Category Archives: Kampala
Police here are notorious for stopping cars for no apparent reason and doing random driving license checks. Both myself and Handsome have been in the unlucky position of being stopped, whether for a license check, a dirty windshield wiper, talking on a cell phone and once Handsome was even stopped and asked for a ride!
I had not been stopped or ages and the last time I had my Canadian driving permit which, really, you should not drive with here after the first 3 months. So yesterday when I was pulled over and asked for my license I could see the smug look in her eyes. She was sure she was going to see a foreign permit and get some cash out of me. A 20,000 shilling note left on the passenger seat normally sorts out all sorts of problems. But this time I smiled, showed her my shiny Ugandan Driving License and waited. I detected a faint glimmer of disappointment in her eyes and then she said: “ok, have a good day.”
“Thank you”, I beamed and drove off.
Leaping over those hurdles to get that permit was so worth it.
Kampala Sunday Family. Photo taken during my Mother’s Day walk.
Oh what a lovely weekend. It all started with a rare highly successful Friday. It is an extraordinary feat when everything goes to plan here, something to be celebrated and talked about amongst friends. I left school midday to attempt the herculean task of ticking a few items off my “things to do list” including some banking, an issue with a tragically faulty iphone and computer , a birthday gift, a photo to be printed, some minor grocery shopping and the pinning up of Car For Sale posters in all the appropriate places. All got accomplished in good time and moreover extra things not even on the list got ticked off too. A rare glowing moment here in Kampala.
Friday evening was spent in the company of dear friends, outside on a deck, moonlight straining between oversized fat leaves, and the sweet smell of Lady of the Night flowers wafting over us like gentle silk on our shoulders. We ate, we debated loudly, and we laughed. We struggled with issues that come by us all too often living in Africa. We debated the concept of happiness and how possible it is to be happy and yet stuck in the mire of poverty. How do we read those smiling faces running up the hill to fetch water each night? Can a person be truly happy if they cannot plan for tomorrow? If they live an existence that is hand to mouth and rooted in the today and only the today? Can one be happy if they have no access to health care and the threat of death and infanticide is always around every corner? Is the West responsible and what can be done? Heady issues but ones that live with every day and it is a good dinner party when we actually debate what we cannot solve.
Saturday and my luck turned. I was back at the computer shop fixing my still broken computer and money was bleeding from my wallet. I was forced to drive right down town, into the nether regions of congested Kampala and to a place that I have never ventured by myself in the car. It was stretching the boundaries of my bravery so I did what is only possible in the great country of Uganda. I hailed down a Boda driver and paid him to drive to the scary place so that I could follow him. I did exactly the same thing on the way out of the maze of downtown streets and good thing too or I might have found myself half way to Entebbe Airport. I also pulled another great Ugandan trick and rather than risking another drive back downtown to retrieve said computer, I had it delivered to me by the technician on a Boda Boda. It is so easy to be a princess here.
Saturday night and a prospective car buyer was followed by a delicious Thai meal.
And Sunday: Mother’s Day found me enjoying a manicure, a brunch with my daughters and an afternoon of friendship, champagne and sushi pool side.
And then it all went fish faced Sunday night when my computer broke again.
I could put up a lot of photos of Kampala and sometimes I do but I also enjoy the challenge of trying to capture what I see with words. On any drive there is a tableau of pictures spread for the taking if one simply keeps eyes wide open. A drive in Kampala is therefore never dull and even on the most frustrating days there is, for an observer such as myself, poetry on the streets.
Having just dropped Trooper off at a pool party we drove through a neighbourhood inhabited by foreign diplomats and wealthy Ugandans. It is wealthy and yet no houses are visible, since they are hidden behind large metal gates. Before entry is permitted an armed guard, usually a privately employed police officer comes out barring a large AK47 to give us the once over. Driving away we notice other guards carrying guns, either outside of the large residences or walking to and fro to work. The huge police presence here is something we quickly take for granted but every now and again we remark on how many guns we see on a daily basis. Kampala is very safe, generally, but there lies beneath the surface a frisson of instability and it is the heavy police presence that keeps things from snapping and turning mad with violent chaos. This is a country that knows well the price of such violence and they have taken measures to keep themselves safe.
And we drive on, past bare chested men digging deep trenches into the red soil. Fibre optic cables are being laid, a sign of modernism creeping in, slowly but surely. Yet mere metres away people live without running water in a capital city. Access to clean water and health care are basic necessities that the majority hardly dream of. Cables are laid by hand, the soil dug with sweat and strength; bricks laid one by ones, roads fixed inch by inch by hand, this is a place where everything that can be done by hand is done so. Slowly, painstakingly, with bare arms and sweat.
