Edit Blog Post
Published: March 6th 2006
If Kampala was in the United States, it would come with a Surgeon General’s Warning. Between the exhaust-clouded streets of downtown and the death-defying motorcycle taxis (“boda-bodas”) that weave through it, residing in the city may be hazardous to your health.
But like most things that come with such warnings, Kampala can be addictive. Coffee shops with character; friendly, English-speaking locals; the biggest used clothes market we’ve ever seen (courtesy of your Salvation Army donations); picturesque views of the city’s rolling green hills; the 24-hour nightlife powered by local beers; the human-sized Marabou storks that thrive among billboards and office buildings…All contribute to the city’s magnetic personality. The longer you stay, the harder it is to leave.
Our introduction to the city came in the form of a fender-bender: almost the exact moment downtown Kampala came into view, our matatu (strangely called a “taxi” here) made a bold dash into a roundabout and got sideswiped by an oncoming car. Instead of waiting for things to get sorted out, we left the angry drivers behind and continued on foot in search of a budget hotel.
We found one close to the city center, where navigating the cars, buses, sidewalk
shops, grit, and noise was exhausting. Walking by the taxi park, we were stunned by the sight of hundreds of white minibuses crammed nose-to-tail like an Escher drawing in a dirt lot the size of a football field. And people were everywhere.
Then we discovered the miracle of the boda-boda. From any street corner in town you can get to any other on these motorcycle taxis that are quick, cheap, and exhilarating. Safe, however, they most definitely are not. Boda drivers swerve through traffic with all the precision of a drunken surgeon, while you cling to your seat in the back, squeezing your knees and elbows in to avoid getting clipped by pedestrians, bumpers, and other bodas as you zoom past.
Just as unpredictable as the boda drivers’ judgment are the city’s power outages. In recent months, Kampalans have had to adapt to random and lengthy blackouts—the power’s out about half the day, every day. All of East Africa is facing energy shortages due to the drought, but the crisis seems to be worse in Uganda than anywhere else we’ve seen. Along the streets of Kampala, it’s impossible to miss the diesel-powered generators stationed outside every business that
Museveni Vs. Besigye
Museveni (the man with the awesome hat) ruled Uganda for the last 20 years, and just modified the constitution so he could rule for yet another term.
can afford one, adding to the already noisy and polluted atmosphere. When the power’s down, things go on as usual, though stores are sometimes closed at unexpected times, and you might end up shopping in the dark or cooking by candlelight.
But by far the most unpredictable thing about Kampala during our stay was the holding of historic presidential elections. Tensions were high as these would be the country’s first multi-party elections in 26 years. As in many African countries, the transition of power in Uganda has never been easy, or particularly peaceful. Since independence in 1962, the only way any president has left office is at the point of a gun.
Current President Museveni of the National Resistance Movement party has been in power for the last 20 years. Recently he changed the constitution to allow him to run for another term, and then legalized the multi-party system a mere nine months before the elections—hardly enough time for any of the opposition parties to get their act together. The presidential candidate of the main opposition party (Dr. Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change) only arrived in Uganda last October after living in exile for ten years—and
he was immediately arrested and burdened with what many believed to be frivolous court trials thrown on him by Museveni to prevent him from campaigning effectively.
In addition to this, independent watch groups cited the misuse of government funds for campaigning, imbalanced media coverage, and voter intimidation and vote-buying as reasons why the campaigns were not “free and fair.” Out of all the campaign vehicles we saw that were plastered with posters of the candidate’s face and filled with singing people, almost all were for Museveni. Despite the high profile of the campaigning, no one could really tell you the difference between the candidates’ platforms, since most of their time was spent spewing juvenile accusations at one another.
A week before the elections (the day we arrived), three people were killed by a “rogue” policeman at a rally supporting Besigye. In the days following, we read reports of trucks being set on fire and police cars running into rallies—though the exact nature of the incidents always depended on whether you read the government-owned newspaper or the independent one.
By voting day, it seemed the whole city was bracing for violence. Indians and ex-pats holed up in their
guarded compounds or left the country. Stores closed shop with signs that said “will reopen Monday if all goes well…” The streets were dead quiet on the dark, rainy day on which Ugandans flocked to polling stations all over their country. Kampala’s city center felt like a ghost town. We ate lunch on the deserted main road, where the only signs of life (besides the storks) were trucks full of riot police and military men in red berets patrolling the streets.
When voting ended and it was all said and done, the whole affair was surprisingly orderly. As soon as the results were announced—Museveni winning with a 59% majority, ensuring his office for another five years (at least…)—NRM supporters flooded the streets in minibuses, in cars, on bodas, and on foot, decked out in the party’s bright yellow t-shirts and hats, chanting and celebrating their victory. Besigye garnered 37% officially, but aside from threats to appeal the tally in court, he and his followers have been unexpectedly quiet. All the people who went into hiding emerged, probably feeling a little silly.
So in a sense, things have returned to normal—the streets are busy and boisterous, bodas cluster on
every corner, and blackouts arrive at the most inconvenient moments. Now that the excitement seems to be over, we’re heading to Rwanda to visit our first former French colony.
Tot: 1.954s; Tpl: 0.052s; cc: 21; qc: 103; dbt: 0.0482s; 1; m:saturn w:www (220.127.116.11); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.6mb