Quirks of Kampala

Having now been here in Uganda for what feels like longer than I can remember (apparently it has only been just under three months, which doesn’t seem at all comprehendable to me), I thought it may be time to step back and reflect on what it looks like to “live” here.

It is far removed from any life that I’ve known before, yet as I also follow a Monday-Friday (sometimes Saturdays too) work schedule, in some ways one can also forget that there is any difference at all …

Which is how I have come to have my interest sparked into a period of reflection, and stepping out of the day-to-day routine, to appreciate and document what it really is like, before it becomes far too much the norm and I can no longer notice the differences!

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Uganda really is a spectacular place of beauty, and this is by far the most significant thing of my life here – I am always within arms reach of somewhere utterly beautiful and without costs of reaching them being the massively restricting entity that it has been for me, elsewhere in the world.

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Only recently I was going through a very cloudy time within my head, and within 48 hours I was able to be amongst utter splendour, at the cost of 8 hours travelling and 35,000 UGX (roughly the same as £7.50).

The other thing that really makes this country stand apart for me, is the people.  Never before have I been met with such friendliness and care, as well as the intrigue I find from them in meeting someone new, and a genuine want to help me. All of the Ugandans that I have met thus far have been so incredibly supportive and loving towards me, (although some of the children admittedly have been simply petrified of this white-skinned yellow-haired creature that wants to smile at them, kneel at their level, and offer them her hand). I continually meet new beauties every single day; it is a treasure I have never known so truly and regularly before.  It is glorious.

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But what about Kampala itself? What is it like to live in what to me is one of the maddest, most chaotic and undefined cities of the world? Where there is no such thing as a one-way traffic system if your boda driver wants to get you somewhere fast, or where the car traffic can be so thick that you can quite literally take two hours to complete a 5km journey, each day, if you opt to travel to work at reasonable working times?

I recently learnt that there are 111 districts in Uganda, and there are more than 26 languages spoken. Many of the people I meet in Kampala have moved here for work, away from their families, and may well only travel home once a month or longer, in order to see them. This can mean living away from children or husband/wife, and many people go to work simply to make sure their children can go to school (mostly boarding school, which adds to the pressure on the parents, as they miss their children greatly).

Us Mzungus are mostly loved for being here, as we can bring skills and opportunity to the Ugandans. And many are fascinated by the idea of England and Europe, and want to learn all they can about them from me/us. However, we get charged a very different rate of cost for everything that we buy/pay for here, including transport and food, and this comes with its own issues. Only recently one of my Ugandan friends was shouted at by one of the boda drivers, because he had supported me to barter for the more accurate transport cost from our location to my destination. The drivers felt that he was disrespecting them as they were not able to profit from me as they would do normally. This frustrated me in many ways, including due to the fact that I did actually already know the “real” price of the journey, and it is never enjoyable to know you are getting ripped off.

On the flip side of this, as an mzungu, I get paid a very different rate to my fellow Ugandan workers. Granted, I have UK costs to still cover, including the seemingly never-ending debt of my two student loans, that enabled me to work in the career that I am in. And I also need to keep money aside for mortgage and other such payments, that are in no way at all equitable with living costs for the Ugandans. However, to know that I am standing beside a fellow worker, who in fact has to work every Saturday, when I may only have to work one or two a month, and yet I am paid sizeably more than them … Well, it makes for a very disparate and inequitable sensation between us, try as we might to see each other as equals.

There are so many idiosynchronicities of Uganda, that I am not sure I can do them justice here, but I will give it a good go …

To greet another, it is standard practice to ask “How are you?” But even if you do not ask, the other will tell you they are fine! It is usual to hear the response “I am very fine“, which has sparked a smile from me, since the first time I heard it. I think it is so much nicer than the standard English “Alright?“, given its extra emphasis through the use of very.

