As a UK volunteer who had never been out of Europe before, Kampala (the capital city of Uganda) was alien territory for me and was always going to be an eye-opening experience.
However, it was an experience that I took with open arms. In the months leading up to our departure I had mixed preconceptions about what I thought life would be like in Kampala. Despite the rigorous training we received in Edinburgh, nothing could prepare me for the realities of life here and it was certainly different to the generic outlook of Africa represented by the media.
Life in Kampala is a lot more modern than I expected. There are cinemas, stylish restaurants, western shopping malls and many outlets that you can find the same gadgets and items you would find in top UK retailers. In contrast to that, it is still very deprived and the streets of Kampala are home to many street children, along with men and woman up to the ages of 70. It can be quite upsetting and not something that you get used to easily.
Since stepping off the plane in Entebbe I have witnessed some crazy things. From seeing a boda-boda (motorbike) driver travelling with his pet monkey attached to his waist, to two men fighting over their matatus (taxis) then crashing into one another. It is a strange and wonderful place, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. Like anywhere, there is always the potential for crime and theft. Some of these incidents are unavoidable, but it’s wise to make sure that you’re very careful with your possessions such as not taking your laptop or mobile phone out with you unless you have to and moving around in a pair or in a group.
In any large city it’s wise to be aware of your environment. One thing to look out for is using your phone while walking by the side of the road. This makes it very easy for boda-boda drivers to snatch your phone while they’re driving past. There is also a trick that matatu drivers use, they will invite you to ride in the front then when you put your bag down in the taxi they will claim to have an issue with the side door and ask for help. They will then either drive off with your bag or steal any valuables from it while you are helping. So make sure to look out for any of those situations.
Being a foreigner in Uganda brings a lot of attention, mainly by men. Local men will shout “mzungu” at you (a term used for a white man) continuously while you walk down the street. This happens to me numerous times every day without fail. I said before about keeping possessions safe, whether you are boy or girl; it’s always a wise decision to move around with a fellow volunteer.
It’s also worth knowing that there is a strong gun presence within the police and security firms in Kampala. However, in my opinion, they are just for show and after speaking to the in-country volunteers (ICV’s) this is the impression I was given. Most shops have a guard with a gun.
The main gun of choice over here is an AK47 which is large and intimidating on the eye. When you enter supermarkets or malls you will be searched by an armed man with a metal detector, and if you have a bag on you that will also be searched and normally kept behind while you are in the shop. This can get really annoying at times, but the reality of the situation is that they’re trying to secure everybody’s safety.
Food in Kampala was as I expected. The main dish they serve in my host home in the evening and from what I have heard from other volunteers it is the same in most host homes is rice and beans with the odd bit of meat. This can get repetitive but it is something you will have to get used to. Breakfast is normally a banana and a piece of bread, or when I’m on my best behaviour I get served an omelette. Because I am perfect this happens every day.Even though there is fruit growing everywhere, the locals don’t seem to eat it as much as you would expect. Most of our group bought their own avocados, mangos or whatever fruit floats your boat.
My favourite thing to eat in Kampala is a breakfast wrap, which the locals call a “rolex”. It can be found on most street corners normally sold from a cart with an umbrella for shade, a cutting board and a charcoal cook stove with a rounded metal hot-plate. Its name is derived by saying “roll of eggs” quickly in a Luganda accent. It is essentially an omelette wrapped in a chapatti normally with tomatoes and onions mixed in as well. It’s a must have if you visit Kampala.
After being in Kampala for a month, there was some political unrest that resulted in there being riots in the centre of town. This affected us in many ways. We couldn’t go to work as we had to stay at home for security reasons, and social media had been blocked for four days including WhatsApp and Facebook which is a big inconvenience as the main way to communicate in Kampala is through either of those channels. Both riots and the blocking of social media are common occurrences when there is political unrest in Uganda. The situation blew over after a few days, but there is always a chance of it kicking off again so it is wise to make sure you have airtime on your phone so you can call other volunteers or team leaders to get updates on the situation. Airtime and data for your phone are relatively cheap and easily accessible.
Something here that is quite strange and has a huge impact on the environment is the fact that bins are practically non-existent. I have seen no more than two or three bins since I’ve been here and one of them was one I purchased for my own room! The Ugandan way to deal with this problem is to have dumping spots and then to burn rubbish. This is extremely bad for the environment as they burn the plastic along with other things. The burning of plastic seems to be a normal occurrence here.
In my host home, they burn plastic to heat the stove. Initially, I made a homemade gas mask out of underwear to combat this situation. I then realised a t-shirt wrapped around my face was more practical.
I hope that this information will help future volunteers to gain more of an understanding of life in Kampala, and I also hope it doesn’t put you off. I have got to meet a group of amazing people and made some great friends that I will stay in contact with when I return to Bristol. This has been an amazing experience that I will never forget and I have memories I will cherish forever.
It’s important that future volunteers know the reality of life in Kampala, to act safely to prevent potentially harmful incidents and to maximise your experience while abroad.
Oh and one last thing, if you ever get to experience the dancing here; it is a sight to behold.
Peace and love,
To find out more about how the companies we are working with are tackling the issues of waste management in Africa read our blogs from Zambia on Trashback.