For residents of East Africa, like much of the world, this is the first Christmas they are celebrating with fully opened economies after the two agonising years of Covid-19 lockdowns.
Traditionally, in Uganda, shoppers throng downtown Kampala at the start of every December for all kinds of goods for the festive season. It’s boom time for businesses, a scene replicated across major towns in East Africa: Travel to the countryside, crowded shopping malls, and overbooked hotels are the hallmarks of the festive season.
But 2022 is proving different for Kampala. With inflation and precautions around Covid-19 and Ebola, the heavy foot traffic characteristic of downtown Kampala is conspicuously missing – keeping many businesses, especially those in the leisure sector, pessimistic about this year’s festive season.
Even though a string of music concerts have been heavily advertised in Kampala, event organisers admit they don’t expect much turn out due to the knock-on effects of Covid-19, Ebola and rising prices of goods and services.
“We expect less turn up this time because people are generally poor. The economy is in silent recession,” said Balaam Barugahara, a leading Ugandan events organiser.
Party after party
In Kampala, Christmas season celebrations usually involve partying in every nook and cranny of the city, from the exotic hotels to small neighbourhood bars; parties that start on Christmas Eve and end on Boxing Day.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, New Year’s Eve was always the wildest night of the year for Kampalans. Party-goers ensured the streets remained jam-packed and annoyingly chaotic throughout the night as millions of people descended on the city to ring in the New Year.
Churchgoers would throng the main stadiums – Nambole and Nakivubo, while others would go to the Kololo ceremonial grounds to usher in the New Year, with the presence of President Yoweri Museveni at some of these celebrations.
Many would also travel to the countryside to feast with long-lost relatives and friends.
But the current high cost of fuel and other goods means few Kampalans can embark on the long journeys home. For example, a journey that used to take $50 worth of fuel now takes over $80.
Barugahara told The EastAfrican that the situation is made worse by the fact that movement in some areas, including Mubende and Kassanda districts, is currently restricted, with bars, churches and entertainment centres closed, transport frozen and night curfews starting at 7pm due to the Ebola outbreak.
However, the well-off are still faring well financially, bolstering high-end resorts and keeping hospitality businesses optimistic.
In the luxury holiday destination of the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria – which has traditionally been most Kampalans’ favourite festive season destination – many plush resorts are fully-booked until the end of the festive season.
At the Victoria Forest Resort, which is arguably Ssese Islands’ most luxurious hotel, all the 50 rooms that go for between $150 and $280 sold out weeks ago for the remaining days of December.
“All our rooms have been booked for the rest of December as is always the case around this time of the year,” said Emmanuel Mugisha, the manager.
Closed shop for good
Many businesses closed shop for good during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, leaving many Ugandans with little or no incomes.
And even those that survived the Covid blues have not fared well in 2022 due to the rising prices that have cut down consumer spending power.
Still, the lingering effects of Covid-19 can be felt in the economies as can the adverse impacts of the Russia-Ukraine war and climate change that has resulted in drought, and low crop yields and animal productivity.
Prices have gone up by 10.6 percent in November, far faster than the 2.8 percent pace in 2020 and and 2.2 percent in 2021.
The situation is grim in areas outside Kampala where the majority of the people depend on subsistence farming, a sector that has been hard hit by prolonged drought, resulting in reduced crop yields that have left many hungry and poor.
“During the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, people had money to spend. My business didn’t struggle at all,” said Jovia Kabasindi, whose bar targets low-income consumers in Hoima City, about 200km northwest of Kampala.
This year, however, Kabasindi says the festive season doesn’t promise any merry as her clients are struggling to keep up with the rising cost of living.
“My sales have reduced by more than 50 percent because of the high prices of almost everything. Many people cannot afford to buy alcohol anymore because it’s now more expensive. I don’t expect my sales to increase even during the festive season,” she said.
In Tanzania, soaring prices of commodities, especially food, threaten cheerful Christmas celebrations.
“Going to the market yesterday, I found myself singing that Bongo Flava song ‘Sauti ya Watu’ by Nay Wa Mitego. Truth be told, food prices have shot up greatly and they keep on increasing day by day. I bought a kilo of meat last month at Tsh8,000 ($3.42), today they are telling me it’s Tsh10,000 ($4.27) per kilo,” said Happy Mjema, Kilimanjaro resident.
Despite the fact that Tanzania has the lowest inflation rate in the region, prices for food and non-food products increase day by day.
Mjema isn’t the only person shocked by the increase in prices for food products. Edister Mbimbi, a resident of Kibaha which is 40km from Dar es Salaam, said a kilo of sugar is now Tsh3,000 ($1.28) from about Tsh1,500 ($0.64) a year ago, while a kilo of meat is currently sold at between Tsh9,000 ($3.84) and Tsh10,000 ($4.27) from Tsh3,000 a few months back.
“If you go to the market with last month’s prices in mind you will be disappointed. Foods such as rice, sugar, beans, beef and fruits keep increasing in prices day by day. I even wonder how we are going to survive this Christmas and New Year celebrations,” said Mbimbi.
Cannot afford to travel
When asked about her plans for Christmas, Lilian Jacob shared that she will be staying in the city since she cannot afford to travel.
“Christmas used to be memorable and all cheerful a year or two back. Now life has changed; everything costs more than it used to a year ago,” she said.
Latest data from Tanzania’s National Bureau of Statistics shows the annual inflation rate rose for the seventh straight month to 4.9 percent in October from 4.8 percent the previous month.
This was the highest rate since October 2017, and was mainly caused by soaring prices of food and non-alcoholic beverages, transport and furnishings and household equipment.
Beatrice Materu and Gilbert Mwijuke