In certain parts of Uganda, you may also be greeted with the question of “What is your pet name?” For me, I can answer “Akiki“, as I was given my Ugandan pet name within the first month of arriving; it means an ambassador of truth, giving a voice to those people who cannot speak for themselves. I like this very much and feel priviliged to be granted this namesake.

At work, I am referred to by first name, but with Miss attached to this. And likewise so are men. So for example, I would refer to someone named Edward, as Mr Edward, or a lady named Jane, as Miss Jane. I find it quite a polite way to speak but it can also be confusing, as some of the Ugandans have names that could also be surnames, and I do not always know until I have met them if they are a Miss or a Mr!

Another somewhat problematic issue within a work/business situation can be what appears to be a Ugandan tendency – that they will smile and agree with what you are saying or asking of them. But later it does not happen or something untrue/negative may later be said, almost as if you never spoke in the first place. A particularly challening prime example of this can be if you come here to buy land;  I have a friend here who has now been locked in a two-year long court battle over the rights to land that he has fully paid for. He went away one weekend only to return and find a house built on his land and to hear postulations that the house had been there for over five years and that he was trespassing! Personally I feel I can trust everyone here that I call a “friend”, but I have learnt very quickly to be cautious with agreements of truth and action when business and/or money have been involved.

Through nature of being an mzungu, I still remain flattered of how curious I can be to Ugandans, including them wanting to touch my hair, look at me in wonder as to why my body is painted [tattooed], and even the experience of having children either bow at my feet or beg permission from their parents to come and touch me. I have never experienced this on such a scale, and it can be quite eerie at times (I can only begin to imagine what it must be like to be famous and have complete strangers come up and greet you as if they know you, wherever it is that you go.  This will perhaps be the closest I ever get to finding out and I am happy with that).  It is surreal and at times very uncomfortable; I am no better than any person that I meet – I wear the Om symbol tattooed on my wrist as my firm belief and dedication to this. And although I am more than happy to be an interest and intrigue to others, I do not want to set myself apart as in any way above them. On the flipside of this, it does allow for a meeting with new people in every moment, whether it is on the boda trip somewhere, walking down the street, paying for items at a shop, or even buying food. I have had my photo taken more times than I have ever known, and I seem to be a status symbol for many – I am often asked if I will stop and pose for a “selfie” with someone. Goodness knows what the captions to the photos have ended up being!

To buy something “new” here can be an interesting concept … it may simply mean that it is new to Uganda! Especially in relation to cars and technology. It is not uncommon for your vehicle to break down, and have it fixed with parts older than the ones that have just broken! Or to buy a brand new phone, exactly as I did last month, from a sealed and company-labelled box and model, to find that it is some dodgy fake/alternative.

You can buy “airtime” from your friends, from automated machines, from petrol stations, and from all-in-one technology shops. And you can buy your own portable wifi modem with apparently unlimited internet for the equivalent of £35 a month, that, when working, provides you with greater signal and accessibility than many places in the UK (if my sister tries to Skype me whilst playing with her sons in the garden, we know that we will lose signal if she goes too far from the house.  Yet I can be set on the roof watching the sun set down over Lake Victoria and Skpying with my loved ones, so clearly it is as if they are right there in front of me). However, it is also pretty common that your airtime/data will get eaten every few times that you buy it. Or that your month’s unlimited data can suddenly somehow run out, without any trace of what happened.

Likewise, although Kampala has a pretty decent power system in place, if rain comes, (and we are now in one of the wet seasons so it technically should be coming every day, although it is somewhat changeable in its mood at present), you can pretty much be assured that you will lose electricity for some or all of the day. Which for my apartment will also mean we lose water, as electricty runs our water pump. At other times, such as last night, the power will simply drop out for no reason whatsoever, and completely without warning. For myself and my housemates, we were thankful that we run our cooking via a 2 hob gas-cylinder stove, as we had worked a long day and were very hungry and tired. We ended up cooking by head-torch, and then eating by tea-light. It can be quite fun really, as it brings us back to our roots, and the stars here light up the sky in such a magnficient way I cannot begin to describe it to do it justice.

