Journeys Through The Pearl

When I arrived in Kampala over six weeks ago, the city felt eerily quiet. For all of its hype as the continental epicenter of eccentric nightlife, our drive through the streets of Ntinda on Saturday night did not impress. There was a dimness about the place that worried me. How could a city with such a legendary reputation fall short? Our Airbnb apartment felt downright suburban, and as my fellow roommates and I got settled, all of us felt unsure about what to expect. It was only after the sun rose the following day, that this feeling dissipated.

As Uganda’s primary urban entry point, Kampala provides a decidingly more welcoming portal than many other African cities I have visited. Dar’s confusing and crowded streets; Lilongwe’s disconnected, and sparse capital; Lusaka’s dusty, boom-town growth. During my pre-trip planning to Africa in 2013, I harbored an idyllic desire to sip coffee and read the paper in a quaint cafe in Dar es Salaam along the Indian Ocean. Soon after my arrival, my first trip to the city center crushed that naive aspiration as I navigated the dense port city and struggled to understand Swahili. My subsequent pit-stops moving south provided small pockets of excitement for the weary traveler, but never compelled me to wonder what life would be like living there. I always left ready for my next destination, and rarely gazed back with nostalgia.

Kampala, on the other hand, has been different in virtually every respect. Despite some of the more predictable hurdles I expected to encounter–access to potable water, regular power outages, questionable modes of transportation–there has been almost no connection to my previous time in East Africa. And in some ways, I am divided on how to best describe the experience. On one hand, there’s the modern, high-tech, innovative Kampala (which I hope to discuss in a later blog post), represented by the mobile apps of Jumia Foods, Uber, SafeBoda, and Yoza. This is the Kampala built on the ecosystem of fancy conferences and tech meetups, weekly Twitter chats hosted by NGOs, and creative coworking space springing up around the country. It feels hip, innovative and optimistic.

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Traditional food in the North. Millet and Gnut sauce.

And on the other hand, there is traditional Kampala that operates outside of the digital glitz. It’s defined by piles of matooke and posho, early morning bargains with boda boda drivers, jaunts through the fabric market for custom clothing, and the obligatory trip to the street vendor for your one-chapatti-two-egg rolex. This is also the Kampala that sometimes exists at the edges of my more optimistic understanding of the city. It can reveal itself while I’m meandering through the crowded Owino Market, or passing the slums next to the Northern Bypass Road. Or even more nefariously, when your friend’s iPhone is stolen right out from under him at a funky bar in Kololo. After all, every city still has an underbelly that can dent your excitement.

Even with Kampala’s urban realities, I still find the place remarkably refreshing. Despite Kampala’s saturation of boda boda motorcycles and minivan taxis, the city does not suffer from excessive noise pollution. Of course, the heckles of “Hey Boss! Mizungu!” are regular occurrences. I often find myself dodging the aggressive boda driver wanting my business, or a taxi pleading with me to head to Nakawa. But after a few days, our jaunts through the sidewalkless streets of Kampala become what they can be in any city: exercises in avoiding fast-moving automobiles, passing by street vendors and tuning out the hectic occurrences that can engulf your surroundings.

My time here as also been punctuated by trips outside of the capital as I’ve explored the far reaches of the country. The Open Sustainability Institute or OSI, where I have been interning for the summer, hosts Open Sustainability Journeys that blend climate change awareness with standard safari trips through national parks. My long hauls in “the beast” (OSI’s beloved Nissan Safari Truck, driven by the always entertaining Michael Otti) have guided me to Queen Elizabeth National Park, Gulu, DSC03337Pader, Kidepo National Park and cities across the country. In a bizarre twist, the imperfections of these trips have made them that much more enjoyable. The surprise breakdown on the side of the road near Fort Portal or the red dust caked all over our luggage as we bounced through through Karamoja; these small inconveniences tightened our connections and grew our friendship. They have provided a shared experience and with our trips for OSI, have created tighter bonds between us.

And perhaps that aspect of Uganda–the energetic, exciting people–has been the most encouraging of all. Rusho, Otti, Hina and myself have jumped for photos on the side of the road, roasted pork next to jackals in Kidepo National Park, and explored a Shea Nut Farm together. While other fellows have had interesting but often stationary internships here in Kampala, our internship at OSI provided the first point of entry into the connected world of Kampala and Uganda at large. The nexus of sustainability, eco-tourism and rugged adventure through the country has heightened my awareness of both the possibilities for Uganda’s environmental future while also revealed the precarious nature of its ecosystems. Success and failure both seem to be present. 

These whirlwind journeys through Kampala and Uganda’s picturesque countryside have rendered the country more than worthy of its name. Apart from the predictable Lonely Planet-inspired praise of the place, I find myself regularly enchanted with my professional and quotidian experiences. Perhaps it’s nothing more than the honeymoon phase of a new location, or the thrill of an exciting new work position. But I still can sense that there’s something captivating about a place like Kampala. The pervasive entrepreneurial spirit, the disarming gregariousness of Ugandans, the ease of transport, the comforting amenities; these experiences separate Kampala from the other urban hubs in the region.

In a region plagued by chronic political instability, Uganda stands apart as a country on the rise, safeguarding political freedoms rather than promoting top-down development. The country amounts to so much more than a dashboard of Human Development Index indicators and it deserves more than tear-jerking accounts of poverty in remote villages. Like any place, Uganda defies expectations and leaves you with a feeling that change is within reach. Stay tuned for more posts soon. 


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