We pass a woman, an enormous basket of bananas resting on her head. She walks with posture that would make a cat walk model jealous yet she is unaware of posture. She has been carrying on her head since she was knee high, this is not a new skill.
A baby lies naked in the mud while his mother fills a Jerry Can from a slow tap, grey sacks filled to splitting with blackest dusty charcoal lie next to him. Two children race another who rolls an abandoned bicycle tire with a stick, women gossip next to wooden planks that shelf pineapples and lettuce. A mother bathes her child with water in a bucket, another slaps clothes against a wooden frame and hangs them to dry and capture more dust.
Then we turn and home is in sight. More guards, more guns and another woman carrying bananas with poise and a determination to sell. We pass a Boda Boda carrying a family of four, the smallest child sits in front of the driver holding onto the handle bars, the wind whipping his short cropped hair. A group of men sit on the grass before a gate chewing sugar cane and talking in earnest.
In a simple 10 minute drive a world is open, but it is not my world. I am the observer, always watching, reading, imagining, wondering. Eyes wide open I see but can never really know. I am forever the Other.
I have been thinking about water. It is a basic necessity, something most of us take for granted and never think twice about. When we leave Kampala and enter the Great Shiny West, one of the strangest things at first is the ability to turn on the tap and drink the water. Over there in the land of Evian, Perrier and Badoit people often choose not to the drink the tap water, asking instead for a pricy bottle of imported water. I hear that in some New York establishments there even exists a Water Sommelier. From the ridiculous to the sublime I watch young girls carry heavy water with such grace.
We buy water in large bottles and have a water dispenser in the kitchen, not only for drinking but also for filling kettles, cooking rice and vegetables and occasionally even washing fruit. It is not an extravagance but a necessity and I miss the ease of simply turning a tap. And yet how lucky we are. Each afternoon as we drive home from school the sun catches the brilliant yellow of the Jerry Cans that are carried by young girls. They walk to a pipe that runs along a long hill and take turns to fill and carry their water home for the evening and the next day. This water will suffice for washing themselves, their clothes, the dishes; for cooking and drinking. And it still needs to be boiled once they get it home.
Puts a dripping tap in London into perspective.
Oh God. I complained about the snow and the cold and the ice and the shovelling for 15 years. Now I am too hot, my classroom is a sauna and I need to run to the IT lab, the only room in all of Kampala with air conditioning to do my marking. Yesterday Handsome Husband lost me in a large over priced appliance store: I was standing in front of a portable air conditioning unit. Generally we are lucky here, it never gets that hot, thanks to the altitude, but now it is the dry season and the heat just climbs and clings and settles on my head and around my body stifling me. I am longing for a cold day so that I may beg to be warm and wrap myself in a long soft and warm shawl, scarf thing like this:
Sorry Montreal friends. Really I am. I know that it was -21 at 6am the other day and I know that you are all fed up right about now. I would be too. This would be the one week of the year I would refuse to go out, it would be my hibernation week and I would be calling friends to bring me Starbucks and Sushi STAT. So I know I should keep my mouth firmly buttoned up as I have no right to complain. But I just wanted to say…the grass is not always greener on the other side. Sometimes it is dry and yellow and hot.
I have written the post about Cake, and the one about scary Kampala Night Driving, there is the one about Dead Dogs and even about Search Engines but have I written about Glove Compartments? I think it is time.
Since the awful bombs that hit Kampala on the eve of the World Cup Final on July 11th, leaving over 70 dead, Kampala has seen a wave of stepped up security. At first this meant long queues to get into the malls while every inch of the car was checked and mirrors were run along the under carriage. Beepers were run along our bodies every time we entered a supermarket and all bags were vigorously checked. Now as time has passed there is a perfunctory check of the bags, a quick glance with a beeper in hand and the lines of cars waiting to enter public parking lots has diminished. But the strangest thing of all is that the full car check, including the opening of the trunk/boot and the peering into the back seats has been replaced with a quick check into the glove compartment. No matter where we are going or who the guard is or how many times we have been there before it is always the same routine. We are asked politely if they may check our car, doors are unlocked and opened and the glove compartment is opened and given a cursory glance. It has become comic. Once, handsome Husband said out loud that if he were to hide a bomb it certainly wouldn’t be in there. I don’t think the security guard got his sense of humour as he looked at us as if were quite serious. You could actually see the thoughts running along his forehead.
The scary thing of all this is that this false security is doing nothing except teaching people where not to hide their bombs. It is a thin Band-Aid being applied onto a potentially volatile situation.