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It also reinforces why solar and biofuel power systems are so effective and incredibly viable here in Uganda. Whilst it is quite a poor country overall, I do feel very proud of the engineering that is being pioneered here; it is wonderful to witness such a dedication to this much better soures of power supply. (That said, it also leads to a lot of crime, as in many places no sooner are these processes set-up, than they are stolen and sold on for much needed money for more pressing matters, such as access to water and medical aid).

On the other side of this, Uganda, but especially Kampala, is not a well-kept place in the sense of litter. Every time I travel on a bus, I witness people throw their packaging and plastic bottles out of the window. People eat their food as they walk, and throw their rubbish straight onto the floor. There will be huge piles of waste scattered down the streets, emitting horrible odours and breeding infection/disease. There are basically no rubbish bins anywhere, not even at organised national events. When I have tried to enquire about where to put my rubbish, I have been treated as if I am crazy, when there is a floor right in front of me to throw it down to. This I find hard to tolerate. The landscape is amazing here, yet it is quickly becoming an unkempt landfill. And no-one seems to care or even notice/understand.

If you go out to eat or drink, unless you are in a fancy mzungu establishment, you will most likely need to walk down the street somewhere in order to use the toilet. And you will commonly be told that the person wanting to use the bathroom is going for a short/long call. I had no idea what they were talking about when someone first told me this was where they going; I thought they were referring to a telephone conversation! And I have since kindly asked my Ugandan friends just to tell me they’re using the bathroom, as I feel this is more information than I wish to know.

People wear some exceptionally beautiful clothes here, and you can easily have your clothes tailor-made; this has been quite an interesting experience for me. Alternatively, second-hand clothes markets abound and you can basically pick up more Western-labelled clothes here than I have ever seen before. Recently I needed to get some smarter clothes for work and was able to buy two suit jackets, each for the equivalent of £1. Commonly however, you will notice men walk around in very smart suits, especially the jackets, yet they will be at least 1-2 sizes too big for them. This seems to be standard practice here. Women on the other hand generally wear very tight and busty clothing, or long-draping skirts/dresses, perhaps with the gomesi styled pointed shoulders look. Even on very hot days, it is uncommon for clothing to be above the knee for women or for shorts to be worn by men. It can get really quite uncomfortable heatwise I can tell you!

Uganda is a tea and coffee growing country. Yet personally, I have yet to taste a decent cup of either whilst here. Many Ugandans rate Nescafe as high quality coffee, and may feel they are giving you utmost respect if they invite you for a cup of this with them. Bags of red peanuts are a favoured snack, as are the commonly eaten Rolex (rolled eggs in chapatis), and when you travel by bus/taxi (matatus), hawkers will come running from all over when the vehicle stops, pushing sodas (fizzy drinks), pork kebabs, chicken legs, cassava wrapped in newspapers, chappatis, and plaintain in your direction.

In general the diet here is quite simple, which surprises me greatly, as the land is very fertile and rich, so I am sure you could grow a multitude of things. I find the chocolate pretty gross too, which was great at first as it diminished my sweet tooth entirely. However I have since managed to get hold of swiss chocolate …

People generally live in “compounds” which I found strange at first, as I felt this was akin to prison by nature of terminology. And as you pass your armed guards in order to enter them, perhaps this wasn’t such a strange idea to be imagined. Most doors have steel gates on them, as do the windows, and house crime is common, regardless of if you are Mzungu or Ugandan. I have heard stories of car-jacking too, as well as boda drivers being hit over the head by iron bars in order for them to have their earnings and their motorbike stolen. Uganda is a very different place once darkness arrives, that is for sure. And it is a darkness I don’t feel I have seen before. The night is thickset although the stars shine brightly. People do not like to walk anywhere once it arrives. And as this is pretty much guaranteed at 7pm each day, due to Uganda being on the Equator, it can make your waking hours feel a little restricted if you are solo that evening.

