Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Tale Of Two Cities

Kampala. It conjures up visions of a typical African city. Doesn't it?

All of us have preconceptions.

You may have heard that Kampala was built on hills, originally seven of them, like Rome.

Or Sheffield.

You may have heard that Kampala is greener than expected. Which is also true.

But you may also have expectations based on other African capitals.

Low-slung buildings, never more than one storey high (apart from the obligatory Sheraton hotel which towers over every African capital like some Colossus, sucking in the NGOs and pampered diplomats), seperated by narrow streets of dirt, or tarmac if you're lucky, flanked either side by wide open sewage ditches blocked with a thousand plastic bags.

You may think of Paul Theroux's description of a typical African city, calling them the last place on earth you can experience the sensation of a medieval city. The market streets in Bamako; the Djemma El Fna in Marrakesh; the fish market in Nouakchott; densely packed squares and souqs and alleys; where the whores hustle, and the hustlers whore.

Wandering through the melee of money-changers, water-sellers, food vendors, street performers, pick-pockets, pimps and street urchins, you get a feel for what wandering through medieval London may have been like.

But then you arrive in Kampala.

And you see tall, shining, mirrored office buildings. Kampala, unlike some other one-storey African cities, has a skyline. A Skyline which, while not quite NY or London, definitely means business.

And while the traffic can be punishing on other routes, there are wide open three laned highways leading out of the city to the West.

Ugandans line up next to you at the lights. Albeit they may be cutting you up and crossing lanes, but a good deal of them are driving very shiny brand new Pajeros and Land Cruisers.

So you are surprised, pleasantly, at this city you did not expect.

This is a guilty thought. You didn't expect an African capital to be so, well, civilized. How patronising do you feel now?

But it's true. Kampala is incredibly sohisticated as a city.

Then you settle in and get to know the other side to this city.

A wrong turn takes you towards the old Taxi Park. Battered old minibuses line the street.

Hawkers hug the pavements, piling up their wares. A man pushes a bicycle past you. On it are tied around fifty live chickens, looked rather dazed as they dangle by their ankles. Great dark red legs of meat hang from open hatches where butchers stand in dirty white aprons.

A man is eating fried grasshoppers from a newsprint cone, wiping stray green legs off his greying stubble. A large lady waddles past, swathed in colourful cottons and balancing a woven basket of bananas on her head. Ugandan women are bent double at the waist, bottoms raised, sweep the front of their stalls out to keep their wares free from dust and debris.

A hundred different beats blare from cheap tinny speakers in shop fronts and minibus cabs. Horns honk, babies cry, people shout, and every now and then, a marabou stork shrieks from a rooftop.

This is the Kampalan symphony orchestra.

This is the Kampala I see behind the skyscrapers.

Kampala truly is a Tale of Two Cities.

1 comment:

Marie said...

I miss them both.