First Impressions in Uganda

Ideas and Issues

            Kampala         Flying into Entebbe, a glance out the window to the left, as the plane looks for the runway, is suddenly breathtaking, as the vast savannahs of Africa meet the blue waters of Lake Victoria.  For all of the drama of Entebbe in our memory and imagination from the days of plane hijacks and Idi Amin, walking across the tarmac from the plane to the airport building you are struck by not only the unexpected beauty of the surroundings, the green grasses and tall trees meeting the red dirt, but also the smallness of the airport serving a 1.5 million city not far away in Kampala.  

In the same way the relatively new bypass highway in Nairobi had been a surprise, the partially built expressway leading towards the Uganda capital was also another welcome relief for as long as it lasted.  We cruised quickly by toll booths, still waiting to clutch their first coins.

The airport was also amazingly orderly despite or perhaps because of its smallness.  After a first bit of chaos involving unexpected health forms that had to be completed, we sped through immigration.  Coming into the main greeting area whether in Toronto or Mumbai or Nairobi or Mexico City is always a scrum as families crowd around and touts and pickups waive signs at passengers coming through the doors.  Not in Kampala.  The airport seemed almost empty.  A passenger had to go outside and then find the hotel and other drivers with their signs sitting calmly under a tent away from the exit gate.  

            Once in the city, we embrace the real Kampala.  My hotel was owned by the Catholic Church somehow and had the clean and plain comforts I associate with former nunneries that have been converted to conference centers without quite making it all the way there.  We jumped into a matatu to travel to the city center and then climbed on the back of a moto in order to get the last mile out of the way.  

Teeming is the only descriptive word that works here.  People in motion on every footpath.  Motorcycles, cars, bicycles, and people in a turbid confluence at every street corner and crossing.  Matatus, full of scrapes and dents, fat with people crammed into every broken seat, moving like bumper cars into every narrow space to get a bit farther down the road as their hawkers screamed to the street the destination intended and request for the next passenger.  

            The malls of Nairobi yesterday now seem a distant memory of another time in another planet, as the surging of Kampala, now the fastest growing city in Africa, sweep one along the way with a smile on your face at the quickness and energy while you are desperate to understand what it all means and where it is going.