I wasn’t sure what to expect; how could two neighboring countries be different? How could the ambiance of the major cities (Nairobi and Kampala) be stunningly distinct?
But there it was: even from the air, I knew I was in another country, literally and figuratively! Kampala is tucked among rolling green hills, and looking down from the airplane I saw a city laced with twisting streets and alleys of red dirt, veins circling around a sprawling metropolitan area which stretchs from the airport in Entebbe for about 30 miles, to the city center of Kampala.
My hotel representative, from the Serena Kampala, was there to make sure I had a taxi. I’ve always wanted to get off an airplane and see my name on a sign. I think that happened once to me when I went somewhere in Eastern Europe, but I’m always kind of envious of the travelers who are greeted this way. And there I was!
My driver was Francis, a tall and thin man with a happy smile and excellent English–and, as I found out, he also spoke a couple of languages he called ‘mother tongues’, as well as some German and some French. And not only was he a happy, articulate guy, he must have nerves of steel to survive the Ugandan traffic.
There’s lots of traffic–everywhere. They all drive on the right hand side of the road–well, for the most part. Even in Kampala city center, potholes are terrible, and they’re deep enough to fill with water and sell as lakefront property in the US. Roads are made of hard packed red dirt, and there is no evidence of painted lines or curbs, or even directional signs and street markers. What’s even more surreal is the number of motorbikes–thousands of them. They often travel in packs of 20-30, zipping in and out of traffic patterns, oily smoke trailing behind them. Everybody seems to have one–young men to older men in dark suits with briefcases strapped on the back.
Nobody rides them alone–there’s always a passenger clutching on to the driver, often texting or talking on a cell phone. Many times these riders are women dressed in bright African print dresses and high heels. The women sit side-saddle–I’m told because it’s proper for women to keep their knees together and not straddle the bike. Nobody wears helmets.
Francis takes this in stride. “I make this drive several times a day,” he says. “It’s nothing,” he assures me as he swerves around a cow and two motorcycles.
A couple of other interesting trends in transportation: the first are the mini-van busses. They are brightly colored, covered with flashy ads and slogans like “Jesus saves” or “Preserve Uganda Wildlife”. Francis tells me the vans do have routes, but there’s no real indication of that anywhere, and there’s no official bus stop, either. If you stand my the side of the highway, apparently, you will be swarmed with vans and the driver will shout where he’s going. If you like the destination you climb on and pay your shillings.
Apparently there’s a legal limit as to how many people you can pile into a van, but Francis says nobody ever observes it. People just keep climbing on, sitting in each other’s laps, and text or talk on their cell phones during the ride.
You want to drive in that mayhem? To complicate things, add the fact that there aren’t any traffic lights. I mean, NONE. There are lots of roundabouts, and everyone circles around until they get to the ‘off’ street. And there are no pedestrian crossings, either. You just walk across wherever you can, and drivers seem to know they aren’t supposed to squash the pedestrians.
With all that mayhem, it only takes us about 45 minutes to travel the 30 miles. It isn’t until we get into downtown Kampala that traffic comes to a standstill, but there are policemen everywhere in starched white shirts and hats, directing traffic. These cops don’t carry guns, by the way: the only armed guards I saw in this country were at the UN compound and at the US embassy–those guys didn’t carry sissy pistols, either. They had big, nasty looking rifles.
By the way, on my visit to the US embassy in Uganda two days after my arrival, I was subjected to the deepest security check I’ve ever experienced. I even had to give up my iPhone earbuds and show the guards that the felt tipped marker in my purse was not a weapon. These boys make our TSA look like innocent kindergarteners.
These are the dark reminders of the violence that exists here in Eastern Africa. But what I see from the window of Francis’ taxi is a chaotic, bustling, busy city, teeming with life that hurries headlong into its future.