Monday, September 23, 2013

Downtown Kampala

I amble among the throng of people over the undulating urban terrain of cracked concrete and muddy bricks, intending half-heartedly to find a certain tourist sight and not really caring if I find it. I am here to be in it, to experience the city life as the locals live it.

Kampala has the same population as the whole of Australia. Ugandans are very friendly, polite people who will often greet you in the street. "Hello", and always "how are you?" and sometimes "how is your family?" All of them look at me – mzungu can't help but stand out – in curiosity and mild surprise but without staring. I feel quite safe. The hundreds of boda-boda riders chatting in groups parked at the roadside regularly ask me if I need a ride. Boda-bodas are pillion-passenger motorcycle taxis, so named because they emerged to ferry travellers across the sometime long distances between no-man's-land between border checkpoints – border to border. They are notoriously dangerous. By one account there averages five fatalities in Kampala a day.

It's just shy of 30 degrees today and the constant smell of vehicle exhaust is briefly dispersed by heaven-sent bursts of cool, humid air. I turn off the congested main road at a major intersection and down an even more congested side road towards Old Kampala. I'm not far from Nasser Road, where you can get any kind of forgery that you want: university certificates, passports, you name it. But all my documents are in order. I'm heading to the Old Taxi Park, the "organised chaos" of the blue-and-white private minibuses (called taxis) which are the heart of the Kampala transport system. No part of Kampala can be called inauthentic, but this is truly the local experience.

Past the cluttered shops of mobile phones and shoes with people sat on stoops the crowd grows ever more dense. We pass the poor who sit and beg silently with open hands. Rolling footpaths give way to broken tracks like trench ramparts and, as the cramped shops yield to dusty market stalls selling cloth and second-hand clothes from the banks that pen in the crowds, I finally enter the taxi park. The ubiquitous taxis press between full-sized buses discharging cross-country passengers and their luggage into the morass of people as boda-bodas squeeze into any vacant crevice. This section of road is less like a thoroughfare than a choked evacuation. The street ingests and constricts and engorges the lot, passing the vehicles and people in an urbanological peristalsis until it expels them at the other end to rejoin the circulation of the city.

At last I reach the mouth of the street at the top of a hill. Kampala is all hills. The road curls around the Ugandan Muslim Supreme Council Headquarters, a mosque-like structure from what I can discern outside the barbed-wire-crowned walls. I sit on the grass embankment to rest a bit, pulling from my pack a bottle of water and a fig to munch. The only others who sit on these banks are the poor and the beggars. The steady stream of staring locals must all surely be thinking: "What the hell is mzungu doing HERE?" After a short while a few young men walk past with a look less curious and more menacing than the others and I think, right, time to move on.

It is easy to accomplish an instant getaway. I look up, wave to one of the boda-boda drivers in the constant stream who all watch me with Pavlovian interest, briefly negotiate a 4,000 Ugandan shilling trip to the city centre (A$1.65; mzungu fare, probably double what it should be but I don't quibble over it), and in seconds I'm hurtling off into the chaos.

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