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Living like a Local in Kampala

The first time I flew into NYC at night, the infinite stretch of lights had a deep impact on me. To see the development and magnitude of the world from a pilot’s-eye view was a shock. A like, yet opposite, moment occurred with the descent into Entebbe, Uganda. There were minutes of time when I saw not one single light in the darkness. What was below me was simply nature, no embellishments.

After immigration, I paced around the exit, hoping my first Couch surfing host would recognize me from my profile picture. Paul appeared and took me away from the probing taxi drivers towards the capital city of Kampala.

I knew I made a fantastic decision to couch surf when my drive from the airport got me closer to the real Uganda than I ever could have gotten otherwise. As our chatting and cultural exchange passed the hour-long drive, I realized the scene outside was unfolding something so eerie and intense. The dust of the streets created a fog through which car headlights revealed hundreds of wandering silhouettes. Things didn’t feel so familiar anymore, as I realized the streets were littered and webbed with people, even out here in the dark of night, somewhere on a stretch of highway. Finally there came the realization, the zing I sought for months.

“Wow, I’m traveling.”

Paul lives in a village on the edge of Kampala, one called Masajja, which is connected by dirt roads, all veined and rutted by the wet season’s downpours. The first few bouncy minutes brought to mind Ace Ventura on his jungle rides through Africa, singing “Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang,” his head bouncing from the passenger’s seat across and out his driver’s side window. I needed a helmet in the back seat.

The Ssenoga family, Paul and siblings, live in a home attached to a few rooms, which they rent out for their income. My travel goal of never using a squat toilet went out the window when I got a look at the compound latrine. I was in no way discouraged though, as I knew my immersion was deeper than I could have anticipated (and that doesn’t mean I fell in).

Though I hadn’t slept in about three days, I stayed up to chat with my host about his family, his village, and life in Uganda. Outside his window, the sun was far set, but the neighborhood was still throbbing. On the corner, a man sold chapattis (essentially flour tortillas) for cost flow. Boda-boda drivers (guys with motorbikes) surfed the dirty waves while trying to find passengers to transport and charge. In this community, everyone was a family man and everyone also an entrepreneur. Noise was a constant, but at 2am, when I awoke to roll over, I could have heard a rooster toot in the next village over.

Old MacDonald lost control of his livestock as they all crowded around my window to oddly awaken me in the morning. Roosters were crowing every thirty seconds, goats were screaming like little children, motorbikes streaking across my sight line, and every human being on the block took to the streets to get it done, whatever “it” was, as they had been since 4am.

I drew my first breath at 8:30am and sought some relief at the long drop. I became aware that one cannot wander in there half asleep without losing a leg to the earth’s dirty mouth and cracking a pelvis on the wet cement surrounding the hole. I sure do have a delightfully poetic mind.

The first mission of the day was to make it to the city, as the locals do, by wandering up weaving lanes and jumping garbage heaps until Entebbe road appeared, in all its smoggy splendor. On the way, I began to re-experience the wonder of being a walking spectacle, the extreme and never-before-seen minority, an Average Jane celebrity. Children ran around in circles, announcing to their kin the presence of the Mzungu in their midst. If I responded to their screams, waves, or salutations, huge smiles formed on their faces before they darted home to giggle behind their working mothers.

The matatus. You don’t hail a matatu; they hail you. One driver, one screamer, and a fourteen passenger bus that almost always breaches the legal limit of riders. They get you from A to B, though you may be sitting on someone’s lap. These services are offered at a wonderfully reasonable price: twenty minutes of bouncing around Kampala for $0.30.

Kampala is basically the result of a tribal collision and explosion, a city smashed together by millions of people and their diverse communities. One breathes in a nicely concentrated formula of oxygen and diesel exhaust inside the city limits. Not many people own cars, so it’s a bit of a mystery as to why the air is opaque.

It’s deceiving, but everyone is always on the move, which is why the population calls for the organized chaos of the matatu taxi parks. They all crowd and congregate like hungry coy fish, drivers jumping for passengers and squeezing through openings not big enough for their vehicles. You could find a ride to anywhere and meanwhile purchase peanuts, beer, scrunchies, and hair extensions while waiting in your seat by an open window.

Of course, where there are people, there are people selling stuff, the biggest taxi park bumping butts with the biggest madhouse market. Massive bags of rice and spices, washing soaps and appliances, second hand clothes and dried sardine heaps, and about forty men with wedding proposals for my very eligible hand. I skillfully maneuvered away from the forceful arms trying to grab for my attention. Weaving through the roughly covered maze of stalls, I laughed at the exclamations people would shout: “Hey Mzungu!”, “Marry me?”, “Come come you buy something!”, “Lips”, etc. Paul was reaping great pleasure from the show as well.

It was all a pulsating whirlwind erupting around me. I had to step back and get a hold on where I was. We climbed a closed up shopping center to view the sudden wash of rain that swept the littered streets and nearby music festival in sight. The city was impressive, in a shocking way, and I couldn’t believe such a tattered place existed. It is the essence of “shambles,” but it was mysteriously hypnotizing nonetheless.

From a cathedral on a nearby hill, the improved view gave me a sight more removed and peaceful, where I could finally see the urban rain forest at arm’s length. It is a smoggy mess, an aggravated sore on the terrestrial crust, but viewing the palms and rolling lushness with raw sugar cane sweetness tossing in my mouth evoked admiration for the lives of Kampala’s exhausted inhabitants. I had a strong desire to stop time and paint the most complex picture of each tiny moment that would become a cultural time-bomb slap in the face. This is Africa. T.I.A.

Meals of plantains by candlelight and chapattis by rooster crows hugged my stomach with simple fulfilling pleasures. Authenticity, my friends; there’s no substitute.

My last day in Kampala was all about family. We strolled to Paul’s aunt’s home on a nearby hill where I got my first real chicken coop experience. It satiated an odd desire of mine to see feathers fly. I fed piglets palm leaves and stepped over coffee beans drying on the ground. Baby goats chased each other and dove under the full utters of the mother, only until Paul wrangled one for a quick pet of its soft cow-licked coat.

Just then, the niece of my host came running down the red dirt road from school and joined us for the jaunt back to his abode. We all ate a quick bite of potatoes and avocado before I had to depart on a bus to Jinja. I introduced the young eyes of Latisha to the world of photography and let her go shutter-happy around the family compound. She was a quiet soul before, but after sharing a smashed airplane Mars bar and clicking the camera shutter, she sparkled like a new friend.

As I left Masajja for Jinja town, a light shower smoothed the rough appearance of Kampala and left the bright red dirt and clean green lushness vibrating in my enamored eyes. Uganda was already a glowing memory upon the third sunset.