Cars, capitalism, and great cuisine

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The ‘Pearl of Africa’ – first impressions from a Western perspective

Display of a typicial urban street in Kampala.
The streets of Kampala's urban area: dusty roads, market stands, and big-brand advertising (Photo: F. Michelmann)

Someone’s hooting from behind. On the left a boda boda (a mototaxi, very common form of travel in Uganda, and all of Africa) is taking over. We maneuver to the right, before he suddenly hits the breaks. Another boda boda is squeezing through traffic on our right side. The car behind is hooting again and then just drives in zig zag lines to find its way towards Namugongo. On the other lane a truck is passing, on its top there are seven people sitting quite uncomfortably. I stopped counting the number of petrol stations we passed. Every 500m there’s at least one. The air is dry, it’s dusty, and the smell of petrol and burned plastic is dominating.

It’s now been a good four weeks since I travelled to Uganda to take on my ASA-programme internship. Those four weeks were nothing short of impressive – on various levels. It’s the first time for me to leave the Global North and the so-called ‘Western world’. That’s why so many things are unfamiliar for me and why I’ll mention them. Since I’m living with my fellow internee Caesar, I’m surely not living the tourist way of life. No going out to high-end restaurants, and of course no living at a hotel. Rather, Caesar, me, and my two roommates are living in a combined two-room flat (there is one separate bedroom, which I didn’t count, since during the day we all stay in the same space).

The first thing I realised when I came to Uganda and met all the new faces was how hospitable the people are. From the second you enter someone’s home; they’ll provide you with all the comfort there is. People appreciate you being around and coming to Uganda. In addition, I was already invited to someone’s wedding, and was taken to a safari trip by people I didn’t know or just met two weeks before. This is hardly something I would imagine people in Germany doing. Moreover, Ugandans describe themselves as humble people who do not demand too much. When you go out on a Friday night, you can feel that positive vibe! My first night out was to some popular outdoor barbecue place. People were sitting in plastic chairs, sharing their food and drinks. Afterwards people play cards, enjoy the music, and dance. It’s an atmosphere in which people tend to forget about their daily life struggles, the issues at work, or other fears stressing them out. But don’t get me wrong, these gatherings are not limited to the weekend.

Actually, the very first thing I got to know, was the craziness about Ugandan traffic. I tried to explain it to friends at home like this: “People generally agreed to drive on the left-hand side. Everything else is up for grabs.” The streets are absolutely packed no matter what time you try to get in or out of Kampala. Constant rush-hour. But don’t get fooled. The actual rush-hour from 8-10am and 3-6pm is insane. This is, some friend told me, due to Kampala being designed for around 600,000 inhabitants, while nowadays there’s some 1.5 million people living there. The roads, mainly in poor conditions, lack the capacity to handle all the traffic coming into Kampala, the countries main trading centre, and economic driving force. That’s also due to not having public transport on rails, like trains and trams. Undergrounds? Not in this world. Recently a newspaper titled “Ugandans are stuck in traffic an average of 52 days a year”. That’s one day per week! Imagine doing your nine-to-five-job during the week, but instead of having Sundays off you’ll sit in your car doing nothing. Hard to believe, isn’t it?! However, from my experience, it’s true. Therefore, I’m not wondering anymore why people commuting to town are coming late, not showing up, or just cannot accomplish the same load of tasks per day, as people elsewhere on the planet. Whenever you have to go to town to do some business, plan at least half a day to finish this. And don’t be disappointed if an appointment at your bank will take you all day long.

The issues of road-traffic lead us to the next characteristic for Uganda: Infrastructure in general is an issue. The roads, as already mentioned, are mainly in poor conditions. There are few tarmacked roads, others are just dirt roads. No matter if tarmacked or not, potholes are waiting everywhere. Some of them, you could probably drown in. Actually, by far the best road I’ve yet seen was the one taking you through Murchinson Falls National Park. Ironically, this is not due to making the park more appealing to tourist, which is a welcomed by-product, but rather because in the future there’s going to be oil drillings. In the middle of a national park! Outrageous if you ask me. For purposes of faster transportation of raw materials, this new road was constructed. Besides the roads, electricity is an ever-present problem. According to the numbers only 15 percent of population have access to the power grid. As soon as you leave the city, live slows down even more. Also, during my four weeks stay, there’s been no water for three of these days. Doesn’t sound too bad neither too long but wait until you’ll experience this shortage of water.

