I opened my eyes and we were in Kampala.
Even before being fully awake I could tell that something was new; clammy hands clasped in moist humidity, the air even smelled different. I remembered scenes like hazy daydreams out the window of the overnight bus, watching as Kenya’s arid soil slowly dissolved into vibrant shades of lush green as the sun rose slowly above the rounded hills in the distance.
But let’s backtrack a bit; it started with beer. Actually, it started with many beers, probably some whiskey too, but who’s keeping score? I work with two Ugandans who constantly brag about their homeland’s overall superiority to Kenya in everything from food to women and weather. One night over drinks we challenged them to put their matoke where their mouths were; we’d join them for a weekend of shenanigans in Kampala to put to the test their Ugandan self-satisfying sense of regional superiority, myself and my American friend Ben as the neutral, third party judges. We were not above taking bribes.
A few days before we left, I interviewed an American NGO worked named Aaron who said he was planning a trip to Rwanda and Burundi to do field research on conflict minerals like tungsten and coltan from the Democratic Republic of the Congo that were still finding their way into international markets despite increased legislation and worldwide condemnation. He lamented the lack of media attention on the issue as well as the prospect of finding a French translator in both countries, so we settled that I’d accompany to follow the story and give him a hand. I’d meet him in Rwanda and we’d take it from there. After Aaron and I parted, I’d trek by bus along Northern Tanzania, where another story about a secret Polish refugee cemetery hidden in a field near Arusha spurred my interest, but we’ll get to that later.
And there it was, a full-circle journey around Lake Victoria to wash away the strange emptiness the Westgate massacre had left in my mind and the pit of my stomach.
So after a grueling 14-hour bus ride, Ben and I arrived in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, and headed straight to the hostel to take showers and just generally clean ourselves up after the sweaty, cramped voyage. When I got out of the shower, Ben was sitting in the early afternoon sun with oversized tacky brown sunglasses and a large sweating bottle of beer at his side. He looked like an African reincarnation of Hunter S. Thompson and Ernest Hemingway’s unborn lovechild; this vision would set the tone for the rest of the weekend.
From the get-go I couldn’t believe the contrast; it was as if Nairobi’s heavily Westernized bustling downtown core had been replaced with a sea of winding dirt roads lined on all sides with lush jungle greenery. People often generalize Africa as one amorphous blob of congregated cultures and puff power poverty, leading to the dreaded “Africa is a Country” mentality that tends to dominate Western attitudes vis-à-vis the continent in everything from geopolitics to immigration. But Kampala was different; it had its own pace, its own throbbing pulse as you walked down the streets. Ugandans have the reputation of being the happiest people in East Africa, something I learned is earned with a heavy bag of salt… which they’d probably use for tequila if you actually gave it to them.
Motorcycle culture dominates the city as heavily congested traffic can be bypassed with a quick vehicle capable of weaving itself between gridlocked trucks and mini buses all screaming for a right of way that simply doesn’t exist. It’s one of those cities that was never built, nor properly adapted for mechanized commuter traffic that doesn’t involve camels.
Uganda gained independence from Britain in 1962, but power was seized nine years later from the democratically elected government by dictator extraordinaire Idi Amin, or, as he preferred to be referred to: “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.” However, despite also referring to himself as the uncrowned King of Scotland, he was not into freedom, and what followed was eight years of brutal political repression and ethnic persecution. Since, however, Uganda has remained out of the spotlight, drawing international condemnation only for alleged continued support of the ongoing civil war in the DRC and an almost institutionalized hatred of homosexuals.
But Kampala seemed at odds with the ways news media from the West reported on Uganda. It was more than just the homeland of YouTube sensation Joseph Koni or rapping president Yoweri Museveni. The beautiful multicultural city spanned kilometers of densely populated souls hustling to make a living doing whatever, wherever and however in a way I can only describe as uniquely Ugandan.
The city’s famed indoor/outdoor informal market stretches several square kilometers and is so dense, you can lose yourself amidst the small sea of aluminum siding and whatever-selling salesmen, which we inevitably did. It was the kind of place you could find absolutely anything, from bootleg DVDs and jewelry (READ: Stolen) to Museveni keychains and T-Shirts so hip, they didn’t need “That Vintage Look,” they were old before it was cool. Mountains of polished leather shoes stood dwarfed by massive bags of rice and multicolored beans that easily weighed a ton. I’m convinced that if the Holy Grail is real, it’s in there somewhere, nestled between a heap of dingy dishware and a woman wearing a tattered Osama Bin Laden t-shirt.
Despite Kampala’s insatiable insanity, a place of complete peace and serenity sits atop the city’s seventh and dominant hill, a newly constructed mega-mosque, an architectural rarity in sub-Saharan East Africa. Construction for the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council was started by Idi Amin and completed by Muammar Gaddafi, but despite its questionable funding history, the building showcases the beauty of modern Islamic architecture. We toured the interior and were delighted when our guide asked if we wanted to hike the 400+ steps up the single minaret to the highest point in the city.
We climbed and bitched the entire way, but from the top, you could see all of Kampala, its winding streets with thousands of residents swarming through traffic like ants on a metropolitan molehill. Every way you looked, the wind-swept panorama revealed a city in constant motion with radiating boulevards emanating in every direction from the mosque and splitting into a seemingly endless array of urban subdivisions. Giant shopping malls muddled together with miniature slum cities nestled near palaces and gardens that rather than sitting in juxtaposition with one another, blended into one complex mass of beautiful madness.
“All roads in the city lead to this central point,” our tour guide told us, never taking his eyes off the horizon. “That is why the British raised their flag at this very spot when they conquered. Now we have replaced it with a mosque, to show that god is more powerful than the British.”
Sometimes I forget that most nations in East Africa gained their independence in recent memory; there are those still alive who remember first-hand the brutality of colonialism and the long periods of instability and political mayhem that followed. All the war and political strife that dominates collective modern memory is a function of the awkward growing pains that all nations must go through on the long road to freedom and stability. Much like what we see now in countries struggling with democracy in the wake of the Arab Spring, the road to peace is plagued with ups and downs, a function of years of existence under someone else’s heel. East Africa will find its own way to prosperity, but it will take time and many angst-ridden years of pimply uncertainty and crackling voices struggling to uncover the true depth of their baritones.
I looked to the side and noticed a small child had followed us up the minaret. As we all ogled and took out our cameras for that perfect pose, he leaned against the rail and stood in complete silence, arms folded in bliss, overlooking the motorcycle city he called home.