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Kampala’s good for a gander

When travelling, you will find places that you immediately like, sometimes inexplicably. Stepping off the plane in Entebbe, Uganda, at 9pm on a Wednesday, my skin encountered a warm, moist breeze, and I decided that this was one of those places. 

I quickly made my way through the small, orderly airport, clearing immigration within five minutes, and found a friendly cab driver to take me the 40km from the town of Entebbe, where the airport is located, to my destination – the bustling capital city of Kampala. 

The drive took us along a vibrant highway, heaving with boda bodas (bicycle taxis), which carried serene-looking passengers, rickety trucks overflowing with fresh-cut sugarcane, and vans and trucks sturdy enough to take on the often pock-marked road. 

Pedestrians flowed on either side of us, some rushing home and others checking out a multitude of stalls selling food, shoes, clothes, electronics and accessories. Music from bars added to the buzz. Light streamed from TVs and fluorescent bulbs on to the street, providing something to see by on the otherwise dark road. It was vibey and welcoming–and I was totally enamoured.

Kampala isn’t necessarily a tourist destination of note, but rather acts as a jumping-off point for those hoping to spend some time at Lake Victoria, the shores of which Entebbe calls home, check out the headwaters of the Nile in Jinja, which sits just an hour west of Kampala, or go to one of Uganda’s many national parks further afield. But while the city doesn’t necessarily cater to tourists, there is much to see here. 

Busy roads

Not knowing where to go, and having read lukewarm reviews of potential attractions such as the Uganda Museum and the Kasubi Tombs, which houses Buganda kings and is a Unesco World Heritage Site, I decided to spend my time walking up and down busy roads in an  attempt to orient myself and unhurriedly explore nooks and crannies that caught my eye. 

And there were many such nooks and crannies to find. Kampala hosts a handful of markets overflowing with crafts from across the continent, as well as the widest variety of high-quality, and affordable, second-hand goods I’ve ever seen. 

I was especially pleased with my acquisition of two pairs of leather high heels for $10 from Owino ?market. When meeting up with a friend later, I commented on her sharp leather jacket, which turned out to be another steal from Owino for $20. 

There are bustling shops, restaurants and bars across the city, where hungry wanderers can eat delights many different cuisines from places such as Uganda, India and China – and drink ice-cold Tusker beer and fresh sugarcane and fruit juices (I ate one of the best masala dosas I’ve ever had at Masala Chaat House, just behind the National Theatre). 

Though I didn’t find many shops or historical monuments that caught my fancy, I felt content simply to people-watch, and walked up and down the artery of Kampala Road among the heavy streams of people, roads and goods that stem from it for hours, dodging boda bodas, trying not to get too covered in dust, and having brief chats with those I passed. Roasted nuts and fresh-cut mango and pineapple bought from hawkers kept my energy high. 

The Boda boda ride

When I finally tired, I took a quick –if not somewhat terrifying– boda boda ride back to my hotel, happy with the driver’s unnatural and expert ability to weave through the bumper-to-bumper "jam", as the infuriating traffic is affectionately referred to. 

Never mind that my knuckles were white from hanging on so hard, I had made it home, and fast, with a bit of an adrenaline kick thrown in for good measure.

Although the city may not cater specifically to tourists, it does cater to expats. And Uganda attracts handfuls of them who primarily work within the nongovernmental organisation, development and natural-resource sectors. 

They have carved out enclaves of their own within Kampala, and entire neighbourhoods are almost entirely expat. 

Here you’re likely to find young, bubbly North Americans who have come for a few years of development work, hearty South Africans, many of them in engineering and who find work easier to find and more profitable in Uganda than at home, and Europeans from across the continent and a range of sectors. They mix and mingle over delicious Italian pasta, fresh sushi, boozy cocktails and decadent desserts, creating a world unto themselves, separated from the busy Kampala Road that rips through the centre of the city. 

Some of the spots they frequent – such as Endiro Coffee in Kisimenti, Mediterraneo in Kololo and Camel Club in Nakasero –offer a welcome respite from the hecticness of the inner city. But they, of course, also feel unsatisfactorily removed from the rest of Kampala. 

