Kampala From Poor to Rich – And My Honest Thoughts

Muzungu, muzungu,” I hear people yelling every other minute. Muzungu meaning “wanderer” in Swahili, but it’s used to refer to light-skin foreigners. Tiptoeing around the Owino market in Kampala, I try to keep up with my local friend Ruth. I can feel the stares all around us, some people hold my wrist for a second, asking me to buy from them, while kids in the arms of their mothers or young boys try to touch my hair.

Ruth easily navigates through the labyrinth of seemingly endless narrow alleys and explains everything one can buy here. Plant medicine. Strange looking fruits and veggies I have never seen. Blocks of salt. Animals – dead or alive. Spices. Newspapers in stacks as high as an imaginary ceiling. Clothes. Fresh peanut butter. There’s nothing you won’t find at this market.

As soon as Ruth and I sit down in the area where locals are preparing lunch in huge metal pots and pans, she jokingly tells curious guys that we are together, so they will leave us alone. The woman across from us shyly smiles and has to argue with her husband about the female experience while being pregnant. He takes out a huge cell phone from perhaps the last century and takes a call.

The plate that Ruth and I share arrives: fresh fish and seasoned rice. We eat with our hands. I ask her to order some matoke – traditional Ugandan banana stew – and posho – porridge from corn starch, also known as pap, ugali or fufu in other African countries. The waiter loads our plate with both and we take in the enormous amounts of carbs until our bellies can’t stand anymore.

“Are you not tired?” Ruth asked me as we squeeze into a matatu (10 seater cab) to go to our next destination. I wasn’t. I was enjoying this hectic, large African city and its colors, smells, and tastes. Minus the smog and exhaust, of course. And I was enjoying an experience most tourists don’t dare to take on. Our taxi maneuvered out of the most chaotic, yet somewhat orderly taxi park I’ve ever seen, without hurting anyone.

About an hour of our afternoon is spent inside a café that we ran into after feeling the first drops of tropical rain on our skin. Lucky for us, we get a seat because only 2 minutes later, the café is packed with people seeking a roof from the sudden down-pouring.

For the average Ugandan with an average salary, who is not from this area, Acacia mall, Kisementi square, and Kololo are unaffordable. What people spend here on a three course meal could be used to feed a family from a Kampala slum for a whole month. Nightlife here is loud, despite the set rules against noise pollution. Irish pubs, Mexican taquerias or Lebanese cuisine are only a few feet away from each other.

Nevertheless, trying a Ugandan rolex from a street vendor is a must. For about US $0.25, one of them will roll you a layer of eggs, tomatoes, and onions into one or two chapatis. Especially during or after partying, rolex are the go-to choice of Ugandans and expats alike.

Nobody in this area, except for some boda boda (motorcycle) drivers, will call you a “muzungu.” These guys will squeeze past cars and wiggle themselves through Kampala’s traffic, with or without a helmet. You can recognize so-called “safe” boda bodas that will not run traffic lights (usually) thanks to their orange vests. Yellow vests mean the drivers work for Uber.

Uber in Kampala. That’s a “whole nother” story. Wait for 20 minutes, have 3 different drivers cancel on you before one arrives finally. Even though you told the app your locations, where they should pick you up and drop you, the drivers will ask you these two questions again. As someone who doesn’t know much of the city, it’s better to rely on your own GPS.

“I defeated tuberculosis and cancer,” Susan Laker told me. “But I still carry HIV.” I met Susan in the Kinawataka slum, where she lives today. Barely past her mid-thirties, she has three grown children. As a young girl, her only chance to survive the war was to get married off to a soldier. After two men in her life vanished, she went to Kampala to work for less than $0.50 per day, splitting rocks in the Kinawataka slum that is now home to Northern Uganda’s refugees.

Today, Susan’s life has turned around. A pastor introduced her to Stella, a girl from the Netherlands, who bought paper-bead jewelry from Susan and with whom she created the 22 Stars Foundation, supporting more than 300 kids and women of Kinawataka.

On a Sunday, Stella’s friend Nicholas agreed to take me there, where he helps out entrepreneurs with simple businesses, such as selling jewelry or sweet potatoes. Nicholas introduced me to Susan as well as Ben from the Chrysalis Youth Empowerment Network. The latter uses board games to enhance children’s abilities to become change makers.  

My day ends with a quick tour of Kinawataka. I hear the usual “muzungu” and get a glimpse of people’s everyday life here including a church service outside. Susan takes me to the stone quarry where other women still have to do what she used to. One of them asks me to take photos of children who are also looking to be taken in by the 22 Stars Foundation, so they can get an education, meals, and medical treatments.

One city – three sides. Various classes & income levels. Try to experience them all and find a local to navigate you and show you around. Don’t just go to the poor areas because people say “that’s the real Africa.” No. The real Africa is all – rich, middle class, and poor – just like in other countries.

If you go:

To discover Kampala like a local, go with Ruth from Engo Tours.

For free Kampala city tours, use immersion.ug

Visit Stella’s 22 Stars Foundation and Susan in Kintawataka

For everything Uganda, follow Fay, a Ugandan travel blogger exploring the country

An honest look back: Kampala, the first city that made me book a ticket to another place 2 weeks before I was supposed to even though I was invited on a DOPE press trip… Why? Because it made me realize that I just don’t like inland metropoles in economically developing nations – no matter the continent. Kampala was the last straw.

After excruciating Cairo and a stint in Dahab, a peaceful city by the Red Sea, hectic Kampala wasn’t the place for me. My Airbnb situation sucked, club noise kept me up at nights, and crossing the street almost turned into a life and death battle.

Was it Kampala? Partially. Was it my own attitude? Partially. Would I go again? Nope. Would I visit Uganda again? Yes, but spend time in different cities, gorilla trekking, and exploring other things.

Have you been to Kampala? What are your thoughts / experiences?

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  • Thanks for sharing Jenny Muzungu 🙂

    I really enjoying the story and agree with your assessment, do keep sharing and shining the light