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Charmed by Kampala


Kampala was full of ugly birds. They wandered around parks with their long spindly legs and scrawny necks and sometimes even gathered in trees. As well as being ugly they were also massive. Marabou storks were the biggest birds I had ever seen in my life.

Seven of the hideous things were sat in a tree just near my hotel and a couple more were wandering about below it. They looked like they had been living rough for months and now needed a damned good wash. Their heads were the worst part, bald and covered in red blotches, finished with a dirty great beak at the front. If ever there was a less glamorous bird to be seen, then I would be interested in seeing it. Suddenly one flapped its gigantic wings and it was like a pterodactyl taking off.

Two hours earlier I’d landed at Entebbe International Airport. The humidity had hit me as soon as I’d stepped outside of the airport terminal. But since Kampala was only twenty miles from the Equator that was not surprising. The airport road was paved, but along its edge was the red dust. It was everywhere in Uganda, giving the countryside a copper-tinged edge to its lush green interior. Overhead I was could see buzzards and marabou storks, and by the edge of the highway were cattle, goats, cooped up chickens, pigs and of course people. I passed a small butcher’s hut with a few little oinkers scavenging around outside. Little did they realise they were on the menu.

A small brick building advertised itself as a primary school. On its side in huge letters Bic had been painted. Next door was a tiny shack that doubled up as a bar. It proudly boasted that it served Bell Lager: Uganda’s Heritage. My eyes were drawn to a gigantic billboard depicting an unhappy-looking man. The accompanying text read: Beating my wife destroyed my marriage.

Apparently 40% of Ugandan women believed it was okay for their husband to hit them. The government was trying to educate people otherwise.

“Traffeec is bad!” said the driver. “Too many slow trucks.” I nodded even though I could see it wasn’t just the lorries that were holding things up; it was the pedestrians, motorbikes and mini-vans. The latter were usually belching out thick black smoke as they carted their packed passengers towards the capital. I wondered what the police thought of the road chaos but it was abundantly clear they were not bothered in the slightest. Groups of them were sat by the side of the road armed with semi-automatic weapons looking bored out of their skulls. They didn’t even look up when a motorcyclist carrying a huge wooden cupboard passed them by.

Balanced precariously on the front of his thin bike, it was a wonder the rider hadn’t been killed. His only method of seeing where he was going was through a miniscule slit in one of the panels. The huge cupboard was wider than a bus and yet he rode onwards, totally free to cause the hellish backlog behind him.

The Sheraton was located in an area of other plush hotels together with a fair smattering of skyscrapers. Some of them looked quite new which meant there was money coming into the city from somewhere. Every car wanting to enter the hotel had to be checked over by security guards armed with guns and long mirrors to see the underside of vehicles. I wandered towards a colony of marabou storks lurking in a nearby treetop. I’d been informed by the bell boy that it was illegal to kill one, the perpetrators of such a crime facing a stiff jail sentence. “They clean the rubbish from the city,” he’d told me with a toothy grin. “They eat anything, especially from the rubbish tips.” Across from us, sat on top of a lamppost was a particularly grizzled specimen. It had a long piece of red stuff, possibly innards, dangling from one side of its hideous beak. As I watched in revulsion it flipped it up in the air and guzzled it down its scrawny neck.

Around the corner was Independence Monument, a structure that also featured on the back of every Ugandan shilling. It was a strange thing which featured a tall man wrapped in some sort of bondage and in his arms he carried a child reaching upwards. A sign just in front read: Idlers not allowed around this monument.

The next morning I was picked up by my guide for the day, a pretty young woman called Imelda who was also a university student. Normally she manned the tour company’s office, she told me, answering phones and the like, but today she was leading a tour herself. As I followed her to the car and driver I couldn’t help but stare at her vivid red high heels. She was also kitted out in a crimson blouse and tight black skirt. Not really suitable attire for a tour around dusty Kampala I reasoned.

Our first stop was the mighty Owino Market, a sprawling conglomeration of stalls, shacks and humanity. “It is the main market of Kampala,” explained Imelda as she tottered about in her heels, attracting the attention of quite a few men who openly ogled her chest and legs. “And it is always busy with people.” Imelda didn’t seem to be noticing the attention she was getting and continued to lead me through the rabbit warren of aisles, one of which peddled huge rat traps I noted with alarm. We quickly passed through the fruit and vegetable section and came to the clothing part. Here, as well as endless T-shirts, dresses and trousers, there were men sweating over ancient sewing machines.

