the worst traffic, fending off the efforts of some fairly hopeless pickpocketers, or getting stuck in a traffic jam.

Mark Twain described Louis Napoleon’s Parisian boulevards as “avenues which a cannon ball could traverse from end to end without meeting an obstruction more irresistible than the flesh and bones of mere men”.**  The streets aren’t exactly crooked in Kampala, but if you fired a cannon down one of them, you’d definitely clip off the corners of a few buildings besides leaving an absolute state of carnage amongst the thousands of pedestrians, boda bodas, taxis and other assorted vehicles.

People here don’t seem to give foreigners quite as much attention as in Kenya, but wazungu are still an oddity.  I swear you hear people under their breaths just muttering, “mzungu” when you walk past, and I’ve got to wondering whether people keep a running tally each day and mutter the designation under their breath just to keep track.  If they wanted to up their count, they’d have only to stroll down to the Garden City Mall, which I visited for the first time at the week-end in search of a book, and the patrons of which were more uniformly white than in any shopping centre I’ve encountered in California outside of Redding.

Uganda is a majority Christian country, and so just about everything was closed on Easter.  But that morning, my Swedish neighbours and I winced as we saw the caretaker at the hostel grab the two chickens that had been clucking around the yard for the last few weeks and take them, one under each arm, along with a sharpened knife, around the corner.  What seemed about 30 seconds later he was back, murmuring his apologies to the already-plucked carcasses, which ended up, together with matoke (mashed plantains, which are conspicuous chiefly by their total absence of flavour) and rice, on our plates that evening.  I was pleased that I hadn’t got ‘round to naming the chickens yet (and to be honest, they were a bit noisy, so I wasn’t terribly sad to see them go). 

One quirk of being obviously foreign is that people remember you.  Some days back, I’d stopped in for a cup of tea at Cafe Bravo, a nicer cafe in town.  For some reason a member of the staff demanded to know my religious affiliation, and I fumbled, making the mistake of trying to explain Humanism.  My sorry efforts were dismissed out of hand, and I was peremptorily instructed to choose Catholicism or Protestantism by the time I returned.  Needless to say, I’ve been skirting Bravo since, but last week-end as I was walking down the street, a head popped out of the cafe and demanded, “Protestant or Catholic?”  “Haven’t decided yet!” I called back and quickened my pace to escape my persecutor.

What you absolutely can’t escape are the boda boda drivers, who line the streets and call “Yes Boss?”, when you pass, a salutation for which I have an indescribable loathing, such that I occasionally take an offender aside and explain at great length and in excruciating detail why said terminology is unacceptable.  After this procedure the driver generally looks sorry he ever asked. 

The pollution is so bad in Kampala that I invariably feel somewhat soiled by the time I arrive at work.  However, washing one’s hands at libraries and archives is trickier than you might think, for the reason that soap is in short supply in these places (and when I say ‘short supply’ I mean ‘totally absent’).  At the National Archives in Nairobi, I was doing constant battle with the soap snatchers.  I took to bringing little bars of soap from the YMCA to deposit in the washrooms, but someone invariably nicked them in short order.  I’m fighting the same fight in Kampala, and was reminded of a note Mark Twain recorded being written by a disgruntled American tourist to a Parisian hotelier: “PARIS, le 7 Jullet.  Monsieur le Landlord—Sir: Pourquoi don’t you mettez some savon in your bed-chambers?  Est-ce que vous pensez I will steal it?  La nuit passee you charged me pour deux chandelles when I only had one; hier vous avez charged me avec glace when I had none at all; tout les jours you are coming some fresh game or other on me, mais vous ne pouvez pas play this savon dodge on me twice.  Savon is a necessary de la vie to any body but a Frenchman, et je l’aurai hors de cet hotel or make trouble.  You hear me.  Allons.  BLUCHER”.**  I’m thinking of posting a similar note to whomever looks after the loo at the National Library, but I don’t know enough words of Luganda to equal even poor Blucher’s efforts.

The most eventful part of my daily commute on foot is the stretch of road down towards and along the taxi parks on my way up to Old Kampala.  These parks are where the taxis congregate.  It’s a football-field sized area chock full of taxis pointing every which way.  It’s remarkable that they can even move (and indeed, sometimes they don’t).  Taxis in Kampala are matatus.  That is, minibuses that seat around eight people comfortably.  Or at least I imagine they would, for I’ve never seen one with so few people.  In Kenya there are reasonably well-observed laws governing the number of people you can cram into one of these vehicles (I think it’s 10 or 12).  No such laws exist in Uganda, or if they do, nobody’s observing them. 

Because the boda boda drivers park on the sidewalk (this is particularly galling when they hog the covered areas in the rain), and because people here move at a positively glacial pace (I like to walk quite quickly), I generally walk down the street, dodging boda bodas and the flailing limbs and heads and bags that project out of the taxis which are crammed full.  They remind me of the Christmas story of the mitten, in which more and more animals force themselves into the mitten dropped on the ground in a snow-covered forest, until it eventually explodes.

Sometimes you hit a traffic jam, and Kampala traffic jams consist of people, bodas and other vehicles.  I’ve been told that at the worst times of day it can take hours to travel just 4-5 miles, which is one reason I always walk (the absence of helmets and the horror stories about boda boda wrecks I’ve heard also help).  You’ll arrive at a street where the taxis have parked literally end to end, touching, such that you can’t get between them.  They’re stuck there because other taxis have done the same thing at the street which crosses their line at a right angle.  There will be one tiny space between two taxis, and people and bodas will be trying to pass through a space big enough for one person to squeeze sideways.  There is literally no room to move, and inevitably, two people going opposite directions try to cram themselves into the space.  I’ve literally stood still in an unmoving crowd of people extending for blocks for 15 minutes while people puzzle out physical impossibility of passing through this small space at the same time.

At such moments I close my eyes, put one hand on my wallet, take deep breaths and think of somewhere calm and cool with fresh air!  The drab, grey courtyard at Tuhende, where I’m staying, satisfies the ‘calm’ part of this need.  You can hardly hear bustling Martin Road from there, and none of the chaos of the city is visible...only the rooftops, along which, during the evenings, rows of Ibises perch, end to end like a series of Egyptian hieroglyphs, painted dark against a light sky.

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* I apologise that my blog titles for my posts about Kampala are increasingly resembling Lonely Planet sub-headings, but catchy titles have never been a strong point of mine.  I remember being told off throughout high school and university for submitting papers without titles, as I could never think of anything interesting.  So I am here continuing an ancient trend.

** Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1867. 

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