Ki Kati! I arrived in Kampala last week and immediately realized why Uganda is nicknamed “The Pearl of Africa”. The countryside is verdant and teeming with bougainvilleas and hibiscus flowers attended by brightly colored butterflies. From my bedroom window, I can hear monkeys, songbirds, and a constant reggae beat that seems to correspond with the respiration of the breeze. Even in the middle of the night, stereos compete for airspace. The whole city moves to a certain jaunty syncopation, its unofficial soundtrack of sorts. Approaching the city centre, music fades and gives way to car horns and engines from the endless lines of cabs and boda bodas. Street preachers and vendors, alike, sell their wares on the corner. Still, above the clamor, a faint melody diffuses into the street from storefronts, and passersby tend to swagger in time.
Most beautiful of all, though, are the people of Uganda. Nearly everyone I meet is extraordinarily friendly and warm. I have never met people who smile and laugh as much as Kampala. The whole city just feels alive, more so than anywhere that I have ever visited. Coming from the rather impersonal hustle of Washington, DC, to Kampala is exhilarating, like waking up from a long sleep. Instead of making my way to work on a crowded commuter train, I now zip through traffic on the back of a motorcycle taxi.
Uganda’s capital, however, is a study in contrasts, with one foot in the future as a rapidly developing cosmopolitan hub and another wedged in the past, still beset by poverty and a lack of effective governance. The city’s landscape, for example, gives rise to high-rise hotels and office buildings. Cell phone vendors and taxis are ubiquitous, and supersized billboards advertise American and European brands, from Nokia to Chevy.
From the window of a speeding taxi, the city looks far more modernized than it does on foot. When I slow down, I see the woman washing laundry in a stagnant creek, the tin shanty houses that quiver precariously when the wind gusts, the man grasping a cup between two stubs where his hands once were. I smell the fumes from the traffic and the pungent smoke that rises from metal bins containing burning rubber and other waste.
More than anything though, I am struck, almost dumbfounded, when it occurs to me that I have hardly encountered anyone over the age of sixty. The curse of disease (HIV/AIDS, malaria, and a handful of generally preventable or treatable diseases) has left its mark. Armed conflict has taken the lives of others. Crime reports from local newspapers fill in another piece of the puzzle. Story after story recounts gun violence, often within a household, sometimes perpetrated by policemen or city officials. Uganda is awash with small arms. Ongoing violence in neighboring Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the long-running conflict in the country’s northern districts, and a history of regional conflict and instability (Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Eritrea, Central African Republic, and so on) have made Uganda a crossroads for arms trafficking and a virtual warehouse for surplus supply.
This is what a country with a life expectancy of fifty years old looks like.† It’s a chilling realization, one that haunts you, shames you, and screams in your ear with the urgency of the moment. It becomes a constant cacophonic undertone that grates against Uganda’s effervescent beat.
† According to the World Health Organization, life expectancy at birth is 51 years for women and 49 years for men.
Posted By Courtney Chance
Posted Jun 23rd, 2009