Sunday, June 1, 2008
First Impressions of Kampala
We land in Entebbe airport and hire a car service to bring us to the International Youth Hostel, right next door to the American Embassy in Kampala, the capital of Uganda.
The driver silently mans the wheel while I make conversation with our guide and Hannah gazes out the rolled-down window of our silver minivan. There are wide swaths of green in this hilly landscape. Amidst the lush there are some paved roads, but many are composed of a distinct, dusty, red-orange soil - vibrant even from the plane. Along the roadsides, between conversation, I watch as we make our way past the mish-mash of lean-tos, shacks, and single-story concrete buildings with storefronts selling phone service, Coca Cola, many plastered with Visa card ads. Men and women are going about their business and, as we pass by, children stare at us. We wave and they smile in delight. Here's an interaction that, we can tell already, will prove common in our two months traversing East Africa.
Just before hitting Entebbe, we pass a white mansion at the top of a hill: the palace of President Yoweri Museveni. He is a popular president, our guide says. His claim to fame, she continues, is the creation of a free public education system - which the economist Joseph Stiglitz lauds in Globalization and its Discontents. The system is not perfect, I've read, but at least Uganda's more impovershed folks are able to get some education.
"I'm pretty sure that Museveni has been President longer than I've been alive," I say.
"How old are you?" our guide, riding shotgun, asks.
"Yeah," she says, nodding, then shrugging.
Lately, I've been reading The Daily Monitor online, Uganda's most prominent opposition newspaper. In its op-ed pages, The Monitor never fails to offer explosive critiques of the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement - a title modified from its original name, the National Resistance Army.
"People are tired," our guide says, matter of factly. "They want a change."
As we reach the towns outside Kampala, we pass a military police barracks. Nothing special, just a cluster of dormitories surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, with a gate at the entrance manned by guards. These are the forces called in to put down demonstrations, she says, led by the opposition parties, the most major movement being the Forum for Democratic Change.
You can see the MPs coming from blocks away, because they were unmistakable red head-gear and they wield long batons. Once they reach the crowds, as you can expect, the MPs start swinging indiscriminately. "They don't care who you are," our guide says. Then you're thrown into paddy wagons and dragged off to jail. FDC and other parties have demonstrated in Kampala a lot lately, she continues, and this is usually how things turn out for them.
We are getting closer to the International Youth Hostel. In the city center, we pass a length of wall neatly covered with pro-democracy slogans. "We Are All Ugandans," one says. "Voting Should Not Divide Us."
The van kicks up some serious red-orange dust as we pass down a road that leads us ever closer to the American Embassy and our hostel. "Somewhere, Out There," plays on the radio. We are surrounded by heavy duty trucks of all shapes and sizes - which brings to mind the Amadou and Mariam song "Camions Sauvages" - rickety bodaboda taxi motor-bikes, white matatu vans lined by blue stripes, their conductors hanging out the windows and calling out their destinations, all weaving through traffic in a mad dash towards wherever. Let's just say that the traffic in Kampala is reminiscent of the old cliche "every man for himself."
On the roadside, a man nurses a stove of meat kebabs. Women sit and hawk baked ears of corn. A team of young men lift up a shack and move it closer to the street corner.
Finally, we pass the American Embassy, which looks heavily defended. A man is sitting in the grass along the road, eating porridge and chatting with a woman in a long headscarf. We ask him where we might find the International Youth Hostel. He sort of shakes his head, then walks off and returns with a companion, who instructs us to head up the hill to our left. Further up the hill, we encounter some guys who, asked about the location of our hostel, appear rather perplexed. Maybe it's up there...? But then again, that way, it's just some modest houses. Then, one of them remembers - that hostel, the one we could've booked rooms for online during our hellish 25-hour stay in the Dubai International Airport, closed three years ago. It's just a bunch of new houses now.
Graciously, the driver and our guide bring us to another suburb, up another hill, and into another hostel - this one a bit more famous, listed in the Lonely Planet East Africa guide. Hannah and I check in, set up our little tent and - as we had done during our 12-hour flight to Dubai, and at the airport, and then on our connecting flight, first to Addis Ababa then finally to Entebbe - we pine for sleep.
With all these awkward sleeping arrangements to depend on, sleep has been hard to come by. Something tells me that it will be for the rest of our trip, as well...
Photo: the dogs of Red Chili Hideaway, by Hannah Rappleye