We skirt around the corner down a rather narrow road that leads right into the pulsating heart of the city. With one hand on my camera, I try to capture the passing sights, holding on to the Boda Boda motorbike and my guide with the other. There’s happiness within that I only feel when travelling in Africa; in this case, deep into the markets of Uganda’s crazy capital city, Kampala.
The smell of dusty earth and a sense of hard work seasoned with spicy desire is what I breathe in as I climb off the bike to move between the stalls and consummate traders who offer their fresh veg, fruit, batik printed cloths and herbal remedies for sale. The smoke from wood fires for street food mingles with exhaust fumes as cars, taxis, bicycles and pedestrians pass by, each contributing to the welcome buzz of activity.
Yet the capital of the Republic of Uganda, with its population of less than two million people spread over 23 hills, is much more than this colourful market. Here is a city with a history that traverses time and emotion, from the peak of post-independence to a civil war that saw it in collapse into complete chaos. Today, Kampala is home to modern supermarkets and shopping malls, upmarket areas with embassies, government buildings and renovated hotels that would make any city proud.
The highbrow areas fuse with a humbler downtown, yet the whole place beams with optimism that comes from this new era of Africa. There’s construction work underway, traffic that leaves you exasperated and an energy that seems fitting and functional. Should you be lucky enough to find yourself in this pulsating capital, these are things you should do.
1. Visit Parliament House
Open to the public, you can tour the building or even see government in action. They sit from Tuesday through to Thursday afternoons and sessions are conducted in English. You’ll need to visit the public relations department to arrange this, but permission is almost always granted on the spot if you have an identification card and are decently dressed. Look out for the impressive wooden cultural map of Uganda in the main lobby, featuring the country’s flora and fauna.
2. Kampala Taxi Rank
While downtown, take some time to watch the commuters and traders at the pulsating rank move without a pause; it’s an incredible sight and is said to be one of the busiest taxi ranks in the world.
3. Take A Tour Of The Buganda Kingdom
Visit the Lubiri or King’s Palace, the King’s Lake, New Scottish Parliament and the Museum of the Buganda Kingdom. Buganda is the largest of the traditional kingdoms in present-day Uganda and includes the central region and Kampala. Lubiri, or Mengo Palace, was built in 1922 and is the former home of the King of Buganda, though it has remained empty since 1966, when military led by Idi Amin stormed the palace, forcing the king of the time to flee to a life of exile in the UK. The building was later converted into an army barracks, with the notorious underground prison and torture chamber of Idi Amin built next door in the 1970s.
Take a sobering guided visit to see where he is said to have killed 200 000 people. Inside, hand and footprints, as well as the scrawled messages of prisoners, bear testament to his horrendous crimes against humanity. The palace is at the end of a one-mile straight ceremonial drive that runs through the city from the Bulange Royal Building, which is known as the ‘Kabaka‘njagala’ (‘the King is coming’) road.
Uganda National Mosque
A highlight will be the time in the Uganda National Mosque in Old Kampala, previously known as the Gaddafi Mosque, which can seat more than 15 000 people. Here you can climb the tall minaret and take in the wonderful elevated views of the city. Remember to dress modestly, or you can choose to be covered up for a small fee, which is quite fun to do. At least take a drive past Constitutional Square, Freedom Square and the Independence Monuments.
5. The Uganda Museum
There’s plenty to interest you here, with its varied and well-captioned ethnographic collection covering clothing, hunting, agriculture, medicine, religion – including how to make banana beer – as well as archaeological and natural history displays.
6. Baha’i Temple of Africa
At the beautiful temple with its manicured gardens, you will learn more about this idyllic monotheistic faith that emphasises the spiritual unity of all humankind. It’s peaceful and on a Sunday you can even sit in for a while, listening to their songs.
7. Ndere Centre
If you’re interested in traditional dance and music, try to catch a dinner-theatre performance at the Centre. They showcase dances from many of Uganda’s tribal groups with high- energy performances taking place in their amphitheatre. They even have traditional drumming and dance classes if you’d like something more interactive.
8. Owino Market
The local markets and the authentic traders’ stalls selling fruit, vegetables and meat are a must-visit. This is where the majority of the people shop. Owino Market around Nakivubo Stadium has everything from soap to televisions but is most famous for its second-hand clothing. You can even buy material here and get one of the tailors to make something for you.
9. Street Food
The most popular to try is the local Rolex, a chapatti with onions, peppers and egg fried up with much show of confidence. it’s absolutely delicious. if you can find it, the 2K Restaurant offers excellent local cuisine and delicious banana beer.
10. Walter’s Tours
Traffic is a nasty beast in this great city and I would recommend that you minimise your time spent in a car or you will be restricted in what you can achieve. Rather book a full-day tour on Boda Bodas with a young entrepreneur who has a collection of talented guides at your disposal. Walter’s Tours offers assorted tour options and can even tailor make one that serves your specific interest.
Winston Churchill referred to Uganda as the Pearl of Africa and, once there, it’s easy to see why. Beyond the walls of this vibrant city are golden plains, thick rain forests, snowcapped mountains and emerald-green tea plantations. You have a chance to go gorilla as well as chimpanzee trekking, to safari in the national parks and get a sense of the culture that is strongly African, yet holds Asian, English and Arabic influences.
As for Kampala, it’s seductive and real, all wrapped into one.
The Essential Details
Kampala offers a range of accommodation from sheer luxury to very affordable. Among the recommendations is the Villa Kololo with its renowned Mediterraneo Restaurant, as well as the Sheraton Kampala for luxury, Urban City Blue for middle mark, and the Red Chilli Hideaway on the outskirts of the city for affordable hostel-style accommodation, free wi-Fi, generous lawns and pool. For a touch of fancy, the Kariba Country Club will offer insights into ex-pat living.
Bear in mind that with international flights out of Entebbe almost always leaving first thing in the morning, you will need to overnight there the night before flying out. it isn’t possible to do the transfer in time on the day of your early flight. it may only be 54km, but is likely to take a few hours irrespective of what time of day.
For contact information for walters Tours, visit www.walterstours.com.
You can pick up a local sim card at the airport; it’s inexpensive and the best way to stay in touch. Go with MTN. They seem to be represented even in the most remote areas of Africa. The currency is Ugandan Shilling; draw some cash from the ATM to use as you go. Once you venture further into the country, you will need it. To help with calculations download the XE app to your phone. Carry scarves. You’ll need them to wrap around yourself at the Mosque, Temple and market.
Watch the video that I took with my GoPro for a taste of Africa.
This article first appeared in African Travel Market magazine.