Kampala's matatu station: window on Uganda

“Many people’s livelihoods are tied to the market,” explained Imelda as she bent down to examine a piece of ginger. Deeming in unsatisfactory, she put it down again and we continued to walk. “And without it they would have no source of income. But there has been talk of pulling the market down. This is because of a powerful bus company which has influence over the government. They say they need the area to park their buses. The result has been a few riots. And who can blame the people? If they have nowhere to sell their goods they will end up begging on the streets or perhaps stealing money from others.”

On the way to the Kibuli Mosque we passed motorbike after motorbike parked by the side of the road, their owners either chatting in groups or lounged out asleep on top of them. They were the ubiquitous boda-bodas, taxis on two wheels. I asked Imelda how much a boda-boda driver might make in an average day.

Imelda shrugged. “Maybe ten thousand shillings.” That was about £2.50. Not a lot I thought for day’s work in the fume-filled streets of downtown Kampala where fatalities involving boda-bodas made up the vast majority of traffic accidents.

The Kibuli Mosque was large and white and had a dark green dome in the middle. It sat on top of one of Kampala’s many hills and was an oasis of peace against the honking traffic of down below. Imelda and I climbed out of the car and while I took some photos of the outside, Imelda remained by the entrance. Just then a teenage girl appeared. At first she started to head towards me but when she spotted Imelda she veered away. Five minutes later I was done taking photos and turned to see Imelda chatting to the girl. Both were holding hands and smiling. I wandered over. “Do you know each other?” I asked when I returned to them.

Imelda nodded. “We are friends but I’ve never met her before. We make the friendship while we wait for you. She lives close by and I’m going to give her a gift.” We all walked back to the car where Imelda fished about in her purse and handed the girl a few shillings.

The next mosque we visited was even more impressive mainly because it was so huge. Started by Idi Amin in 1972 after his conversion to Islam, the National Mosque was never actually finished until 2006 after Libya had finally paid for it. Locally it was known as the Gaddafi Mosque, and Imelda’s choice of clothing was to let her down. Her bare legs did not go down too well with the people in charge of the Mosque and so she had no choice but to relinquish control of me to an official guide.

I was led inside the vast but empty interior, capable of holding five thousand people. “The chandeliers were made in Egypt,” said my guide, a beaming man called Mohamed. “And the windows are from Morocco.” He also told me proudly that he was responsible for singing the call to prayer five times a day. “Come,” he beckoned. “I show you Holy Koran!”

Mohamed led me to a massive glass-fronted cabinet containing the most revered document in the Islamic religion. We both stared inside at the fancy Arabic writing, none of which I could understand. “If you wish I could sing this page for you?” Mohamed suddenly said, a hopeful expression on his face. I nodded and gestured for him to carry on. He had a good voice, that much was clear, and when he had finished, I gave him a short round of applause which made him smile.

“You think my singing good?”

“Of course,” I said. “You have a beautiful voice. You should be on TV.”

Mohamed laughed. “On TV? You think? I am greatly honoured to hear this.”

Twenty minutes later I was back with Imelda, driving away from the mighty Mosque. “Tell me please,” she said. “What do you think of Kampala?” At that precise moment we were passing ramshackle stalls either peddling car parts or huge piles of bananas, and then I saw a sign saying Curious Undertakers. Everything was passing us by in a whirl of colour. I thought it was great. To me, Kampala was what I’d expected it to be: chaotic and African. People trying to eke out a living with whatever they could get their hands upon, and it excited me being there, amongst the madness, albeit from the safety of a passing car. I said all this to Imelda.

“Yes, I think I understand this,” she said. “Sometimes I wish I could see Kampala from new eyes.” It was exactly the same thing a guide in Dhaka, Bangladesh had told me.

We soon arrived a grand-looking building that turned out to be the Buganda Parliament Building. It had an impressive statue of the current king, Mutebi II at the entrance. He was standing tall and proud dressed in some sort of elaborate headwear. I had no idea that Uganda even had a royal family.

A young man called Lutalo who was acting as our guide explained. “The monarchy was put into exile in 1966. But in 1993, they were reinstalled. Of course the power they once enjoyed was gone, but they still have the power to legislate on non-political issues. Come I show you inside.” Just inside the entrance the three of us stopped at a set of engravings on the wall. Most of them featured animals, but a few others were plants and other objects. Each totem represented a different clan of Uganda.

