By George Wabweyo
I hope you do not mind my photographer riding with us, for I need some professional photos,” I tell Michael Obwana, a boda boda cyclist, who has been sent by a Walter Wandera to pick me up.
Wandera is the genius behind Walter’s Boda Boda Tours, a rather eccentric tourism service that has not only become a favourite among visitors to Uganda, but is also getting lots of international attention. Boda bodas, of course, are those little passenger-carrying motorcycles that populate Ugandan roads.
Surprisingly, Wandera’s messenger will not ride my photographer and I on the same bike. “We do not approve of carrying two people on a boda boda, for safety is paramount with us. I have to call Walter to arrange for another rider,” Obwana says, placing the call to Boss Walter, 25. A few minutes and another rider pulls up. “I am Amon from Walter’s Boda Boda Tours and I am here to serve you.”
See, the story of Walter had recently gained social media buzz and I was keen on seeing if he was really worth the hype. Blogs by European tourists claimed that Walter was the best person to show you Kampala. “But why would anyone pay for a tour of Kampala?
Heading to Lubiri
For the likes of me, I walk the sidewalks everyday, have visited friends in various suburbs and Kampala has not exactly been a national park. Just how much touristic action can one squeeze out of a city like Kampala?” I mused, for it seemed unsettling to tour my own city.
But out of journalistic curiosity, I just took the damn boda boda tour — with mixed feelings. Because even though we love boda bodas for weaving in and out of heavy traffic, we also hate them for all the traffi c crimes and lawlessness the riders have when it comes to traffi c laws.
These Walter boda bodas though, both the riders and bikes, seemed cut from a different cloth. The bikes were sleek, and clean – same as the riders, who even had cool smartphones. “Please wear your helmet,” Amon said as he handed me a grey helmet with a Walter’s Boda Boda Tours sticker.
As the motorcycle roared to life, Amon asked me what nationality I am. See, I am Ugandan, but to get a real kick out of the tour, I needed to approach it from a foreigner’s point of view. As we approached Kololo Airstrip, I became Kenyan.
“You are free to ask about anything on your way,” he said. I did not think there was anything about the Kololo Airstrip I could learn from a boda boda rider, but I was positively surprised by the amount of information he could pack into a briefing about the airstrip. On the way, Obwana, the other rider with the photographer, suggested that he and Amon switch passengers, for he had seen me taking notes, and Amon was not yet fully equipped with all the information.
Capturing a moment
We chatted all the way up, on the dusty Mawanda Road in Kamwokya, through the slum-flanked Kyebando until we arrived at the peaceful gates of the Bahai Temple in Kikaya village. I had not heard of Kikaya before. But that was not the only thing I would learn about the Bahai Temple the moment Solomon Busobozi, another rider joined us with a Finnish tourist probably in his early 20s aboard his boda. Solomon was full of accounts the history books would never bother to tell you.
For starters, I did not know that the Bahai Temple had dormitories anyone in need of quietude and peace can go and use – at no fee. Neither did I know that this is the only Bahai faith temple in Africa. We toured the temple and even had a walk through their cemetery, whose tombs, I must say, look beautiful, with all sorts of shapes, including the map of Africa.
From the Bahai Temple, we were speeding moderately on the Northern Bypass enroute to Gaddafi Mosque in Old Kampala. We accessed Gaddafi Road via Sir Apollo Kaggwa Road and Makerere Hill.
At the second largest mosque in Africa, a pleasant surprise was all the trivia you do not find floating mosque by the late Col. Muammar Gaddafi , the fallen Libyan leader also dedicated himself to helping out the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council with the upkeep of the site,” Ashraf Zziwa, a tourist handler at the mosque, says.
Now that there was a “new arrangement,” as Zziwa prefers to call the situation in Libya, the mosque has had to look elsewhere to facilitate its upkeep. One way has been by levying some fees on those who get married, and tourists, who pay sh10,000 per head – locals, however, do not pay as a way of promoting local tourism.
At the mosque, we were joined by two other riders from Walter’s company, who came bearing a friendly Dutch couple.We all marvelled at this architectural accomplishment.
The climax though, had to be when we scaled over 300 steps up the minaret. From that point, the wide expanse and tapestry made by the roofs of the downtown Kampala buildings, the rushing citizenry, the cars, the roads and the greenery, formed an amazing kaleidoscope.
Our ‘history book’ Solomon took us round the tower and told us the story of the origins of Kampala, with wowing anecdotes on Ganda culture. The Dutch tourists kept on referring to a map which they had laid out before them. It was simply spell-binding to be at a spot that harnesses such a 360-degree spectacle of Kampala.
From the mosque, we were now rushing towards the Kabaka’s lake. There was a brief pause in front of the Buganda parliament before we headed down towards the lake. Just before the lake, we had a brief stopover at a joint where we sampled mwenge bigere, a local brew made from bananas.
Tiny Tax, the Dutch lady, loved it, and actually questioned me when I took a sip of it. “Are you drinking on the job or that is
strictly for journalistic purposes?” she asked. We all laughed to that.
The brew was uniquely sweet and favoured. After marvelling at the man-made Kabaka’s lake, we were at the gates of the Lubiri royal palace. We headed straight for deceased Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s torture chambers, which were down a path, sandwiched by cassava gardens and sweet potato patches.
Solomon introduces tourists to mwenge bigere (local brew) in Lubiri
Idi Amin trivia and banter ruled the brief walk. Idi Amin had a torture chamber here? Why didn’t I ever know of that? Well, it turned out to be a go-down like structure, eerie and intimidating, perhaps because of its bloody history.
On one of the walls, scribbled in mud (thank God not in blood), were hate words, and a legible: “I will never forget, my husband was killed (here) (by) people of Obote.” There were several other indelible etchings on the wall. Emma Kavuma, the guide, explained how the chambers worked, and spoke of atrocities committed here in the past by different regimes. Getting out of here was such a relief, as could be seen off everyone’s countenance.
Meanwhile, Solomon, who had been missing from the group, resurfaced outside at a mini-museum with a photohistory of Buganda royals. In tow with him were rolex, a sought-after quick-fix snack of eggs rolled in chapatti – the foreigners loved these as we sat there imbibing just how much we had seen and got told of how much more we could see around Kampala alone. “What a nice way to see Kampala! You smell it, hear it and see it. We get our money’s worth. They pick us up from anywhere and drop us where we want when the tour is done. It is perfect,” says Corne Van Aert, Tiny Tax’s companion.
Unfortunately, the day’s tour ended here – all at sh90,000 for a foreigner and between sh60,000 and sh70,000 for a local, based on the tourist’s preferences. And yes, Kampala is my hometown. But I felt like an unwitting visitor when listening to the guides. Suddenly, I have this desire to probe the history of every edifi ce I come across. Now that I know a good bit about my city, I can now hit the national parks.