Life in Kampala, Uganda

Written October 2017:

Sitting on the roof of an apartment building 14,000 km’s away from home, I’m writing about the first couple of weeks I’ve spent in the country of Uganda. I can say with complete certainty that I am having some of the most amazing experiences of my life. While there are many things I have to get adjusted to and I may not always be comfortable, all the experiences I’ve been having and the way of life is so different from home, they are all new to me, and that makes them amazing. Each step I take I have never taken before. Each person I’ve spoken to I have never met before. Each sight I have seen I have never seen before. All these things make this experience so fascinating. So, how does life differ from that in British Columbia?

If you think that the photos of Africa that we see in social media or TV paint an accurate description of what life is really like here, you’re going to be surprised. At the same time, if you think that I am living the exact same way as I was at home, you’re wrong. While I do live in a nice, westernized apartment building, I don’t feel quite at home all the time. The tap water here is undrinkable and this definitely affects cooking and preparing fruits. Power outages happen frequently and sometimes we have no water. I am hot all the time. That feeling of being fully clean just after a shower lasts only about 20 minutes and I constantly go to bed with a feeling that I am covered in a film of sweat. At one point I had a count of 54 mosquito bites on my body. Food at grocery stores is certainly different from home. Their traffic system and roads are quite insane. It doesn’t seem like any rules exist when it comes to driving for cars and motorcycles. Sidewalks haven’t quite made their way through the entire city just yet. In addition, in certain areas people constantly just stare at you because you’re obviously not from here and we are openly called “Mzungu’s” by everyone. All these things you just need to accept because while they may make us uncomfortable, it is all a part of what makes this experience extraordinary.

Kampala itself has a beautiful city line. Standing on the roof of the apartment building, you can see all the green trees scattered through the city and the orange roofs of buildings. It is the best view to wake up to and to watch the traffic fight for every available inch on the road as I just breath in the fact that I am in Uganda. The people here are very kind and friendly, and it is amazing to think I have made friends who live halfway across the world from my home. Getting into conversations with the friends you make, you realize that you are not so different after all; only the circumstances which you live in. Like any place, there are those people that don’t have good intentions and so you just need to be smart in certain situations. But generally, I feel very safe walking on my own. Life here is also at a much slower pace, except for when you get on the back of a Boda boda and are trying to get to work in the morning rush hour. There are tons of restaurants here that include sushi, Indian, Thai, Western-food, and more. There are also pockets of developed areas with malls and and then poor areas with the classic markets. There are schools with soccer pitches, quality hotels, bars, clubs, gas stations; things you would find in any major city around the world. When you look at it this way, Kampala is not so different from cities at home.

My experiences here so far have been mixed, but regardless, amazing and memorable. From driving in a bus on the sketchiest gravel road in complete darkness in the middle of nowhere to sitting on a boat on the Nile River. However, there are a few that really stand out looking back so far. On the second day here, my roommate, Richard, and I went on a walk through the city that ended up lasting a few hours. We eventually came through a very poor village with a long dirt road running through it. On both sides of the roads were vendors selling food and clothes, but also kids running through the street half naked. The weird thing was that none of the vendors tried to sell us anything, they only stayed still and stared at us as we walked through. As it was our second day, we felt very uncomfortable but still we went on. The kids would come up to us and yell “Mzungu’s!” and touch our hands as they laughed. This was a very surreal moment for us. Then there are the nights spent watching English soccer matches in the local bars here. To top that, we actually got to play in a Ugandan soccer league match which was very amazing. We practiced on a pitch that didn’t have a spec of grass on it, just dirt. The field that we played a game on at least had sparse patches of grass, but it did also have a cow on the side of the field and chickens running across during the game. Nothing will distract you more than two chickens chasing each other along the centre-line as you’re trying to pick out a pass. The game itself was a lot different than soccer played at home; extremely physical, fast-paced, and due to the ground being poor quality, the ball spends a lot of time in the air. Aside from soccer, I’ve had the chance to hike to the waterfalls at Sipi Falls and spend the weekend in a campground. I’ve eaten a whole fish overlooking the Nile, followed by a boat ride to the mouth of the river where I swam in my underwear. With these memorable moments and more, it is the small things here in a day-to-day basis that I can’t leave out. Like riding on the back of motorcycles to work weaving through the middle of traffic, eating the local, carb-loaded food, having conversations with your Boda driver, watching a Ugandan cultural dance, celebrating a coworker’s birthday, and making friends with the locals who just seem genuinely happy to have met you. It’s these small things that make life here what it really is.

One experience that has stood head and shoulders above the rest happened during our first weekend here, where Richard and I were sitting on the rooftop of our apartment building reading and listening to music. We heard cheers and laughter coming from across the street on the ground. We looked to see a large group of kids playing soccer in the courtyard of the primary school across the street from us. When Richard looked closer, he noticed that the ball they were using wasn’t just any ball; it was made of trash and tape. We both looked at each other in shock. Knowing that we brought a bunch of soccer balls from home with us to giveaway to kids and organizations here in Kampala, we ran down to our apartment to grab one. Soon after, we were down and across the street knocking on the gate for the groundskeeper to let us in. We explained we would like to talk to one of the teachers or supervisors. He let us in and pointed us to a man standing among the school of kids. As we walked across the courtyard to the man, all the kids stopped what they were doing to stare at us, smile and wave. Ball in hand, we explained that we had an announcement for the kids. They all ran over to circle us and Richard introduced ourselves and explained we live right across the street. He then went on to explain how we wanted to donate this ball to the school for them to use. As he said this, the kids around us cheered and reached out to touch us. I will always remember that moment. From such a small and simple gesture, they seemed so genuinely happy and excited. It was such a surreal moment as I reached out to touch their hands back. I can only describe how I felt by saying in that moment, my heart felt full. Afterwards, we talked to the school’s headmaster and he thanked us for the gesture. We explained that we would like to stop by sometimes to play soccer with the kids. Of course he said, and he shook our hands in gratitude. Walking back across the street and waving to the kids poking their heads through the fences, we agreed that there was no better feeling than in that moment. I think I can speak for the both of us and say that these are the type of experiences we came here looking for, and we certainly found it.

I hope that some of what I have written about here paints a decent picture of what life has been like. There are definitely highs and there are the uncomfortable things about life here that you just have to accept and live with, but it all fits under this unreal experience. The uncomfortable things make everything else that much sweeter. That’s what makes it so fascinating. If you’ve ever wanted to spend some time in Africa but feel hesitant, I can definitely empathize. I was somewhat worried, scared, and anxious. But now I have been here for over two weeks and it has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Every experience I’ve had has made me more grateful to what I have at home in Canada. And I have nine more weeks to go and plenty more surreal experiences to come.

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