The Friday of my week in Uganda was the only day I was able to properly explore Kampala, the capital city. The conference I was attending ran from the Monday at 9am through till the closing ceremony on Thursday evening, such that I had hardly left the resort over that time. When Friday morning arrived, then, I was champing at the bit to do some aimless wandering.
In actual fact, however, my wandering wasn’t all that aimless. I am in the fortunate position of having parents who seem to have contacts all over the world, and Kampala was one such place. So, after a series of Facebook messages with people I had never met, I found myself clambering into the car of the driver of a lady who works in the Prime Minister’s office in Kampala. His name was Ibrahim.
The first thing I noticed about Ibrahim’s car was the prominent Arsenal sticker on the dashboard. The second thing I noticed was the prominent Islam sticker on the driver’s side window. “What do you want to do?” Ibrahim asked.
“Whatever!!” I said. “You are my guide today. I don’t know Kampala. Take me to places that you usually go to.”
“OK,” Ibrahim replied, before promptly driving me to Kibuli mosque, his local place of prayer. It was a beautiful building, perfectly symmetrical, though somewhat dwarfed by the large mango tree in front of it. Ibrahim took me to the offices in another building to the left of the mosque. I was led into a cramped office where a large Muslim man sat behind piles of paper and books, looking that much bigger due to the overcrowdedness of his work space. His name was Hussain, and he was the superintendent of the mosque. It turns out I was in for a tour of the mosque.
As we walked back up to the mosque, Hussain told me about the mango tree: “This mosque was built in 1941, and that mango tree was here before. It played an important part in the initial stages of planning – the leaders of the Islam community sat below the mango tree when discussing where to build the mosque. Then they built it here, and decided to keep the mango tree.”
As we walked up the steps to the mosque, Ibrahim turned to me: “do you know what you have to do before you enter a mosque?” I hesitated – “don’t I have to, er, take off my shoes?”
Both men laughed. “Yes, yes, take off your shoes,” Hussain said. “Then go up the stairs on the right once you get into the mosque. When you get to the top, you’ll have a 360 view of Kampala.” Ibrahim came up with me, pointing out seemingly deserted industrial sites to one side, sprawling, green suburban areas to another, and city centres dotted with thin tall buildings to yet another. I felt like I was at Kampala’s centre, casting an eye over all the sides of this mysteriously infectious African city. The day was such that there was a lazy hue drifting across the sky, complete with a stuffiness that I had become accustomed to. I felt like I could still hear the drones of the buzzing boda boda’s slalom their way across busy roads.
My imagination of the busy roads of central Kampala were not far off the truth. After we left the mosque, saying our goodbyes to Hussain, Ibrahim decided to take me to a Ugandan craft market. On the way, we passed Parliament, the Ugandan Broadcasting Corporation, the central Bank of Uganda and the central police station, all in very close proximity to each other. The roads were packed, as were the sidewalks and everywhere in between as the relentless boda boda’s caused screeching tyres and raised fists.
The craft markets, on the other hand, were silent. I was often the only person in a certain market, though Ibrahim shadowed me like a bodyguard. We made for an odd couple. In all honesty, it was all slightly unnerving – the shop owners would each call out to me as soon as they saw what clearly was a white tourist: “hello my brother, you are welcome, please come in, please come in.” I was inadvertently setting the exact impression I had hoped not to set. I didn’t want to be seen as a tourist. I didn’t want to be seen as the embodiment of Western privilege. The shop owners acted as if I was their savour, where just one purchase would lift them out of their perceived states of economic depression. They pleaded with me, even though one shop contained the exact same gifts as the next. It was the African craft market just as the Western tourist had imagined: ultimately needless gifts desperately presented to gullible tourists. And it was uncomfortable.
I had soon had enough of the craft markets. I could not connect with the locals. I could not have a proper conversation. I would never unveil the secrets of Kampala by wandering amongst craft shop owners as the privileged visitor. I decided to go it on own – I told Ibrahim that I wanted to ride on a boda boda for the afternoon, by myself, and that I would meet him back at his boss’s office, where I would meet my parent’s contact who was to take me in for the night. Ibrahim was happy to leave to my own devices – he organised a boda boda that knew where the offices were, and left me with him.
“Hello,” I introduced myself. “I want to explore Kampala on a boda boda…”
“Yes of course!!” He interrupted me enthusiastically. “My name is Richard. You’re the first mzungu I have ever lifted!!”