I live in Uganda. It is an unpolished pearl sliced in half by the equator. In Uganda, we don’t trust numbers, statistics, or headlines. However, every morning, you will find us squinting at the rack of the dailies we don’t intend to buy, reading the many versions of the truth cooked up by the media, fused in headlines, while we were sleeping. The morning newspapers contain yesterday’s news, a fact that puzzled me as a child and still does.
I live in Kampala city, the capital city of this Great Republic. When my father was a child, it was a fancy place to live — or so he said. One of his favorite songs by Philly Lutaaya called Tugende e Kampala makes me wistful for those times when nkuba kyeyos¹ mourned the loss of these seven hills with good reason. Listening to Philly Lutaaya back then, I was inclined to believe that tropical paradises existed.
Whenever Daddy carried his battered briefcase and headed out, he asked, “What should I bring you from Kampala?” Growing up, Kampala meant a treasure hunt in Daddy’s briefcase for soft bagiya Tom Chris Crisps and Simka ice cream.
The first time I went to urban Kampala, Daddy took me to Sheraton Hotel and bought an ice cream in a glass shaped like the stainless steel sugar bowl we had at home. At home, we reserved glass items for guests. Sitting across from me in this high-ceilinged heaven, he grinned at my squeals — at my first awe upon feeling the unforgettable sensation that is brain freeze. Like all children, blind to the fact that he hadn’t bought any for himself, blind to his frown when the bill came, I had the time of my life. From then on, Kampala was to me what London was to Dick Whittington — a city paved with gold — today, Kampala is a kifeesi² playground, a den of thieves.
Every morning, I walk down a street lined with steaming faeces as I head to work. Watermelon crusts scraped clean of any red meat, line the bumpy pavement garnished by rotting pawpaw guts. Sometimes, teenage boys with uncombed pellets of bleached blonde hair wolf whistle at me, or worse, rap the lyrics of Kutama³ as I rush past. I think ruefully how growing up, each child who misbehaved was an open bar for a sound slap. It took a village to raise me. Nowadays, a whole city will not suffice. Nowadays, children have rights. Who knew that I would grow up to fear children…?
I live in an orange bungalow flanked by storied buildings. It is located in a restful neighborhood detached from screaming hawkers and the street protests for more salaries, from the tear gas and the gigantic radios advertising the latest Ykee Benda songs.
In my sleepy neighborhood, we do not throw our doors open for anyone except plumbers and electricians. We hardly receive visits from old irritating uncles who confuse you for your older sister, asking her when she is finishing school and you, when you plan to get married. A wall divides this suburb from a different sort of neighborhood three paces away, a place where houses resemble crumbled chunks of brown bread.
Once, as the taxi I sat in drove past, I glanced back and saw children in red-and-white school uniforms trooping out of these homes, their greenish-brown walls pulsing with trapped rain water. I imagined these walls, cold and squishy to the touch, coming alive and engulfing them as they slept wondering what yardstick God used in apportioning vulgar wealth, rabid poverty and the comfortable medium which I have learned to take for granted.
I live in paradise compared to these people and should never be ungrateful after seeing these deplorable living conditions. However, I have learned over time that there is no hierarchy of pain and there is definitely no such thing as a monopoly of suffering. I have learned that sometimes, gloom resides in mansions and Heaven in hovels.
Growing up, I wished the children in those bread houses were my friends. I wanted to play kwepena⁴ in the pockmarked barracks while the tilapia fish gaped openmouthed on a scanty mudaala⁵. I wanted to plait sparse hair with those half-naked children with knitting thread, to fetch muddy water with their filthy gang of friends.
Instead, I sat in the sun on Saturdays spying on the silent mansions with children who did not laugh and lovers who did not quarrel. I peeped through a crack in the curtain at night, looking out for blenders that did not whir and cigarette smoke swirls wafting out of dark windows. I saw mothers carrying their custard-colored children onto balconies for a fearful three minutes before dashing back in. Every morning, their lights went on, shadows flitted through yellow cubes on the walls and silhouettes indicating human shapes rose out of the suburban tombstones.
I wondered why my parents did not move to a place where I could share my toys with somebody. I was too young to know that a home is a prison you furnish so expertly that one day, you believe you are free to leave at any time. Home, be it a person or a place, locks you down with tentacles of love.
Where except in Uganda can you make friends with a stranger for the duration of a taxi drive, hear about their failed marriage, their perfect children, their battles with witchcraft and disembark without exchanging telephone numbers or names?
I once sat on a Safeboda⁶ with a cyclist — whose name I cannot remember — who narrated to me the story of a girl he grew up with. She was the only girl on an all-male football team. Because of her skill at trapping the ball with her dress, she secured a place as their goal keeper and toured the country with them until she fell pregnant at sixteen. It traumatizes him to this day to imagine their goal-keeper pregnant…
“She’s a big woman now,” he said incredulously as I paid him his fare. “She has a husband and children.”
The stories you will find in Kampala if you know who to listen to!
I cannot leave this country, wracked as it is with the fear of the ballot and the nosy citizens who fat-shame you before exchanging greetings. I cannot leave it without leaving my heart in its ridiculously fertile earth. It has stunted me with its colonial education and chained me to a desk. It has taught me intrusive social skills and enamored me to sweet-talking strangers who mastered the lyrical language of luganda. It has watered me with an excess of beauty, teaching me how to take its abundance for granted. With its ugliness, it has taught me the importance of fear and why I must drink up life to the fullest as I wait on the precipice of an uncertain tomorrow.
Though I am no Philly Lutaaya at composing romantic ballads to my motherland, I can’t stomach the thought of ever being away from this tropical wreck.
1. nkuba kyeyos: these are Ugandans earning their livelihoods in foreign countries. ‘Nkuba kyeyo” literally means, “I am a sweeper”.
2. kifeesi: acrime gang
3. Kutama: a song by Fik Fameica.
4. Kwepena:a word that loosely translates to ‘dancing’. The game, which is popular among young people in Uganda, has been in existence for centuries. Like dodgeball, it involves players taking turns to dodge a softball thrown by their opponents.
5. Mudaala: market stall.
6. Safeboda: A motorcycle App.
This article was first published on the Kalahari Review platform on 5th September 2019.