Thursday, 17 January 2013

Straight outta Kamp-ton

Straight outta Kamp-ton

I have alluded previously to a day spent map-searching[1] in downtown Kampala; however, no mere couple of sentences could hope to sum up the overwhelming amount of sensory input we received that urban diem.  To be honest, anything less than an infinity of sentences wouldn't come close, but we didn’t want to look too touristy what with the whipping out a camera every few seconds, so you’ll just have to accept the thousand words I’m posting in lieu of a picture.[2]

The fastest way to get anywhere from Port Bell Road (the main thoroughfare at the bottom of our hill) is on the back of a boda-boda[3], the independent moto-scooter taxi service which entrepreneurs run from really whatever spot they choose to run their services from.  Thus, any convenient street corner, sidewalk, streetmiddle, front yard, or wholestreet in the city can serve as a staging ground for these crafty businessmen.  Though self-employed, they are always found in gaggles of 2-6, seemingly so that some can sleep on their handlebars while others keep an eye out for customers and then steal said customers from the drivers sleeping on their handlebars; as in any good capital-based culture a boda-boda man receives from the game whatever he’s willing to give to the game. 
Now you might be wondering how these sleeping drivers (who perhaps aren’t even aware that there’s a game going on) are able to survive in such a rough economic landscape as Kampala, but that is actually the secret to their continued success: as far as I can tell it is so dangerous to work as a boda driver here (the concept of “right-of-way” is about as foreign in Uganda as Herman Cain[4]) that the only way to run a sustainable business is to never actually drive your motorcycle anywhere.  The implicit paradox here has not escaped me, lest ye worry; I will do my best to investigate this issue and come back with a topical and precise economic model.[5] 

[1] That’ll teach all you haters out there, a Geography major really IS good for something!
[2] Or not accept it and go read Alex’s insufferably visual and populist posts. 
[3] Boda-boda translates roughly into English as “suicide death machine of suicidedeath from hell”
[4] the lack of either hurts a general populace’s ability to truly enjoy life to its fullest, I feel.
[5] Haahahaahaaha, precise economic model, I slay myself.
             Having been warned by Father and Samuel not to trust the boda-boda due to its aforementioned “unreliability” we decided to try a different option, the independent cargo-van taxi services which entrepreneurs run from really whatever spot they choose to run their services from.  These rickety white vans, printed all around with religious statements and various motivational bits, filled with anywhere from 2-20 people in a space meant for 1-10, will pull over at streetcorners, sidewalks, streetmiddles, front yards, or wholestreets; really anywhere they see you  waving from.  They generally have destination points, but are willing to completely break route if you are willing to pay a ridiculous sum of money, regardless of the complaints or time table of the other riders.  I have not yet seen a bidding war break out between clients; I don’t rule it an impossibility.
Sans map we caught the van whose cashman[6] was shouting “Kampala Road” in hopes that said road was actually in/near Kampala; after an uneventful half-hour ride with my head bouncing against the top of the van this turned out to be a correct statement (see footnote 1).
We got out where we could see the skyscrapers, paying the cashman 1,500 shillings each (about $1.20 for the two of us) before looking around to see exactly what we had stepped into the middle of.  I don’t think I am a good enough writer to construct a narrative of the next 8 hours, so instead I will attempt a series snapshots—which is actually, given the heat and overwhelmity of it all, exactly how I experienced the day.  While reading everything imagine a background of grey buildings and red dust, intensely black people, and an overbearing sun…
 [6] Kind of like the taxi’s hypeman, his job is to get people pumped and into his vehicle by any means short of abduction.*
*hopefully short of abduction

An entire city block (but not a block like you’re thinking would be a block, twice as long [or half the size] that is, a Kampala block) of printer shops; concrete buildings all two stories but not a single one the same height as another; printers and stationary and other goods for making signs and advertisements and CVs literally as far as the eye can see until the road wiggles off left juuuust too much for unbroken ocular capability.  Sidewalks raised above the street maybe, or a little lower. Like the street (or parts of the street) they are formed in hard-packed ochre clay whose edges are wavy and distempered things eroded by the chaotic variability of water and feet and stray boda-tires.  Pits between the sidewalk and street filled with oil, paper, plastic, fruit rinds, excrement, and things fouler than excrement; sometimes this mixture runs downhill and sometimes it sits trapped like a little crater lake, waiting for just a touch more filthic downpour before it can begin its own journey into Victoria.  People pass in every direction, staring at us for at least a moment.

Walking down a block with four banks on it, separated each by a storefront or two; the first bank has a guard sitting out front in police uniform holding an AK-47 with no shoulder stock, the second bank has a guard sitting out front in police uniform holding a World-War II era bolt-action rifle, the third bank’s police guard swings a sawed-off shotgun from his shoulder sling, and the final guard has sacrificed originality for another AK.  People pass in every direction, and the guards’ eyes never seem to move.

Sitting in wicker chairs out front of a store, drinking a Bell’s (Uganda’s Heritage, the beer’s label claims!) from its half-liter bottle and watching the world pass.  A woman comes out with two china bowls of what I assume is food, places one on top of a public phone booth.  A truck drives past full of beer crates, a man rides on top.  I raise my bottle to him; he salutes back.  Beautiful women pass in every direction; they never to look at us for too long.

We enter a little opening between buildings into a food market, suddenly everything is for us.  “Yes, come, please, look!”  “Chicken, you no like chicken?”  “Spices, yes spices” “Yes, yes!”  I try my hardest to keep up with Alex but the press of people in this narrow space is intense and the uneven floor is littered in obstacles.  The smells are so heavy that I find it hard to breathe; piles of tripe and sweetbread on platters buzzing with flies, neatly ordered rows of whole chickens beheaded and plucked, burlap bags of beans and rice and millet that must weigh hundreds of pounds—and no way to get a vehicle into this labyrinthine space—fruit and fruit and fruit and squash and more fruit; we exit the market onto street again and face the largest pile of rinds I have ever seen, tumbling from dumptruck onto a raised plaza, ignored by even the poorest because who cannot find fruit here in the Pearl of Africa?  People surround us, people engulf us, and though most look for a bit life presses them on.

              Not quite a thousand words, but I imagine you get the picture[7].  By the time we found our map the sky had sucked all our water out, leaving our mouths parched and skin baked despite the Nalgenes and sunscreen.  We found Kampala Road, found a taxi, and returned to the Father’s in time for a shower and dinner.  As I washed the burnt clay and fried skin from my hands I looked in the mirror and realized that my shoulders were about halfway to my ears; I hadn’t let down my awareness once, not even with that beer in hand, and my body was still trying to shake off that day’s incredible and indescribable newness.

[7] sorry

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