However, when there’s water, Ugandan’s enjoy a very nice cuisine. The food over here has been superb so far! Besides, it’s as healthy as it gets! This is due to people usually boiling everything (especially water, which is caused by other hygiene issues) instead of frying it. The food differs largely from Western, especially German, cuisine. The main sides are rice, poshu (some mixture of corn flour and water), cassava, irish (commonly known as potatoe), sweet potatoes (not “sweet irish”, which frankly is puzzling to me) or kalo (a mixture of water and flour made of cassava and millet). Bread and pastries in general are not a common thing for breakfast. The sides are usually served along with vegetables, e.g. greens, beans, cowpeas, cabbage, avocado. Also, Ugandans love meat. The trend of vegetarian or vegan diet, surely hasn’t reached this site in East Africa. Whenever people go out, they’ll usually order for some good amount of either chicken, pork, or goat meat. From time to time, I enjoy these meals, but actually right now I prefer the vegetarian meals.

Due to its very fertile soils Uganda is primed for a strong agricultural sector. Roughly 70 percent of the population works in the primary sector. Most of these people live at the countryside and only go to town to sell their goods. When we went to some trip to Kaberameidoo, I experienced this rather simple life. People live in poor houses, often times without electricity. Toilets are holes in the ground, covered by four walls and a roof above. Agricultural machines such as tractors or harvesters are nowhere nearby. In general, things I took for granted before I came here, are an absolute luxury, usually not affordable for locals. Some few examples: There’s no fridge in the kitchen. People usually don’t store food for long, but rather go for groceries at least once a day. Also, no hobs or ovens in the kitchen. Instead, there’s a bottle of gas which is used for cooking. I haven’t taken a hot shower since I came here. I was offered to boil water and then use it for showering, but I denied that kind of luxury. In fairness, cold water at home is cold water in comparison to the water out of the tab here. Since it’s 20+ degrees all year long, the water temperature isn’t differing much.

Another striking impression to me is the amount of branding I see here. Almost every shop is painted in colours and covered by slogans of American enterprises such as Coca Cola, Pepsi, or African businesses for instance MTN or AirTel, even though they mainly sell goods and services not connected to these companies. While I thought people sell the spaces for advertisements, or rent them out for some additional income, I was told the only thing the companies provide is the paint. So, that’s free advertisements for them. In addition, some signs of hotels, villages, streets, and even a temple(!) are sponsored by the foreign companies. We also visited some restaurants where people were Coca Cola uniforms, just because they are provided for free. However, this supports my general impression that money, and capitalism rule Uganda in a much more visible way than it does in the countries I travelled before. There’s American style billboards on the roadside. Every single service cost you money. There’s nothing for free, every one that helps you will ask you for some small tip. It feels like people are conditioned to a behaviour that every favour deserves some pay.

However, this behaviour in my opinion is mainly fostered because of the level of poverty people face. Children wear torn clothes, almost everyone only wears slippers or is even walking barefooted. Things people in Germany would just throw away, gets a second, third, and fourth chance in Uganda. I experienced this when we went to play football and people wore shoes that were busted multiple times, had holes or were literally falling apart. Another saddening moment was when we met a boy at some village sitted in a wheelchair. He told us he had a motorbike accident and because he couldn’t afford appropriate treatment, he’s left in the wheelchair now. This is such a bummer, because those kinds of accidents are not rare in Uganda. Due to people not being able to afford health insurance, and the state not providing it, any kind of disease or accident can change someone’s life in a second.

A very visible difference between other countries I travelled to, and Uganda is the amount of pollution. Plastic bags, trash, packaging cover roads, yards, and even fields. It is somewhat contradicting the countries slogan as ‘ever green country’. This is the thing I’m not getting my head around, why people in general aren’t bothered with it, since I can imagine this is reason for several ecological problems, and if it is not yet it definitely will become one at some point. I assume because there’s no education about it, people underestimate the (long-term) consequences this habit of throwing away things in the nature causes.

So, there you have it. A list of impressions I thought were worthy sharing. Nevertheless, Uganda has a lot more to offer than these few aspects I tried to outline. There’s a variety of different national parks which cover a variety of wildlife. Moreover, the separate regions come along with different climate and landscape. What they all have in common – it is very green. The ‘Pearl of Africa’ is definitely worth visiting, some even decide to stay here long-term.

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