Exploring Kampala: Matatus, shopping malls, slums and nightlife

For the second day of orientation, we took a matatu bus/taxi to the city centre with Shakirah to buy local sim cards and exchange some money.  The traffic in Kampala is much worse than I expected, with taxis, cars and trucks all fighting for space on the roads, whilst the infamous boda bodas (motorbike taxis) weave in and out of everyone, including cyclists and pedestrians, at terrifying speeds.  I was told that 60% of hospital admissions in Kampala are from boda boda accidents alone, so it’s best to avoid them where possible!

Matatus are small minivans with 14 seats (but this doesn’t always equate to the number of passengers – drivers frequently squeeze in as many people as possible, to take more money in fares!)  Matatus follow certain routes around the city but there are no formal bus stops, passengers just shout ‘masawo’ when they want to get off and it’s fairly easy to hail one if you want to get on (otherwise they all start and finish at the taxi park in the city centre – a very noisy, confusing place!)

View from the hotel: Entebbe Road

View from the hotel: Entebbe Road

We arrived in town at a shopping mall called ‘Shoprite’, one of about three malls in the city, where you can find all sorts of Western luxuries including supermarkets, restaurants, ice cream parlours and even a cinema!  The security is very strict and armed guards search your bag and pockets at the entrance of every shop.  We went into the city’s main bookshop and I was surprised to find it as big and as plush as any bookshop in London!  The sections on African wildlife, history and development were far superior to any you find in English shops, however, and it was an effort to leave with just a map of Kampala in my hand!

Back at the office, we met Bosco, a previous volunteer in Iceland, who offered to take us out for the evening.  As we drove through the city, the disparity between rich and poor was clear to see.  Densely populated slums are home to huge numbers of people, including refugees from Sudan, the Congo and the north of Uganda, who live in dilapidated shacks with very little room and almost no sanitation or hygiene facilities.  In contrast, the rich middle class and foreign residents live in extravagant houses with towering gates and guard dogs in a clean, leafy neighbourhood which boasts Kampala’s most expensive hotels and even a golf course!

It’s common to see children begging on the streets, walking up and down the lines of cars sitting in traffic jams with crying babies strapped to their backs, while the parents watch from a distance.  Most of them have come from the north of the country, where unrest with the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony) has caused people to flee their homes in rural areas.  It’s upsetting but the government is trying to help them return, now that the north is peaceful again.  The problem is that most of them don’t want to go back, now they are surviving here.

Bosco first took us to a Western bar/restaurant called ‘The Bistro’ where we tasted our first ‘Club’ and ‘Nile Special’ beers, both brewed in Uganda. Later we went to a bar called ‘Da Posh’, a favourite with the locals, which has live music, comfy sofas and glittering fairy lights strung from the trees.  I think I’ll be going back to that one!

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