Awkward Anthropology: First Impressions of Kampala

I arrived in Uganda one week ago today, but I’ve been so busy that it feels like I’ve been here much longer. Since landing in Kampala last Sunday night, I’ve been oriented on Ugandan culture and street safety, eaten the delicious local cuisine, and enjoyed great conversation with new friends. My journey to Kampala took 20+ hours, but our group recovered from our jet lag at the beautiful Ndere Cultural Center. The Center is lush and green, with great views of the hills of Kampala, but it had the dubious honor of giving us our first look at the ubiquitous (and terrifying) maribou stork. Dubbed the “Unofficial National Bird of Uganda” and nicknamed “The Undertaker,” the vulture-like birds are enormous, with wingspans of up to 12 feet. You can find pictures of them here – I can’t make myself get close enough to photograph them. Even Irvine Welsh thinks they’re sinister. Ndere is more than just beautiful grounds and creepy birds, however – they also work with a troupe of dancers to host beautiful cultural performances several times each week.

Kampala is an incredibly bustling city, with some of the wildest traffic I’ve ever experienced. People primarily use two modes of transportation: taxis and boda bodas. Taxis in Uganda aren’t the ones you’d find in Manhattan, however – in Kampala, they are privately-owned vans with blue stripes on the side, which officially seat 12 people but usually hold many more. They’re cheap – usually costing less than a dollar to ride – and are relatively safe, as long as you avoid half-empty ones and keep a close eye on your belongings.

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Boda bodas, on the other hand, are responsible for over half of all visits to some Kampala hospitals. Essentially motorcycles with extra seating, bodas ignore all rules of the road to zip around the city’s frequent traffic jams at alarming speed. In the past week, I’ve seen several boda/taxi collisions, two of which have resulted in riders flying off the back of the motorcycle and into oncoming traffic. They are almost completely unregulated and incredibly popular – we’ve been very strongly warned not to ride them, but the draw is real. Uber is also present in Kampala, as are government-owned public buses, but most locals walk or use taxis or bodas.

After three days of orientation and beginner classes in Luganda, Uganda’s most widely-spoken language, we were finally ready to explore on our own. I am participating in an experiential learning program centered around international development, which culminates in an independent research project of my own. Most of our excursions are thus centered around preparing us for research, and Thursday’s trip was no different. We were paired up and told to take a taxi to the Ntinda area of Kampala, where we would try to learn more about aspects of life in Uganda such as transportation, entertainment, and banking. My partner and I were tasked with learning more about restaurants and markets in Kampala, so our plan was to chat with street vendors about their typical schedules/where their food came from/how much everything cost. Yes! A chance for applied anthropology! We managed to confuse several vendors with our broken Luganda before we hit the jackpot: a local named Eddy, who took it upon himself to be our guide around Ntinda. I thought this was a stroke of luck or a sign that we were great at our research, but I later learned that he had been sent over by our previous interviewees to help us, as they were very concerned for the two lost-looking muzungu (white girls). (Muzungucomes from the Kiswahili word meaning “aimless wanderer” – which I have to imagine was a solid description of us in Ntinda.)

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Initially, Eddy walked us towards the touristy area of Ntinda. There’s actually a really nice mall there which I will probably check out at some point, but on Thursday, that wasn’t our mission. Instead, we asked him to take us to his favorite place to get lunch. On the way, we inquired about the local liquor, waragi. It’s basically moonshine made from fermented bananas, so of course, we had to try it. We entered a small room at the end of a busy compound, where a few men were drinking and reading their newspapers. We sampled the waragi, known as kasese after an area in Uganda where it is only distilled once instead of the usual three times. (Sometimes, this kills people, but I promise I’m ok mom!) Honestly, it’s pretty good – much sweeter than the konyagi I brought back from Tanzania.

After our brief experiment with day-drinking, Eddy invited us to visit his family. We walked past his childhood home, which was built by his grandfather, Idi Amin’s Minister of Finance. Apparently, Idi Amin had tried to seize it from Eddy’s family, claiming that “no one can build a house nicer than mine.” Eventually we came to a small building where we were introduced to Eddy’s wife and children. Ugandan culture allows for unannounced visitors, so despite being complete strangers, we sat and watched TV with them for a little while until it was time for lunch. We walked back to the market, where women and children prepare and serve food in their compounds. Over a meal of dried fish in groundnut sauce, matooke (boiled plantain), and rice, we discussed Ugandan history, Museveni’s development policies, and the pros and cons of privatization. After marveling at the bill (less than $6USD for all three of us), Eddy introduced us to the cheapest lunch in the area: kigere. Directly across from where we had eaten lunch, a woman had placed an entire cow’s head in a bucket, where it would be roasted to remove the hair, skinned, and boiled. A strip of this boiled skin sells for 1500 Ugandan shillings, or approximately 50 cents. It wasn’t ready to sample yet – I guess we’ll save that for another day.

Eddy is a prime example of the extreme friendliness of many Ugandans. We spent three days being prepared for a paradoxical experience: be careful or you’ll be robbed, but greet anyone one on the street with “osiibye otyanno, ssebo,” and expect a chorus of laughter and good wishes. Eddy was on his way to visit his family. He didn’t have to take three hours out of his day to show two muzungu around, or introduce us to his friends, or make sure we got on a taxi safely when heading home. Ask anyone in Kampala – expat or Baganda – and they will have similar experiences to share.

This post is getting way too long, so stay tuned for: Kabaka’s palace, Idi Amin’s torture chambers, meeting my host family, and more ~

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