In every place that you look, including on the front of minibuses, on billboards, as part of a shop’s signage, even on a carrier bag, you are likely to spot a message of God’s work. Apparently he will lead you in beauty parlours, he will save you on the road, he will even serve you with delicious rolex should you choose the correct vendor when you are hungry. I have only met a few missionaires thus far, but I have seen many religious schools and also groups of same sex students travelling by bus or walking down the streets, all in their very clearly demarcated smocks or blazer-styled “proper, Godly” uniforms. Preachers will appear at the end of your street or on the corner of a hugely busy roundabout. And on Sundays especially, the air will be thick with gospel singing and praise to the Lord. Each morning I will also be greeted by prayers emanating from the local mosque. Sometimes it feels like the local houses of God/saviours are enmeshed in some sort of battle of the sounds!

Another thing that greatly delights me about Uganda and makes it stand apart for me from other places that I have been, is the cacophony of birdsong, through day and night. In the city or out on the Savannah, it matters not. And you can see large storks flying through the air wherever you are, with their huge wings making a loud noise (that has actually startled me at times, making me think someone is approaching me, when in fact it has been a bird flying overhead).

Another omnipresent noise, somewhat less enjoyable to the ear as far as dulcet tones go, is the barrage of horns beeping as you traverse every road. It is almost as if a car/bike horn is an extra Ugandan language, in that it is used in so many ways! And it is so frequent that I now cannot even hear it, despite how loud and at times startling it can be.

Red dirt gets everywhere and I do not remember the true tone of the skin of my feet, no matter how often I soak or scrub them. Each time I shower, the water always runs red. And if I get wet feet as I walk around the house, it looks as if an animal dredged from a bog has been following, such are the muddy prints that begin to appear. Even my black yoga mat is now tinged with 50 shades of dust.

There are so many other quirks and curiosities of life here in comparison to that which I have known, that now as I write, I realise I haven’t even skimmed the surface:

  • You can get avocadoes the size of gala melons here, and their taste is far richer and creamier than any I have ever tasted before. And they grow everywhere – the floor will be lined with them in places.
  • Milk is sold in vacuum bags, which I cannot work out at all, as once they are open you then have no way to keep the milk secure as the bag deflates and it pours everywhere
  • Salad leaves are also sold in similiar bags and somehow I feel like I am buying food ready for the space shuttle!
  • Much of Ugandan food is lacking in the way of spice and variety of taste than whenever I eat food from another country, courtesy of some very fabulous city restaurants, I feel like I have been forgetting what it is like to have tastebuds
  • All mzungus seem to be here in order to do good work, and it is questioned if you are here just to earn a living and to live amongst the people
  • Everyone supports a UK football team, and I have been asked more than once if Wayne Rooney or Frank Lampard are my friends. It always fascinates me how the power of media has spanned the world over, and you can find emblems of Manchester United and Arsenal all over the place, even in some of the most remote of places
  • Everyone has at least two mobile phone SIM cards, as each one offers different rates and times for free calls, etc, and therefore you buy handsets that are dual SIM as matter of fact. Oh and everyone has your number. There seems to be no thought at all about passing it on, whether it is through work or via a friend of a friend who wants to say they know an Mzungu. When on the phone, Ugandans tend to just hang up once they have said what they needed, without any indication of a goodbye, so you can sometimes wonder if their airtime or signal ran out, or if they being rude/you have offended them, if you arent used to this.
  • You have to sleep with a mosquito net all the time, which draws out the little girl in me as it makes me think of a princess bed; my single bed is 4-poster in order to accommodate the netting, and when I tuck my net in around me as I get into bed, I recall fairytale images of princesses sleeping behind drapes in their fabulous beds!
  • Media and technology abound much more than I could have possibly expected, and I can get hold of any film I want to, from just down the road – it costs me approx 60p to get a film downloaded onto CD or USB stick, regardless of how new it is; I may simply have to wait a couple of days if it is very new.
  • There are a few cinemas here too, though films only show for two weeks, with each day offering a different viewing price, that may not always be the same by day week in week out. Plus you can turn up to see a desired film on the advertised day, only to be told they have decided it wouldn’t be popular enough, and so they have cancelled it.
  • There are more hairstyles than I have ever known, and although it can take hours and hours to braid African hair, even the young girls seem to change them on a frequent basis.
  • The Ugandans also recognise each other’s tribes by physical characteristics including skin tone, facial feature and body shape. Apparently I could be from the west because I am slender and my nose is “sharp”.
  • Whilst English is a key language here, as with all countries using this language type, the Ugandans have apapted it to their own ways. You will hear that their head is “paining them” or that something frightening means they are “fearing it”. A prime example of this is water, as many Ugandans cannot swim and are terrified of its depth. The same goes for different animals, especially reptiles, or for heights – “How can you stand there?Aren’t you fearing it?”
  • Every time I meet someone new I am asked if I am married and if I have children. I am often greeted with great concern that I am not a mother, though the students that I teach tell me I cannot have children anyway as I am thin and it would make me sick. Adults have told me I must hurry to have them, as my grandfather lived into his 90s, and thus I have a very strong clan.
  • There remains a strong belief amongst many about witchcraft, and also miracles, and this can be at odds to using medical aids or trusting people to provide care and support. It also means that diagnosis may not be seeked, or will arrive too late.
  • You can pretty much buy anything you like here – that I did not expect. Whether it is from the roadside, as is the case for beautiful hand-carved wooden furniture, to shopping malls, to street markets, to people knocking at your car window as they pass through the manic traffic systems. You cannot however order things online, unless it is from Hong Kong, and many Ugandans use a shipping outlet in America that has been set-up to overcome this problem for shopping systems such as Amazon.
  • The homes that have TVs will have a plethora of American TV shows on them, and music tends to be American also, with a huge emphasis of sexy hip-hop and bump-n-grind (in bars men will simply sit with a beer or soda facing the screens, totally entranced and not talking to anyone there). Alternatively there is a lot of 80s and 90s pop music played, reminding me much of tragic teenage heartbreak days.
  • Animal welfare is something I am very unsure of here. Dogs are mostly used for guard purposes, and are not allowed inside the house. Chickens are kept in cages on the roadside and will be held feet up for the duration of long journeys, presumably to only be killed at the other end. There are culls of stray dogs every now and then too, to reduce the incidence of Rabies. Yet I have also been to many homes and restaurants where there are pet cats and nearly always at least one very healthy looking cow.
  • Health-wise, Uganda beats even Thailand for me in the sense of what is available medically. You really can just walk into any pharmacy, be it back-street or within a fancy shopping mall, and ask for anything you want. Including Valium, melatonin and Prozac. Strangely you cannot do this so easily for contraception however, despite the huge and continuing prevalence of HIV here.

There are so many things that make Uganda Uganda, and more closley, what makes Kampala what it is. I could continue for pages more, and probably still be able to pick up on different nuances that I no longer notice as being any different than my daily experience these days.

I have been having some huge challenges in one aspect of my life here. But all of these idiosynchronicities and quirks are part of what work together to cause me to be delighted to call Uganda my home. I feel so very proud of myself for leaping off the cliff to come here, to such an unknown entity. And it has paid off dividends. I would love it if everyone I knew could come here and sample its magic. It really is a place like no other, and it is a joy that is become a part of my life, for however long that may be.

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5 thoughts on “Quirks of Kampala

  1. MCM Kors

    Hi, I have read some of your blogs. Your mother and I know each other from Gisborne and the Royal Free in London. She gave me the link to your blog. I lived in Malawi for 2 years from 2004 till 2006. I recognise quite a few of the situations and the nature and the dellicious fruits you are talking about. Thanks for writing so extensively, love Monique Kors

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Seizing the day, Sipi-style – wordsofawonderingwanderer.com

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