“There are fifty-two clans altogether,” said Lutalo, “and I am from the Reed Clan.” He turned to Imelda and asked what her surname was. After she’d told him he smiled. “Ah the Elephant Clan! Very big clan but you are not very big at all.” Imelda blushed and looked coy. Both were about the same age I guessed. “But there is something interesting to remember about the clans,” said Lutalo, turning to me. “No one from the same clan can ever marry one another.”

Lutalo pointed at another totem and asked me what I thought it was. I stared at it a while and thought it perhaps looked like a few coiled snakes or maybe a set of seashells. Lutalo laughed when I told him this. “No!” he told me. “It is shit, defecation.” Beside me, Imelda made a sound of shock and then began to giggle. Clearly the Shit Clan was news to her as well.

We moved into a large room that reminded me of London’s House of Commons. In fact it turned out to be the governmental room and featured a set of benches on both sides and a large chair at one end reserved for the speaker. “When the king is here, he will sit on a special throne at the other end of this room,” said Lutalo.

I asked him whether he had ever met the king. “Many times,” he said grinning. “I have seen the King on lots of occasions but only once have I shaken his hand. Afterwards I did not wash my arm for two weeks! During that time lots of people wanted to shake my hand so that they could touch the King too.”

The twin towers of the Rubaga Cathedral looked a bit disappointing after the glitz of the Mosques and parliament building. It had been built partly to commemorate a set of Uganda Martyrs killed in the late nineteenth century by the king Mwanga II. His story was quite interesting:

Mwanga II was lucky to have ever been king. His mother was the King’s tenth wife out of a total of eighty-five, but when he did eventually did take the throne in 1884 he began to get rid of all the Christian missionaries who he believed were meddling in his rule. Then he upped the ante by deciding to kill them all instead, beginning with an Englishman called John Hannington. After being imprisoned for almost three months, Hannington was finally finished off be being stabbed to death. According to witnesses he was stabbed on ‘both sides’. Both sides of what it didn’t mention but a priest who worked in the court of Mwanga II voiced his discontent about this event and was rewarded by having his head chopped off. This started the ball rolling for more killings, culminating in the deaths of twenty-two men burned alive for the crime of not renouncing their faith. These men eventually became the Uganda Martyrs. Ironically, after Mwanga II had been deposed in 1897 he escaped to the Seychelles and converted to Christianity.

After Imelda had dropped me off at the hotel, I decided to find somewhere for lunch, and along the way picked up a local newspaper from a streetside vendor. It was intriguingly called the Red Pepper and claimed it was the newspaper of the year. During my meal I opened the newspaper and began reading it mounting glee.

The main news story involved a plot against the current Prime Minister. It wasn’t any old plot though but was a grand plot! Another headline read: Man Burns Bonkmate’s House. I began to read it, happy I’d come across a word I’d never heard of before.

According to the story, the man had been banging on the door of a woman called Eunice (presumably his bonkmate) at 10.45pm demanding to be let in but when no one answered he set fire to the thatched roof. The paper juicily then wrote: Eunice, who was known for thigh vending in the area, had already sneaked to another sugar daddy.

I typed bonkmate into Google and quickly discovered it was a distinctly Ugandan term. I also found out that a twenty-year-old male student was searching for a one night-stand bonkmate. He described his appearance as ‘not too short’ but then later caught himself out by stating his actual height was 4’11”. He also described himself as being sexually active but declined to say what type of food he preferred. He finished his message by making it clear he was not very fussy: ‘I don’t care the way u look jst make sure u’re not too fat.’

The Red Pepper also contained some interesting advertisements. Manhood Enlargements could be completed in as little time as three days I discovered and if that wasn’t good enough, then an artificial penis could be delivered to your home. The perennial problem of Lost Lovers could be solved in the quite-precise 42 hours and Dry Women could get their fluids back in a mere thirty minutes. Elongating of the Twin Towers could take up to four days but it took a mere six hours for Men Weapons to be armed and primed.

After lunch I went for a walk to see a Hindu Temple I’d spotted on my way into Kampala. Along the way I soon discovered that no one was paying me the blindest bit of attention, not even small children, notorious for staring at strangers. I had been worried about this in central Africa; the thought of being stared at all the time, but it seemed my fears had been needless.

The temple was great, located down the end of a street full of men working on car parts, and then my short time in the Ugandan capital had come to an end. Despite the grime, the ugly birds, the snarling traffic jams and the smog and fumes, I had loved being there. Kampala might not be the Pearl of Africa as it liked to call itself, but it was certainly a nicely polished bit of rock.

Jason Smart has now published The Red Quest, an excellent book about his travels through the ‘Stans, now out on Kindle – where it appears to be free.

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