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A Mzungu’s return to Kampala city

By Vision Reporter

Added 17th April 2009 03:00 AM

From airport load-shedding to making a 40-second call for sh2,000, falling off a stationary bodaboda and enjoying her delicacy, matooke and posho, Rebecca Harshbarger tells of her experience on her return to the city.

From airport load-shedding to making a 40-second call for sh2,000, falling off a stationary bodaboda and enjoying her delicacy, matooke and posho, Rebecca Harshbarger tells of her experience on her return to the city.

When my plane landed smoothly at the tarmac at Entebbe, I peered out the window with both a sense of anxiety and wistfulness. As we descended from a misty blanket of clouds into a cool Ugandan morning, I saw glimpses of lush, open hills sprawling towards a dark lake.

I had last been in Uganda about seven months before for a reporting internship, and had come back for more journalism adventures in my favourite country. While I had been away in the United States to finish graduate school, I had tried to keep up with Ugandan news, scanning the web for headlines. Watching the American elections nervously in New York, scouring the internet for every latest bit of polling information, I felt comforted reading words from Ugandans who were just as anxious as I was for Obama’s victory. But now, waiting for my baggage, I wondered what had changed. Would Kampala be different? What about the rest of Uganda?

At first, not much had changed. Almost immediately after I had landed, the airport experienced some load shedding, and I was plunged into darkness as I hunted for my baggage, some of which I had been removed before I arrived at the luggage carousel. My Ugandan friends who were picking me up were late, and I was immediately ripped off by someone who demanded sh2,000 for a 40-second call on her cell phone. Trying to exit the airport, security officers said the registration on the car I had rented was faded, and demanded hundreds of thousands of shillings in penalty fees.

Since coming back, I have traveled to Wandegaya and eaten T.V. chicken, pushed my way onto a crowded taxi and worked on my rusty Luganda.

Sweat trickled down my back as Entebbe warmed up. I wondered if I should have stayed in my apartment in Brooklyn, New York.

But as I settled into a new chapter of my life in Kampala, I noticed many changes that had taken place while I was away.

New buildings had rapidly been constructed around town; buildings that would have taken years to construct in the United States. But in Uganda, new buildings spring up overnight.

Restaurants have been rechristened as Obama franchises (Obama Takeaway, anyone?), and black, mysterious adverts proclaiming “Orange” are everywhere.

When I had left, I was still getting used to Celtel as Zain, but in my absence, Orange seems to have purchased every bit of billboard space in my favourite African city. Upon heading to the supermarket after arriving, I noticed in horror that prices for everything had gone up, from fuel to the cooking oil. Some taxi trips now also cost sh1,000, even during off-peak hours.

There are some other surprising changes. The tourism industry seems to be booming, and I saw many more American tourists in Kampala this week than during my initial visit. Moving through town, I see large groups of my countrymates wearing strappy sandals, carrying large backpacks speckled with red dust, and searching for nearby taxi parks. I know why they are here, though. Once you leave Uganda, you can’t stop telling your friends about your experiences, changing their minds about Africa, sometimes one conversation at a time. You become an agent of public relations for Uganda without even realising it. And the more the visitors talk about Uganda when they go back, the more people come to visit.

Since coming back, I have traveled to Wandegaya and eaten t.v. chicken, pushed my way onto a crowded taxi, and worked on my rusty Luganda. I have fallen off a stationary boda-boda, nearly walked into a bus (gwe!), purchased cheap phones, and bargained pathetically. Kampala has changed a bit, I think, but then so have I. I’m credit crunched but not crushed, and perhaps a little bit wiser. And Kampala? Despite a splash of new, flashy buildings, Orange adverts, a fire in Owino, and tourists trying to make sense of Kampala’s bus parks, the city has remained the same. The generosity and resilience of the city’s residents is as abundant as ever. Visiting friends that I have missed, eating matooke and posho, I know it’s the same place, with an evolving exterior. But the Obama franchises? They’re perfect.

A Mzungu’s return to Kampala city

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