This is the way most people in Kampala buy their dinner each evening. They buy a fresh chicken, tuck it under their arm and ride a Boda Boda home.
A common sight here, cows just walking along the road. As I have said before, they are stupid, gormless creatures who can be kept in line by one boy and his stick. Many times have I sat in traffic waiting for the cows to pass.
These are the stands where people either charge their cell phones, buy air time or, if they have no cell, use these phone to make their call.
A mannequin displays the dress she wants to sell. Rather than lots of indoor shops, most stores are open onto the street and the colourful wares are displayed outside.
Last night I attended an Art Exhibition. It was part of a long litany events that this weekend has planned for me, starting with a surreal but decadent parents only school event that involved dressing up circa James Bond Casino Royal and gambling with chips that didn’t actually involve any real money. So we could have all the thrill of losing money and none of the pain. This event was followed by an impromptu Karaoke circle that saw 40-somethings singing “Every Breath You Take” at the top of our lungs. Those holding the mikes got to feel like real rock stars. The rest of us just bellowed from slouched positions on the sofa or our swaying dance in the corner of the room. What was remarkable was that for the length of at least one song, maybe two we were all in exactly the same place and moment in time, singing the same song, feeling the same thing. Like going to church must feel, it was strangely unifying and a whole lot of fun.
Saturday I stumbled over to a meeting feeling sort of rough, blamed more on the lack of sleep than the quantity of imbibed drinks, and then had one of those long blissful afternoon naps. By the time I got to the Art Show I was foggy but awake, at least. The Art show was supposed to pre-ceed a costume party ( Halloween is paid a token nod in this part of the world) but being over the age of 25 I can only handle 2, not 3 parties in a weekend and it seemed easier to go out for a quiet dinner than run home, change into a sexy cowgirl, and then hit the party. Talking to strangers takes a lot of effort and dinner with friends was just so pleasant.
Back to the Art Show. It featured the work of 13 Ugandan artists and some pieces were very good and very tempting. There were three artists that I particularly liked, pushing aside the predictable African Women images and African Animals paintings. It is comforting to know that artists are creating, feeling, celebrating and expressing themselves over here. And even better to know that thanks to the organizers of this event, they are selling art and making a living. Being an artist in a country where art is seen as an indulgent bit of fluff on the side cannot be easy.
I love this painting of Masai Warriors and goats. It is by the quite wonderful David Kigozi. I had the fortune to meet and compliment him last night but sadly due to the diminutive quatity of funds in my bank account compared to the high cost of this painting I left the show without it.
And also without this. I love the Rooster.
I am going to start saving for a David Kigozi.
Things I nearly stepped on while walking:
A very large dead rat. It was as long as it’s very long tail; it had been driven over and was lying in a pool of its own squelched blood. Its mouth was open and frozen in a rigid expression of silent despair, teeth bared for eternity. As I raised my foot to take a step I looked down and saw it splayed out in its gory splendour. I gasped and grabbed Trooper’s hand, she, stunned herself was hopping on one foot and letting out little sounds of panic. We continued walking, reaching school with beating hearts, wishing we could erase the rat that was now stuck firmly in our mind’s eye.
A dead cat. It had just recently died, I could tell because it had not yet been driven over and squelched by car tires. White, scruffy and wet, it was obviously a stray, with fur that had never been brushed or felt the caress of a stroke. It looked like it was asleep but it must have been hit mid run across the road, probably on its way to grab a scrap of food lying on the other side.
A headless chicken. It was lying in the ditch, dirty, bloody and missing a head. I walked past quickly. Trooper says she is relieved that she is already a vegetarian.
In other more cheerful news:
Exciting things I have done: planned my Halloween costume. I am not one for dressing up but it will be a good party and they won’t let me in unless I am showing some ghoulish spirit. I really am awful at costume parties, being far too vain to throw myself into something horrifyingly unattractive just for the sake of a party. So I have elected to wear a velvet cape dug out of Princess’s special box. I will be royalty of some sort. Not sure Handsome Husband has a clue, especially since I haven’t told him about the party yet. I am sure something exciting can be found in the special box.
I am still sneaking off to Camp Sweetness. Today we had a pretend birthday party and everyone was a magic candle. Then we all turned into balloons and flew away.
But the best thing of all? Teaching poetry to 14 year olds and the whole room goes quiet. These were the lines:
“I never saw so sweet a face
As that I stood before
My heart has left its dwelling place
And can return no more.”
(First Love by John Clare).
Even the most hardened inmates at Camp Hormone love a good love story. Soft they are, really.