‘Today I have 35 Bukedde, 10 New Vision, seven Daily Monitor and one Red Pepper,” Kamulegeya Charles says. It’s 7.36am in Kampala and he’s just arrived to sell newspapers. He has sold newspapers from this street corner for two decades.
He parks his motorcycle and laughs with other boda boda motorcyclists sheltering from the drizzle. He unwraps his backpack and thumps a stack of papers on the motorcycle seat. “I will be back, I have to deliver a couple of newspapers,” he says.
Before Covid-19, Kamulegeya would arrive at his spot at 6am and sell an average of 50 newspapers a day, mainly to parents taking their children to school. But since President Yoweri Museveni closed schools and universities — as part of national measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus — many are opting to receive newspapers digitally in a PDF format. He points to a bank across the road. “It no longer needs my newspapers since they order online and distribute the entire paper within the organisation.”
Although he always enjoyed reading newspapers when he was growing up, Kamulegeya’s introduction to the newspaper-selling business was through a previous girlfriend who sold newspaper. Although the relationship was short-lived, the introduction to the industry had a lasting effect on Kamulegeya’s life. “The lady helped me understand the intricacies of selling newspapers.”
He’s not sure, but he thinks it was about 1996 when he began selling newspapers, at about the time that Museveni conducted the first democratic elections of his rule. (Museveni had already been in power for 10 years by then).
The Mail & Guardian’s interview with Kamulegeya is constantly interrupted by passersby who stop for quick conversations with him. One man picks up some newspapers and departs without paying. “That man only signs, he’s a doctor at that clinic,” Kamulegeya explains, pointing to a medical centre. “Some clients sign in a notebook for their papers andpayalumpsumattheendofthe month.”
At the end of each day Kamulegeya reads the papers. “Daily Monitor [an English language daily] used to be my favourite,” he says. “I believe it helped give me the perspective I was looking for.”
He even has Daily Monitor editions that date back 10 years. If someone happens to be looking for a particular article, he charges them to read it.
He also enjoys The Observer [an English language weekly], and used to read a Luganda paper called Eddoobozi before its offices were raided by the government and it was shut down. He is not a huge fan of Bukedde, a popular Luganda daily, even though he speaks Luganda and it is a favourite of many of his clientele. Red Pepper is a daily tabloid.
Although he’s not sure why fewer people are reading newspapers, Kamulegeya says it could have something to do with a decline in the quality of journalism. “I think some journalists are biased and the audience can predict what is in the papers and that’s why they don’t purchase,” Kamulegeya says. The rise of social media and acute poverty are also factors, he believes.
His most lucrative days on the job coincided with major political events, or milestones in the lives of prominent people. “When the king [the Kabaka of Buganda] got married, people bought all my papers,” he says.
Kamulegeya has no doubt that his days as a newspaper vendor are coming to a close. Many of his customers have already shifted to reading news on smartphones and computers. He does not have a smartphone and is not particularly comfortable with technology.
But he is grateful for what newspapers have meant to him and his family over the past two decades. “Newspapers also have given me a source of income and I have taken care of my family comfortably,” he says.