I have not been well lately. I had ice cream on Easter and it has taken me this long to have my bowels settle. A bit longer for my mind to do the same. I have no new post to write. But I have been thinking about planes and national pride and that brought me to thinking about this. I wrote it many years ago, when bodas were still green Mates. I hope you like it.
Kireka is one of the ugliest suburbs of Kampala. It is crowded, noisy and the sight of it jars the soul. The whole place is filled with the clutter and the litter of squashed-up, broken, makeshift, unglamorous buildings and people. Dingy shops with chapati wallahs frying their wares in the dust outside squat indecorously on a large slab of uneven, bare soil. All the fertility seems to have been eroded away decades ago, and what is left of the soil does not stay on the ground. It floats in the air as dust, choking the flies.
There are so many people here, and they all seem to always move with a terrible sense of urgency, mixed, in some curious way, with lethargy— a hectic uncaringness about what they do. It was nine o’clock in the morning, and already the Ugandan sun was beating down, harsh and violent, making the roads and the rough dust burn with a cruel heat. The faces of the people who lived their days out in Kireka were knit at the brows in the way the brows of faces twist when there is too much light coming at them from above and, courtesy of the upwards-beaming sunlight reflected off the ground, from below. There were hawkers here and there, carrying broad sheets of cardboard on which a multitude of cheap and shiny things were hung: plastic jewelry plated with false gold, polyester bands for holding hairpieces in place, hairpieces, baby booties, handkerchiefs… They had sunglasses on their boards too. Sunglasses that cost three thousand shillings each (though a bit of haggling could bring the price down to two thousand— the cost of two return trips between Kireka and the city centre) but the Kireka crowd did not wear shades. The wearing of sunglasses was left, in the scheme of things, to other people, people like me. When I stepped out of the taxi and onto the soil, the half-a-hundred eyes which had been mixing their frantic kinesis and their resigned inertness suddenly changed gear. They spotted me and turned to me. I’m not really into the things like designer clothes and things like sunglasses, too showy, too ostentatious. Why demand that people pay attention to you when you have nothing for them to see? But Kireka hawkers can still smell something in the way I dress that tells them I am a potential customer: a “Tajiri”, a person with enough disposable income, a guy who could probably afford two return trips between Kireka and the city, and therefore, perhaps, who could buy a pair of sunglasses. Or maybe, a pair of socks, or a music cassette, or a set of cotton handkerchiefs from China. Hawkers began to edge towards me. A woman wrapped in a threadbare leso shouted something rude at a man in a fading t-shirt who she had been arguing with when he abandoned her and started walking towards me, brandishing his large and heavy-laden cardboard shield. He shouted something rude back. I cut my way past him, through them and the dozens of others like them screaming the day out of their dirty Kireka existence and headed for the file of boda boda scooters. The drivers of the scooters, who had been lounging lazily before I appeared, abruptly leapt into action, starting their engines and calling out at me: “Uncle tugende?” “Chief tugende?” Men my age calling me uncle. If I was passed out in the middle of the shining road, they would stand over my body and laugh. But if that’s what it takes to get a buck, they will pretend to think something of me, and address me with overblown expressions of respect.
I sat on the cushion on the back of one of the scooters and gave the driver another coin so he could carry me up Namugongo Road to home.
The boda boda moved resolutely up the road, unaware of how sharply it was rising from the bottom of the ocean to the light above. I could sense it, though. We were leaving Kireka behind and coursing up Namugongo Road, and the mud and dust was receding, giving way to long patches of wild and playful grass, and rows upon rows of trees. Up there, a jacaranda was shedding and the ground below it was a carpet of purple flowers, with an old man standing like a statue beneath the tree, unaware too. Making this journey, brief as it is, was a refreshing thing. It’s like when you drink a cold bottle of passion fruit juice, and the flow down your throat washes out your thirst, leaving your body free and unshackled. Open.
We zipped past a group of children arguing, and I noticed, even though the scene was passed in just a few seconds, that the boys were on one side and the girls on the other. Just like we used to do when I was that age.
There are so many trees here. If you stand on one of Kampala’s hills and look out at another, it looks like jungle to you. A vast canopy of green, broken only intermittently by a roof here and there. There are so many trees in Kampala. I used to love this city.