When I think of my first few days in Kampala, my initial sentiments towards the city can be summed up in a greeting used by most of the Ugandans that I have encountered. Upon meeting someone from Kampala, they normally ask where I come from. “United States,” I tell them. “You’re welcome,” they respond with a smile.
Greeted this way for the first time, I looked around uneasily, trying to figure out what the local had done to help me and what I had done to give the impression that I was offering thanks. But Ugandans mean it literally. They want me to know that I am welcome in their country, their home, and from the moment I set foot in Uganda, I have felt that way. Ugandans are warm and cordial. Despite widespread poverty across the country, the scourge of infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, they are a people that smile. A lot. They smile when discussing the weather (which has been good so far), and they smile when discussing football (obsession is a severe understatement when discussing how Africans feel about the World Cup). People offer directions on the street, children wave hello and there is a general feeling of congeniality in the air that home often lacks. Could this be because they see a mzungu (white person) and think that I have money to spare? Of course. But there is no denying that the Ugandan people are a friendly lot.
They are also proud. Ugandan men and women take incredible pride in their appearance. The men wear dress shirts, dark pants and shined shoes to work. Women either wear professional outfits, or beautiful traditional robes. The garments hint at a burgeoning middle class in Kampala. There is truly a banking and telecommunications revolution taking place. There is a bank on every corner, and everyone, and I mean everyone, has a cell phone. But smart dressers are not confined to the metropolis. On a trip to the Kiboga district, I was greeted by men in button-down shirts and slacks, and even business suits, as they rode their bicycles and boda-bodas (motorized scooters) down dusty roads. They live in communities mired in poverty, yet choose to wear hot, formal clothes, even during intense African heat. Like I said, a proud people.
If the people are friendly, safe and polite, the city itself offers a stark contrast. Keep in mind that I have only been here for a week, and these are just initial impressions. But Kampala is not a beautiful city, in the traditional sense of the term. There are few monuments and museums, parks and open spaces. The Ugandan capital is chaotic and stressful, and can be overwhelming at times. Conveniences designed to maintain public safety – and ones that we Americans don’t think twice about – such as cross-walks and stop lights, tow trucks and traffic cops, are few and far between. Cars and boda-bodas whiz by at top speed, making crossing the street an adventure. Combine that with the fact that they drive on the wrong (read: British) side of the road, and I have already had a few near-death experiences.
Most of all, Kampala is a city in transition. Thirty years after Idi Amin left power, the capital has made a remarkable comeback. There are lively markets, upscale hotels, international restaurants and a thumping nightlife. Foreign investment is booming, evidenced by the growing number of multi-national corporations that are setting up shop in town. Old, decrepit buildings are torn down and modern offices and apartments spring up. Elementary schools and medical clinics dot the main roads, providing educational resources and healthcare to a growing number of Ugandans (although far too many still lack decent schools and medical care).
But poverty remains rampant. Just a few blocks from the hospital where I work, in an upscale neighborhood, is a massive slum. Driving by it, a colleague quietly murmured a warning to me: “Don’t go there.” The political system, while relatively stable, is seen as self-serving and corrupt. Ten years ago, I imagine Kampala would have had few of the luxuries that I am enjoying (I have eaten great Indian food, drank good local beer, and even went bowling). Ten years from now, it will be interesting to see if Kampala continues its rush towards progress, or whether the city, like many of its African peers, regresses.
Still, my first week here has left me hopeful, and the reason lies with the kindness of its people. Last weekend, I went whitewater rafting in the town of Jinja, situated at the birthplace of the Nile River, about two hours from Kampala (more on this to come). The next morning, as I tried to find a matatu (public taxi) back into the capital, I came across a group of five or six children playing by the street while their mother looked on. With nothing to do, I knelt down and extended my hand. Happily, the kids took turns running up to me, giving me a high five, and then sprinting away. I was strange and exotic and exciting to them. We then found a makeshift soccer ball, and began to play. After a few minutes, the children were climbing all over me as we all could hardly contain our giggles. Then, their mother got up and walked towards me. I expected her to be cold; here I was, a strange, white person playing with her children. She would have been forgiven for thinking I was a threat. The mother walked up to me slowly, placed her hand on my shoulder, and looked at me for a few seconds. Then, she smiled.
“You’re welcome,” she said.