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Spyglass: See Kampala, And Die! 

By Azore Opio

When I hit Kampala, K’la for short, on August 22, approaching dry weather hung over the city with a fiery heat and radiance. The sprouting glass boxes as well as the streets – toe-deep in dust – shimmered under the late morning sun. This city had died and resurrected at least four times from senseless slaughters – the work of unthinking politicians and hot-tempered fools. Twenty years after the last resurrection, K’la was in the midst of a chaotic boom with her population approaching explosive proportions.

I spent the next couple of days looking around town and looking up old chums; those who were still alive. After a foray or two into some familiar old pork joints, now dwarfed by towering walls and gigantic billboards competing for attention, I realized that the city was in the midst of a hectic transformation.

There is no telling where the heart of the city really lies; every artery and vein pulses with commerce and trade. Futuristic glass boxes have replaced Colonial Asian architecture. The city has a dozen banks, hundreds of stores and shops, warehouses and go-downs; newspapers, casinos and gaming dives, super markets, some which would be more appropriately called as mini-shops; bookshops, restaurants, bars, theaters, dozens of TV and radio stations, bookshops and cars! Cars and okadas! You haven’t yet seen anything. The pile-up begins as early as 6 am.

By 7 am all the major street junctions and by-passes are jammed; bumper to bumper, not in any orderly pattern. This log-jam goes on until well beyond midnight; from Sunday to Sunday. A journey that used to take ten minutes ten years ago, now takes up a drenching three-quarters of an hour. And that is when the okada and the boda boda (bicycle bendskin) come in handy, weaving in and out of the snarling traffic and human jam and getting you rapidly to your destination at the risk of a broken neck!

There are petrol stations at every available space – Total, Petro, Hass, Libra, Kobil, MoPetro, Shell, Oilibya, Fulex, Mogas, Engen, Phoenix, Delta… da da da. Some are nameless.
By rough count, I estimated that there is one bar, or is it drinking spot, for every 20 people in K’la. One of the favourite libations among the revelers is an explosive distillation known as Uganda Waragi, respectfully abbreviated UG.

Once the product of the northern grasslands and bottled in Port Bell, UG is a potent strain in the family of aguardiente distilled from maize; corn, if you like, or manioc. Ugandans are nothing if not connoisseurs of alcohol and spirits in their hybrid forms. They consume lager, brandy, whisky, champagne in equal doses. Water could be all but a foreign substance used principally to launder clothes and wash dirty cars.

But monsieur, that is not Kampala all! Though prosperous and bustling with trade, K’la is far from elegant. Once spacious, green, airy and cool, K’la’s new glass boxes huddle, wedged side by side with a gloomy look of permanence. It is easy enough to find food in Kampala. So it is with women of easy virtue. Along the well lit streets, the smell of femininity and sweet fragrances waft in the polluted urban breeze; downwards and upwards the tarmac, between the concrete walls… small streams of men flow back and forth; in and out…

K’la is a tolerant city; even whores are viewed with only a grudging acceptance. One of the mainstays of a bustling city, there are those who work the streets at night or the cribs where love for sale is priced by the stroke of the pendulum. The respectable citizens of K’la view all this with broad-minded amusement. After all, women for hire are simply part of everyday life; maggi, as it were.

And yet, monsieur, that is not K’la at all! City life can assume sordid values with nothing divine about it. K’la citizen’s casual indifference to tidiness and hygiene is marked by streets strewn with debris of the day; plastics and anything else that goes into the making of a great garbage collection. I endured the heat, dust, exhaust fumes, the general din; the cluster of humans and their tittle-tattle, with as much pain and patience as an accident victim would endure a crude surgery without anesthesia. It was a carnival of modern brutality.

I paused a moment at the muddy mess called Kisenyi; the largest, oldest and seediest slum where sex had once been priced by the number of strokes, bought today and paid for tomorrow. I scanned the old slum as though it were an unexpected curiosity. Above all this messy modernism and what one might safely call growth, life vibrates in Kampala; it is all up to you to make something out of it. There are of course the cows with large development of the buttocks to spice your weary day. You need to see Kampala, and die.

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