People have different opinions about Kampala, Uganda's capital city. And they are many opinions. It’s probably the most polarising East African city reviewed by travellers and travel bloggers.
To many, it’s the most vibrant city in the region with raw energy and high octane social life. To others, it’s rambunctious and undesirable.
I’ve lived in Kampala for the better part of my life; but I had a break between 2011 and 2018, when I moved to live and work in the Rwandan capital, Kigali.
Kigali. Now that’s a city seeped in tales. Even more controversial than Kampala, but in a whole different way. Moving from Kampala to Kigali was a culture shock. In Kigali, I found a city with grandiose and squeaky clean roads, lush green side streets and open spaces, tidy and manicured pavements, civil and astonishing orderliness. Even measured tones in public conversations.
With a population of just one million people, traffic jams were rare and noise pollution unheard of.
The city’s organised neighbourhoods and pedestrian walkways made evening walks – and even jogging – an attractive idea, and was even nationally encouraged to promote good health. Hanging out in social places and bars after work in the evening was one of my favourite pastimes because even the bar owners and drunks exuded a high level of civility: Loud music was taboo and alcohol-induced bar brawls and quarrels were a rarity.
Over the years, Kigali became a home I’ll never really call my home. It was bliss while it lasted.
Homecoming to a chaotic city
Even though I was having a sanely good time in orderly Kigali, I looked forward to returning to Kampala, because I missed my home city. A lot.
You see, even though I enjoyed the civility and orderliness of Kigali, the Rwandan capital was also dull, with entertainment in short supply. I was particularly missing that adrenaline-pumping energy of Kampala. It’s not by chance that Kampala earned the title of East Africa’s entertainment capital.
From numerous stand-up comedy shows and music concerts, to goat races and cake festivals, Kampala has something for everyone, all the time, anytime. Also, Kampalans are more outgoing and hospitable people than Kigalians, which makes establishing rapport with all types of people an easy undertaking in Uganda’s capital. Not with introverted Kigalians.
But the joke was on me. The homecoming optimism I had as my Kigali sojourn came to an end, quickly turned into dismay when I finally moved back to Kampala in 2018.
A young and frantic population
At the time of my departure in 2011, Kampala’s population was two million people. In 2018, I found a young and rowdy population of 3.2 million frantic people – with official estimates putting those under the age of 30 at 80 percent.
I was instantly alienated from the majority of Kampalans by age, as it was hard for me to sustain meaningful conversations with most people around me.
Most discussions involved petty issues, about local celebrities, and to make matters worse for me, I didn’t know a thing about a whole host of the new celebrities in town, so I had almost nothing to contribute. I decided that it was okay to take it easy, spending my first months living in solitude and finding solace in books.
Outside my home and away from books, the walks and jogs I enjoyed in Kigali were a distant dream in Kampala due to the shoulder-to-shoulder, cheek by jowl foot traffic and heavy motor traffic jams that characterise Kampala roads. A problem compounded by frantic motorists with no regard or respect for traffic rules. If at all they exist.
So I gave up on jogging because it is so easy to be knocked down by a boda boda (motorcycle-taxi) or a commuter minibus (known as taxi) because of the total breakdown of order as practiced just next door in Kigali. And then there are those relentless shrills and wailings of police sirens. The cacophony is enough to drive anyone stepping out of their house insane, let alone a jogger.
Looking back, I concluded it is a socio-political thing. In 2019, I had a short stint in Bujumbura, then Burundian capital, and I quickly learnt that societies with a Francophone background are generally orderly and have a lot of respect for authority – unlike their Anglophone counterparts.
My yearning for entertainment in bars and nightclubs also faded away almost instantly upon my return to Kampala when I realised that I couldn’t put up with the rowdy youth who fight at the slightest provocation. Violence is a by-word for normal life in Kampala.
Maybe I had outgrown bars and nightclubs that played loud, ear-piercing music that were a big part of my 20s and early 30s. But I was especially put off by the fact that some of the fights in these hangouts were fatal, with the most publicised one being the one in which celebrated vocalist and songwriter Moze Radio lost his life in 2019.
Covid-19 restores sanity, somehow
The eve of the year 2020 was characterised by rowdy crowds, fireworks, wild parties and binge drinking, and of course a couple of injuries from road accidents.
In the days before 2011, I would definitely have loved to join the crowds to ring in the new decade. But this was no longer my good old Kampala – the young ones had taken over the city, and I had to play by their rules if I was to join them.
But joining this party also means risking an encounter with vicious muggers – gangs that are born out of the rampant unemployment bedevilling the city’s economy and hitting its youth hard in recent years.
Back in Kigali, I would have confidently joined friends at the timeless Chez Lando in Remera for the laid-back celebrations that Kigalians are known for – and which I had become accustomed to.
In Kampala I chose to stay at home and enjoy New Year’s Eve parties on TV, even before Covid-19 forced us to party virtually.
But the new decade had hardly set in when the unimaginable happened in March 2020. Life as we know it was turned upside down by a deadly virus. A novel coronavirus, later identified as Covid-19 took hold around the world, and Uganda went into lockdown. Markets, travel, bars and parties were banned, evening-to-dawn curfews were imposed and the good life was over. Well, kind of.
More than a year into the pandemic, the Ugandan government has since lifted some restrictions, but some caveats, such as the ban on bars and nightclubs and other entertainment events that attract big crowds, still remain, much to the chagrin of the hitherto freewheeling Kampalans.
The pandemic, as devastating as it has been on the economy, has at least restored some semblance of sanity in Kampala by halting uproarious, all-night long parties that have for long been a staple in the city. Granted, some bars still open – especially those that are located away from the main city commercial areas patrolled by police, but even the noisiest youth have to imbibe quietly lest they are arrested.
Riots run riot
Kampala’s young, disgruntled and gullible population is also ready fodder for politicians. And they didn’t disappoint in the election cycle of 2021. Kampala was the scene of one of the most violent election campaigns and police crackdown on street demos.
And just because the riotous youth did not show up to register their dismay at President Yoweri Museveni’s swearing-in for a sixth term in Kololo on May 12, doesn’t mean they have been beaten and down. They chose to stay away. Kampala was deserted. No traffic jams. No frantic boda bodas. No shrills-wailings of police sirens.
For the first time since my return to the city in 2018, I enjoyed walking Kampala streets.
The feeling was world’s apart from Museveni’s first inauguration in 1996; and that is when I realised, that was a different time and a different generation.
In 1996, Kampala was in a very jubilant mood, most streets jam-packed with genuinely happy people celebrating with Museveni, but in 2021 the streets were akin to a funeral site.
Kampala has certainly changed. A lot.