An Introduction to Kampala for the Uninitiated Muzungu

Boda boda Kampala. It is in equal measures beautiful, dirty, luscious, fragrant, chaotic, calm and intoxicating. The city is jammed with noisy, polluting traffic; everywhere pushy boda bodas (motorbikes) dodge and compete for limited space with massive 4WDs and mini-vans. Few people drive regular cars here due to the existence of only a small number of sealed roads and a large number of cavernous potholes whose depth is only exacerbated by the onslaught of the rainy season.

Over the clamour of car horns and backfiring exhaust pipes, boda boda drivers call out ‘Yes madam, we go?’ and street sellers entice you to buy mangos, Juicy Fruit, toilet paper and ‘Airtime’ (what Ugandans call phone credit). You can literally buy anything on the side of the road – or in the middle of the road as is often the case. The frequent ‘jams’ in Kampala mean that you spend more time stopped in traffic than moving and it is entirely possible to do your weekly shop simply by winding down your car window.

Adding to the din are taxi conductors hollering their destination ‘Wandegeya, Kampala, Wandegeya, Kampala! Mini price!’, whilst trying to cajole passengers into their mini-van; a roadside preacher shouting at you to renounce your evil ways and turn to Jesus; and an oversized sound system blasting out Hillsong’s Greatest Hits (whilst relatively unknown in many parts of Africa, Australia is well known in Uganda as the home of Hillsong. This brings me no end of shame).

[A note on transport: Taxis here are shared mini-vans which serve as the only form of public transport in Uganda. Swahili speakers know them as matatus. They are licenced to carry 15 passengers but generally will contain at least 20 people, a large bag of maize, 3 babies, a goat and 2 squawking chickens. What we would call a taxi is known as a ‘special hire’. The only other transport option is to risk life and limb on a boda boda. It is a dangerous, yet highly efficient way of navigating the city and avoiding the endless jams.]

Ugandans are incredibly friendly yet circumspect people. On my long walk each morning up the muddy red road to the taxi stop I pass many locals on their way to work. Wearing a very serious face, they watch me cautiously as I trudge up the hill, out of breath and dripping with sweat. When we are finally within greeting distance I smile and in return I am gifted with an enormously wide grin and a sing-song ‘How are you?’. By the time I answer ‘I’m fine. How are you?’ they have already passed but not ever wanting to be rude, they turn and call out ‘I’m fine too!’ as they continue on their way.

This little routine never ceases to make me chuckle and ponder the many quirks of Ugandan culture that us muzungu (foreigner or white person in Luganda) find so funny. Like how Ugandans will tell you that ‘you are lost!’ if they haven’t seen you for a while, that you ‘look so smart’ when you are dressed nicely, and shower you with ‘sorry dear’ at the revelation of any bad news. So great is their propensity to apologise for things that are completely not their fault that I suspect even my Canadian friends would find it excessive.