Although disappointments in public affairs over the decades have turned many Ugandans into pessimistic cynics, they now have reason to be optimistic about their capital city in the post-Covid era.
In the past decade, Kampalans have looked in quiet envy at the streamlining of Nairobi’s infrastructure, the transformation of public transport in Dar es Salaam and uncompromising sanitation of Kigali.
All along, the dominant news from Kampala has been the grabbing of plots until proceedings at a commission of inquiry in land affairs started sounding like bad fiction.
In their language, native Kampalans say that their “eyes are in the hands”, meaning they will not believe something until they have first seen and touched it for themselves. No wonder a favourite Bible character of older Luganda speakers is Thomas, who vowed not to believe the resurrection news without first putting his finger in the wounds of his previously executed boss. They fondly call him ‘Toma’ as they quote him in arguments.
Before Uganda went into Covid-19 lockdown, Kampala had sunk below the bottom of confusion as traffic could only be described by one word: “chaos”. The rush hour was lasting from early morning to midnight, with the signal lights just wasting electricity as police had to man the junctions all the time to direct vehicles. Of course, the police had little power of the thousands of boda boda motorbikes and hundreds of wild VIPs with blaring sirens driving on the wrong side of the road, even on Sunday mornings when the traffic was light.
Then Covid-19 came and with it the lockdown and curfew. The first shot to restore long-forgotten sanity to Kampala was fired by Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA). The city’s most unruly market called Kalerwe has been a menace with vendors occupying the road where vehicles were supposed to pass. As soon as the lockdown took effect, UNRA’s team sneaked to Kalerwe and reclaimed its road and the road reserve that had become a de facto market. Then Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) also gathered courage (I am not saying they followed UNRA’s example) and started working in hitherto no-go areas previously lorded over by unruly matatu groups, boda-boda stages and vendors of all manner of merchandise including foodstuffs.
After a month of doing heavy repair and re-planning works, KCCA announced that it was planning to re-organise the city. And yes, boda boda and matatu will not be allowed into the city centre even when the lockdown ends.
Some of the things KCCA is declaring like instituting vehicle-free zones, cycling and bus lanes sound Utopian to a population accustomed to being abused by unruly transporters and vendors. But seeing is believing and the thousands of ‘Tomas’ can already touch with their own fingers the physical structures to effect these changes. When you walk on a road that has been divided into lanes smaller than the smallest car, with its surface painted green, you finally believe that you will soon have a green city.
Even though it took a mysterious virus to restore sanity in your city, you have to be grateful. But just like slaves who grew to love their owners and even fought for them, or those hostages of the Stockholm syndrome who fell in love with their captors, some victims of Kampala’s anarchy can be heard whimpering in wonderment how they will manage without boda boda and matatu entering the city centre. But they shall be fine.
Just like other cities in the world, Kampala has experienced a drastic drop in pollution, measured at fifty percent or less of its level at the same time last year. Anybody can see the clarity of the air with their naked eyes and of course, savour the freshness of the air as they breathe.
From what we see, we can now believe the government when it says it will deliver sane transport. An investment of just over $100 million is what is needed to get a smart, automotive industry off the ground, the president has said. Already, a huge plant for zero-emission electric vehicles is under construction in Jinja by the army’s construction unit and the Ministry of Science and Technology. But it is thanks to Covid-19 that the public now has reason to monitor the plant’s development.
Things are already looking up. Though there has been nothing said yet about the annoying VIP sirens, I guess we can live with those for a while, as long as the matatus and boda bodas have been tamed.
Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:[email protected]