In 2013 I visited Kampala for the first time. That is when the love affair began. Being farther up along Africa’s eastern coastline, I didn’t know what to expect from this African city. I arrived in hot humid September, during its second rainy season (second?!) to attend the Bayimba Festival. I fell in love. With the people (so friendly), with the landscape (hills everywhere!), and the fact that despite this was completely different to Zimbabwe, it all seemed so familiar.
I returned to Kampala once again this past September to attend yet another workshop and was once again met with the same beguiling city. Maybe it’s the rolling hills (Kampala originally is made up of 7 of them but has since expanded to include many more) or the fact that the city seems remarkably chilled. Easy. With some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met, not the usual friendly that you can usually encounter in a foreign land, but the really go out of your way sort of friendly, the kind where strangers lend you money without a second thought, and how eager people are to hear about Zimbabwe from the horse’s mouth about ‘Mugabe.’ While I was happy to oblige with a comprehensive and current history of our nation and its woes, I was much more curious to hear about Uganda and Kampala from my hosts.
One of the first things I noticed about Kampala was the fact that there’s a lot of traffic on the roads. Kampala is famous for its serious traffic jams. The airport is in Entebbe – about an hour away at off-peak times, and two hours otherwise. Yes, there are a lot of cars on the roads making traffic at rush hour quite unbearable if you are driving a car. Taxi drivers talk often about there being ‘a jam’ here or there and make plans to avoid them. But most people have gotten round the sometimes difficult traffic flow by using boda bodas, public transit motorbikes. Called bodas for short, these curious and fascinating navigators of traffic are the best way to get around in Kampala. Never mind they have a reputation for being unsafe (and the locals say, an entire hospital ward dedicated to those who have been injured from riding them when things go wrong) they are hands down the best way to get around the city.
Because of their size, they zip in and out of traffic, easily avoiding any ‘jams’ there might be, making sure you arrive at your destination in the most efficient manner. At rush hour, there are literally swarms of them on the road, on and between every intersection, ferrying one or more passengers at a time. Never mind that most passengers ride them without a safety helmet. They are cheap as chips and there is nothing quite like going up and down Kampala’s hills, wind in your hair, hands wrapped tightly around a- random boda driver you’ve never met but with whom you are now quite literally intimately acquainted. For the un-initiated, it’s a thrill I tell you, but definitely not for the faint of heart.
If a boda is something you’ve been warned against by numerous travel advisory websites, then you take a taxi – what we call a kombi. These, I know and am used to, but was also pleasantly surprised to see that Kampala kombis do not stuff their passengers four to a row (garai four-four vabereki) the way they do in Zim. No, in Kampala they like you to be comfortable – and again you’re talking about parting with about UG Schillings 1,500 per journey (44 cents), or in the case of a boda boda, anywhere from UG Shillings 3,000–5,000 (USD 87 cents to $1.50). Very affordable. But if your phone is on the Ugandan network and you have already downloaded the app, then you might as well order an Uber, which gives great value for long distances, giving you the safety and assurance of a traditional cab, but way cheaper (Average price: $3 for a 15 minute ride). Plus you get to choose your driver based on previews reviews – guaranteeing safety and good service every time.
Then there’s the food. Ugandan everyday fare consists of a three starch delight served with g-nut sauce (groundnut sauce) and matooke (boiled or steam green bananas, usually cooked in a banana leaf), ugali (sadza) and Irish potatoes served with a steaming meat stew of your choice. All very nice until you weigh yourself at the end of your trip. Breakfast can consist of the familiar continental variety, or you can grab a chapatti and then have the above-mentioned three-starch meal for lunch. But you’ll be hard pressed to find a restaurant serving local fare open for dinner, as most Ugandans prefer to eat dinner at home which means that most restaurants serving these local foods are closed at night. Not knowing this, we ventured out to a restaurant famed for its local cuisine, only to be served leftovers from lunch. Not cool.
Kampala also has very tasty street food. You can get deep friend cassava (a bit bland probably could do with a bit of a sauce) and samoosas everywhere and Kampala’s famous street snack: a rolex. The basic idea is eggs cooked with cabbage, onion, tomato, and sometimes peppers neatly wrapped or rolled into a chapatti. You can get a rolex on certain street corners and it is a yummy, cheap (UG shilling 1,000 = US 29 cents) way to satisfy your hunger anytime – day or night. I noticed that the food has borrowed quite a bit from Indian cuisine, which is also a lovely, spicy delight for the senses.
To see and do in Uganda: a visit the Kasubi Tombs (the site of the burial grounds of the four kings of Buganda); check out the Uganda Museum; go see a performance at the The National Theatre (home of the Bayimba Festival a sumptuous feast of music, dance, and fashion which takes place for three days in late September every year) and the adjacent Crafts Village (for traditional African fabric, hand crafts and local music); not to mention bars, night clubs and comedy clubs galore. Compared to Harare, everything is affordable (I couldn’t believe how cheap everything was, and sometimes had to ask the price again so sure was I that it could not possibly be true).
For accommodation, on my first visit I stayed at the Kampala Premier Inn in Kamwotya, a pleasant enough bed and breakfast for $45/night and this time around, I spent a week in Forest Cottages in Bukoto – a nice full-service hotel in an upscale area from $57 per night. Although in the suburbs, this area was close to the city centre and easily accessible. Ntinda shopping centre was five minutes away along with the Kabira Country Club for tennis squash, swimming and various other exercise classes.
So, if you’re thinking of setting off on an African adventure, try Kampala. Named the 13th fastest growing city on the planet and the best city to live in East Africa ahead of Nairobi and Kigali, it is a beautiful, affordable city, with an easy-going charm.
Image: Down town Kampala during rush hour.