BWALYA MBEWE writes from Kampala

I AVOID minibuses at home, but in Kampala I had no choice but to board one.

They are small, fast and carry 11 passengers. But some risk penalties by squeezing in three extra passengers.

They are efficient and fast.

A fare of Sh1,000 (equivalent of K4) gets one to town in 20 or more minutes depending on the time of day. 

The final destination is downtown Kampala, a sprawling business area consisting of intertwined shops and street vendors.

The massive markets are designed from underground with narrow stairs. A visitor has no chance of navigating this maze without getting lost.  Only locals are adept at finding the way out of the shopping maze.

So, ‘armed’ with a local guide, I jumped on a taxi and took the back seat.  It was hot inside but my guide told me we couldn’t open the widow for fear of having our bag snatched.

At this point, she already had my handbag firmly clasped to her chest and I just strolled behind her.

We darted across busy streets, narrowly avoiding boda boda riders. These are modified motor cycles used as public transport in most, if not all, East Africa.

Boda boda riders are part of the normal traffic and a favourite of locals because of their ability to navigate traffic. They zoom in and out of traffic with their passengers holding on tightly.

It appears helmets are not necessary and nobody really bothers to wear one.

A boda boda rider can carry up to three passengers and some luggage.

A local taxi driver told me there was no training needed for the boda riders. So anyone can acquire the boda and jump on it and this, he said, leads to accidents, some fatal.

This, however, does not discourage the locals, whose prime interest is to beat the traffic and earn a living.

Women with babies in their arms hop on and one can either sit sideways with legs protruding on one side or stride the boda behind the rider. Incidents of people falling off are common.

Despite the temptation, I could not get on a boda largely because there was no helmet and I was not sure there was a Zambian consulate to help me if I did.

Traders

Aggressive sales people call out, “sister, sister”, enticing one to go and check out their array of goods. Traditional healers with herbs and shops offering professional prescriptions are all available in this shopping area.

Fresh mangoes, polished and shiny, are arranged neatly in dishes or heaps on the ground.

Like Lusaka’s own Soweto traders, Kampala vendors also want to take any available space to display their ware. In some cases, even roads are blocked and one only realises there is a road when a vehicle comes along and people have to move their merchandise out of the way.

It feels like home away from home, really.

Food for the soul

At my base, located on a busy Jinja Road, the Chinese owned Elite Suites Hotel offers both local and Chinese cuisine.

I was quickly introduced to matoke, rice, potatoes and chicken. Matoke is a local favourite and the chef was most insistent I order that as my first official meal in Uganda. 

When the food came, I was amazed at the quantity and the serving method.

The rice, matoke (boiled and mashed spiced bananas) and a big boiled potato nicely arranged on a diner plate.

On a smaller plate is a chicken leg in a pool of gravy (or sauce) cooked traditionally without any spice.

Fresh fruits are readily available and getting a fruit juicy is easy.

Fresh mangoes, pineapples, watermelons and passion fruits are common and widely used for making juice.

On the downside, the hotel casino is situated below rooms and has very good loud music which goes on and on till morning.

Remarkable music with patrons easily singing along just to make sure even the little sleep one has disappears.

I found it odd that a hotel with guests could actually play such loud music the whole night.

Religion

Christian and Muslim coexistence is a wonderful thing to see. The peaceful interaction is obvious even to a visitor. Even markets are filled with traders from both faiths.

Public Holidays

When I was going to Uganda, I was advised that June 3 and 5 were public holidays for martyrs (Martyrs Day) and for the Muslim idd. However, Tuesday morning I learnt with shock that the holiday had been shifted overnight from Wednesday to Tuesday June 4. 

This effectively meant that my appointments for that day were toast. Apparently, the Muslim leadership can do this and in this particular instance, it was because the moon had come out on Monday night.

So, when the leaders saw the moon, the idd celebration was brought forward.

As one editor put it, the Sharia law is like that.

As for me, this meant frantic calls to editors to confirm appointments and rearrange the timings.

Weather

When it rains it pours. The tropical weather pattern is truly in form here. After two days of sunshine, locals knew there would be rains.

I found out, the hard way, when my papers got soaked.

Going for an appointment and it starts raining cats and dogs, just as one is about to enter the offices, can be devastating especially if one is on foreign soil and wants to impress.

Well, no chance of impressing with rains falling like there is no tomorrow.

Police

Police presence is not really that visible, but drivers know security personnel are there and no matter how late, they stop at traffic lights.

A police check point with spikes on the road is not uncommon. It is actually one of the things taken for granted by locals.

I could not figure out why the spikes were placed in the middle of the road, though.

Traffic police wear white uniforms and are out early to control traffic and keep boda riders in check. The bike riders do not observe most traffic rules such as traffic lights.

Immigration

The immigration service is efficient and welcoming to the point where one feels this is truly home away from home.

As a first-time visitor to Uganda, I was not really sure whether I needed a visa or not. But I was going to Uganda with or without one.

Under the Comesa treaty, nations in the region are exempt from paying for the precious document, and I am genuinely glad to have this privilege.

Part 2 continues next week.

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