For many years until a couple of weeks ago, when you went walking in the streets of Kampala, it was advisable to have some loose change on you. It was your insurance in case you literally stepped on somebody’s tomatoes.
Stepping on somebody’s tomatoes was not some figure of speech, but a physical likelihood. For disorder has been Kampala’s order of the day since August 1972, when the government conducted an economic ethnic cleansing by expelling all people of Asian origin accusing them of “milking the economy”.
Later this year, (descendants of) those mostly Indian people will be holding grand celebrations to mark the golden jubilee of their arrival in their new homes in the wealthy West, where they are now among the wealthiest, but that is another developing story. In their former home of Kampala, we are happy to report that should they return for a visit today, they would find some familiar order, for the tomatoes we have been selling on the roads and pavements for the past half a century are gone.
It was a public surprise for the citizens when the government last month acted with unfamiliar resolve and evicted the street vendors who had turned the ground meant for walking and driving on into their display and trading counters for, I repeat, 50 years. The top city ruling council was thrown into jail for protesting against the move. After several days in the cells, the female councillors were granted bail on compassionate grounds as they presumably have to look after their families while the males had to stay in the cells for longer before they appear in court. The lawyer of the councillors who protested the hawkers’ eviction is the city Lord Mayor himself, His Worship Elias Lukwago, who is a qualified, practising advocate of the High Court, for he needs them out of prison or else he has no council to chair without them.
But removal of hawkers who have been menacingly fining members of the public for stepping on their tomatoes spread in the road has only freed the road surface for more vehicular chaos. For traffic movement in Kampala remains a total mess. Whatever level of driving expertise you may have, you have no chance of driving in Kampala unless you first reduce yourself to the lawless mentality of the majority.
Did you read the story of a 17th century explorer who was heading to Africa and bought a book titled Rules for Surviving in the Jungles but threw it away before reading it when someone pointed out that the lions didn’t have the book?
So it does not matter how much you know about the proper way of doing things in a city. As long as the city lions do not share your knowledge, keep your information until the kings of city jungle are on the same page with you.
Right now, the kings of Kampala jungle haven’t finished reading the book about integrating traffic issues. Our urban lions have read several scattered books but have not read one that consolidates all aspects of traffic management and planning. They read an interesting one about non-motorised zones for instance, and dedicated a whole section of Kampala to pedestrians and manual bicycles. But they forgot that there is need for rules to keep out boda boda motorcycles and these took over the space that was supposed to be a healthy zone. They also did not read the book about pavements and these are also heavily used by boda boda. Another bigger book they haven’t yet finished reading is the one about physical planning in relation to public transport.
But we are not losing hope. We believe that after the eviction of the tomato sellers and their cousins who have been selling second hand clothing on the streets, our lion kings will now dedicate time to reading the remaining books about modern urban life.
Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:[email protected]