I landed at Uganda’s Entebbe Airport at 8 p.m. last Sunday expecting to find a country winding down a restful weekend. However, the 38 kilometres from Entebbe to Kampala are peppered with little shopping centers from Baita to Kajansi, filled with the ubiquitous African styled one storey shop heaving with plastic utensils, plantains, sufurias, tomatoes and toys hanging on the wide open doors. There were several barber shops still open for brisk business as the clock inched to 9 p.m. The cloying, heavy smell of mchomo (local parlance for nyama choma) filled the air as we drove past most of the townships emanating from bars that were bursting at the seams with patrons. I marveled at the bustling nocturnal social life and Frank the driver clicked in exasperation “Ugandans like to booze, they can booze until they drop then they wake up tomorrow to continue.” The way he said it with such disgust and finality it brooked no response. We drove at a stately speed of 80 km per hour, every now and then being overtaken by drivers who seem to have the devil himself hanging onto their exhaust pipes as they weaved in and out of oncoming traffic at breathless speeds. There’s clearly no regard for flashing headlights from infuriated drivers, they seem to take it in their strides.
The single lane traffic started to thicken as the twinkling lights of Kampala sparkled a few kilometres ahead of us. I ask Frank where we are, he responds “Lufin.” “Pardon?” “Lufin, Madam.” ‘What kind of name is that? “ I ask quizzically. “It’s that thing that you put on houses, there is a factory around here that makes it, so this area is called after the factory.” I gather that Frank isn’t much of a tour guide so I slip back into my silent observations as I then notice the big red sign stating “Roofing Ltd” on top of a factory building on the side of the road.
We shortly found ourselves at a junction of four roads snaking away from a central roundabout called Kibuye atop of which sat a menacing truck of police who are apparently stationed there 24 hours. The surrounding area reminds one of Eastleigh, numerous traders fill the roadsides selling their wares on top of plastic covered stands lit by lanterns. The time is a few minutes past nine but it could have been high noon for all the shoppers that flitted in between the makeshift stores, a stone’s throw away from the gleaming edifice of the Nakumatt Katwe building, which is appropriately closed for business. I look up and see a building with a half finished name blinking in red “Xing Xing Furnit—“ and turn to ask Frank about the presence of Chinese in Kampala. “We don’t call them Chinese, here we call them investors,” was his terse response. Frank, it was turning out, was not much of a talker.
The next morning, The Daily Monitor, one of Uganda’s leading circulation newspapers, published a letter to the editor that reflected self-deprecating criticism that was quite refreshing. Titled “Stop Blaming China” the writer, an African male, posits: ” I’m surprised that many Ugandans especially on social media are blaming China for executing two Ugandans convicted of drug trafficking. Uganda has also outlawed homosexuality and other crimes. Why then should we assume that it is only our laws that should work and those of the Chinese against drug carriers should be selectively applied in favor of Ugandans?”
This was not my first trip to Kampala, but it was one that I viewed with a different set of lenses. I saw a lot of similarity to Kenya in terms of a robust SME sector that turns the necessary cogs of the economy, but I also saw the same afflictions striding the newspapers like a runaway horse: Tribal clashes in Hoima leave villagers dead. Or the more typical “corruption at NSSF”. The best one was the raging debate on how parliamentarians were uneducated, sleepy, individuals who added zero value to the life of the average Ugandan. One could switch to the news channel of either East African country and find the same news items bombarding the airwaves. Our problems, I summarized, were not uniquely Kenyan. My new lenses helped me draw the conclusion that Kenyan solutions, if ever found, therefore, would be as gladly embraced across the border as our financial (KCB, CBA, NIC, Equity etc) and retail (Uchumi and Nakumatt) institutions have been.
Having concluded my business on Wednesday, I left my hotel at 4 p.m. to catch an 8 p.m. flight. Kampala traffic is, in many ways, almost worse than Nairobi’s traffic but this time it is compounded by the insane boda boda cyclists who rule the roost in the middle of the central business district. Only the bodaboda driver has a helmet, while his exposed passengers hang on for dear life with the certainty of doom etched on their ashen faces. The boda bodas zip in between cars, buses and lorries, unashamedly scraping the sides of vehicles in their irrational quest to use the path of least resistance.
We arrive at the lush and magnificently green Entebbe town, where the shores of Lake Victoria gently lap at the manicured landscapes atypical to the area. Entebbe has transformed over the last few years into a resort town, with a growing population of hotels catering to business and conference tourism. A spanking new Lake Victoria Mall beckons to shoppers with the large signs of Nakumatt and KFC signaling Entebbe’s entry into retail relevance. Large billboards emblazoned with Fang Fang Hotel and Fang Fang Restaurant are a stark reminder of the new eastern investor infiltration of untapped markets.
From a bustling SME sector, tribal issues and unsuitable parliamentary representatives, the Kenyan in me felt like I could totally relate to my Ugandan brothers and sisters. I left Uganda feeling much like a Liverpool FC fan: “You will never walk alone!”