I am walking through Kampala’s transportation corridor and my mind is wandering again. I am taking in the chaos of commerce and cacophony of man and machine that keep this transportation hub humming. I reflect on my country at the corner of Namirembe Road and Allen Street in Kampala.
In 2012, few countries in Africa had the luxury of being as discussed by Western main stream media as Uganda. The Kony 2012 debates raged in early spring last year after Invisible Children’s viral advocacy video that called for the apprehension of the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, one of the world’s most deadly rebel groups. A few months later, Spain’s Prime Minister walked into a hornet’s nest after he disparaged Uganda’s economy while begging for a loan from the European Union. Later in the year, the perennial debate over Uganda’s proposed gay rights bill contrasted yet again with the country’s rise in ranking as one of the best places to visit.
Had you been standing at the corner of Namirembe and Allen streets at any point in 2012, you could not have been farther away from that digital chatter. This intersection hosts Kampala’s transportation hub. Hundreds of minibus taxis and full-size coaches ferry passengers and goods in and out of the city at breakneck speed. Here, rush hour is an all day affair – a crush of people, vehicles, construction and suffocating commerce circulate through the densely packed, and potholed streets.
This is where Uganda’s upcountry fifty shades of green collapses into this Capital of Chaos; where bright-eyed beginners disembark; where tired souls retreat upcountry having been beaten into submission by life in this city of almost two million.
Ugandans have a very short memory. Standing here, one understands why. No one has time to lament things they cannot change. If you dare pause, someone else getting off the bus will take your opportunity. Money must be made. The costs of life in the Perl of Africa accumulate quickly: medicine, school fees, rent, food. Money, money, money. About the only sustained conversation is about the poor performance of the shilling against the dollar.
No one here has the time to be concerned with your sexuality, or how #UgandaIsNotSpain, or what development solutions the latest ineffective international NGO is importing into the country. It is not that no one pays attention to international media here. They do; through radio, television and, increasingly, social media portals like Facebook and Twitter. The newspaper boys are not peddling hard-hitting investigative news of the day, but escapist gossip about local celebrities. They point at the spreads, shake their heads in momentary communal distraction, before thumbing the keys on their mobile phone and trailing off in pursuit of their next shilling.
This is where Uganda’s formal economy disappears into the country’s bustling informal sector. Have cash will travel. Have hustle, will survive. The amount of effort you muster depends on what type of meal you will have today. You can either survive on a “Rolex,” fried eggs wrapped in chapati bread made fresh on a griddle for 50 cents, or make enough to visit the popup sidewalk “nyama choma” grills twice a day.
Herbert Wabomba, my motorcycle taxi driver, crosses this intersection on his motorbike nearly every day ferrying passengers to support a family. Not too far from here, on Namirembe St., my favorite clothier is happy to custom tailor an imported obscure brand suit while spinning tall tales of how he got into the business. A few miles in the opposite direction, the street vendors in Mengo are firing up their grills by the roadside restaurant row.
Western media makes it sound like Uganda is on the verge of collapse with every news story. Sure, not everything here is a model for democratic or economic pluralism, but somehow the peace is kept. The key to sustaining it is as simple as leaving this rhythm of life intact. Half of North Africa collapsed because one fruit vendor was harassed by overzealous police.
Since then, the world has been wondering when the Arab Spring will march through Sub-Saharan Africa. Nothing happens if a stream of marching ants are left alone. Nothing will happen here as long as one can eat, drink, and sleep with relative ease. If you fail to make it in Kampala, you’ll soon be back at the corner of Namirembe, heading upcountry for a quiet life in your own private garden in the Pearl of Africa, where any seed will grow food.
As 2013 picks up speed, so to will the media and online chatter. However contrived or hard-hitting the topics will be, one thing is for sure. At the corner of Namirembe & Allen, life won’t miss a beat. As long as everyone is busy (and free) to chase their dreams, no one has time to start a revolution. Everyone has conceded to the daily rhythm of “looking for something to be doing.” Move along world, there’s nothing to see here.