The Kampala nightlife

Googling "good restaurants" and "good bars Kampala", or just asking any expat you encounter during your stay, will almost certainly result in recommendations in these hubs. Spend some time here for a good non-Ugandan meal and a bit of luxury, but explore less googleable areas for a different taste of the city.

Kampala is perhaps most well known for its nightlife. Nearly every night of the week people party, and they party hard. Restaurants and shops are focused in certain areas of the city, but bars and clubs seem to pop up almost everywhere. 

With music leaking into my hotel room on Friday night, I decided to hit the scene. Not knowing what to expect, I went out for dinner and drinks wearing Converse, jeans and a T-shirt, only to find myself remarkably underdressed. 

At the bar, women wore tight miniskirts in leopard-print, black, purple and red fabric, their hair piled artfully atop their heads, mouths painted into pink pouts (it was this experience that prompted me to buy my aforementioned leather heels). African and American hip-hop music blared and beer flowed easily. 

The vibe was fun, fresh and energetic, and the party kept going long after my 2am bedtime. Should I go to Kampala again, I will focus my energies less on hitting the pavement and more on the night scene.

The darker side of Kampala

As is true of any big city, and perhaps especially one such as Kampala, which sits at the heart of a developing country and attracts people from across the region and the world, there is a darker underbelly that resides beneath the attractive bubble and pop of the bustling hub. Beggars line Kampala Road, and sex work is common in the city’s bars and clubs, and along some roads (the one I stayed on was apparently one of them). 

After my victorious Owino excursion, my wallet was snatched from my bag. On another occasion, I was followed for several blocks by a man asking for sex. 

The Ugandans I spoke to regularly complained about corruption from the bottom to the top of the public service (with police corruption most affecting the common man), poor governance, rising crime and limited democracy –the president, Yoweri Museveni, has been in power since 1986. 

After my brief interlude with the city and its inhabitants, I mused that perhaps Kampalans’ propensity for partying exemplifies their attitude towards life: live it and enjoy it, despite the annoyances and difficulties that it may bring. 

The city is pulsing and full of experiences varied, colourful and raw. Go, and enjoy. But be sure to bring a helmet for those boda boda rides.


If you go,don't miss this

There are a few things that will help you enjoy Kampala: a bit of patience, to help you deal with heavy traffic jams, dusty streets, and heat; and a bit of fearlessness, so that you can better take on boda boda rides. 

There are a few things you must eat and drink while in Kampala: as much fresh fruit juice as possible, which you can find in markets, street stalls and restaurants. Chew on some sugarcane, often sold on the side of the road in full stalks or precut pieces. Partake in some matoke, one of Uganda’s national dishes, made out of cooking bananas mashed into a delicious, sweet pulp. Sip cold beers — Tusker and Nile are a personal favourite — to wash away a hot, dusty and hectic day. 

For delicious Ethiopian food, check out Casablanca on Acacia Avenue in Kololo. I say “surprising” because Casablanca is also a bar, a club and a hookah spot, and — given the venue — I expected rather tasteless cuisine. But it was perfectly spiced and cheap. 

Hi-Table was my favourite find in the city. Located on Kampala Road, it has a roof for drinking, dancing and eating, and was the perfect spot to sip a beer while waiting for the afternoon traffic to die down. It has great views of the city and is perfect for people watching. It seems to be a landmark in Kampala, so ask a local and it should be easy to find. — Mara Kardas-Nelson


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Mara Kardas-Nelson
Mara Kardas-Nelson is a journalist with the Mail & Guardian's Centre for Health Journalism, where she focuses on access to medicine, health policy, financing, and planning. She has been contributing to the Mail & Guardian since 2009, writing on a wide variety of topics ranging from the environment to development to local culture. In 2010 she shared a Mondi Shanduka Newspaper award with photographer Sam Reinders for their work on acid mine drainage in Gauteng and Mpumalanga. Her work has appeared in publications across Africa, North America, and Europe.

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