I’d been warned by multiple people about Kampala’s dangers as a solo traveller, especially after dark. Before I left Rwanda, people had me believe that phone snatching, pick-pockets, thieves, bag-slashings and muggings were all too common in Kampala. So I was prepared to just stay in the guest house on my first day, since I arrived in the evening. But something told me to pluck up the courage and go see the sunset. So off I went in search of the Old Kampala National Mosque in Namirembe in an Uber (I was not yet ready to try out the city’s matatus – the equivalent of minibuses, supposedly a hotspot for theft, driven at breakneck speeds and usually stuffed like sardines).
From the minaret of the mosque, you can clearly see the seven hills from where Kampala originated. Yusuf, my guide, also pointed out that all roads seem to radiate from the hill the mosque was on – evidence pointing to the city of Kampala starting from this very hill. While we were watching the sun set behind St Paul’s Cathedral giving it a golden halo, Yusuf told me the key to Kampala (or any city for that matter) is confidence. Move like you own the city. Stand tall, walk purposefully, don’t look at the ground. Don’t turn or react immediately if someone shouts after you. Just ignore it. Decline any offers to sell anything with a sharp and firm ‘NO’ and move on. And never take your phone out while on the road. That advice kept me safe and unharmed while in Kampala. Thank you, Yusuf.
The balance between being cautious and carefree is a fine one, and I somehow think in Kampala I got it wrong. Burnt by being mugged in Argentina, and the scaremongering from everyone in Rwanda, I was constantly on high alert, and a little too tense to absorb and properly enjoy the riot of noise, colour and flavours that is quintessential of a bustling African capital. To be truthful, at the time I was slightly relieved to leave Kampala and head out to see the rest of the country. But if I were to go back to Kampala now, my outlook would be quite different.
Gaddafi National Mosque (Old Kampala National Mosque)
One of the largest mosques in Africa and Colonel Gaddafi of Libya’s legacy to Uganda. While construction began in the early 1970s, it came to a standstill after a few years due to a lack of funding. It was only in 2001 that the Mufti of Uganda (head of the Islamic community) approached Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, while he was on safari in Uganda, for assistance in completing the mosque – something the Libyan leader accepted.
In 2003, construction resumed (nearly 3 decades later), when the old unfinished structure was demolished and a completely new one erected. The Libyan General inaugurated the mosque himself in 2008 – his gift to the Islamic community of Uganda. My guide Yusuf, who said the mosque can hold 35,000 worshippers normally, told me the Islamic and Christian communities coexist peacefully with one another. About 15% of the Ugandan population is Muslim and the percentage has grown fast in recent years. Yusuf says it’s because his community has very large families. He himself comes from a father who had 4 wives and fathered 52 children 🙂
Info: For non-residents it’s normally 15,000 USH to enter with a guide included. At sunset or sunrise, it costs 20,000 USH (closes at 7:15pm).
King Edward Mutessa I, had a palace elsewhere in Kampala. But when small pox broke out, he feared the spirits were angry so came to Nabulagala Hill to build his new home and renamed it Kasubi Hill. The King’s dome-like, circular house (Muzibu Azaala Mpanga) with wooden poles wrapped in bark cloth and a thatched roof extending to the ground was also where he was buried – but the house was damaged in a fire of unknown origin and is in the process of being rebuilt.
Interestingly, no women live in the King’s quarters. They all have their own houses in the same compound and just visit the King.
This was news to me: The king’s wives must continue to live on long after he’s dead. Each wife selects the next lady (a female descendant) to succeed her when she dies, so his line of wives still lives today (mostly in this compound). When they die, they are buried here. King Mutessa I had 80+ women!
When I asked my guide as to how these wives have children (to ensure the line of female descendants continues), he said that they have boyfriends who live outside the compound. They have children with these boyfriends to ensure the line of wives continues and the spirit of the King is protected.
I wondered what the local understanding was of the tension between Ugandan Indians and Idi Amin, so I asked Fred for his version of events
People have varying opinions of Idi Amin – mostly on a scale varying from negative to absolute outrage. Being a military officer in the Ugandan Army, he overthrew the president and installed himself as self-proclaimed leader for life after a military coup. The nickname ‘Butcher of Uganda’ came for a reason – during his brutal rule, an estimated 300,000 of his countrymen were violently murdered on political, financial or ethical grounds. His confessions to cannibalism perhaps only serve to underscore his nickname.
According to Fred, the events unfolded as follows. In 1971, Idi Amin had a meeting at the Serena Hotel with a prominent Indian businessman. During the meeting Idi Amin suggested to the young daughter of the businessman that she should stay behind and that he’d like to marry her. The daughter promptly told her father who snuck her out before the meeting ended. At the end of the meeting, when Idi Amin looked around, he couldn’t find the girl. He then sent a message to the group (which was now on the road), officially telling her father that he’d like to marry his daughter, but the businessman politely declined the request and they refused to turn back.
Idi Amin was so enraged by being snubbed that he vowed punishment – ‘If this community doesn’t recognise me as the Head of State, they don’t deserve to stay here.’ Officially however, he said that God had spoken to him in the night and told him that Asians had to leave since they were exploiting the indigenous citizens of Uganda. So he gave the 50,000 Ugandan South Asians 3 days (which turned into 3 months at the plea of the international community), to leave the country or face imprisonment and death. Many fled to neighbouring states, some back to India and the poorest drowned themselves in the Nile or the Indian Ocean in fear.
Some native Ugandans thought this would be a good move and applauded Amin. Ugandan South Asians were a middle class that were noticeably wealthier than the working class majority. This bred resentment, as most didn’t understand the hard work and the prudence that had gone into developing this wealth. Furthermore, the South Asians formed the commercial class – from shop owners to management – the layer above the working class, which made some native Ugandans feel like they were second class citizens in their own country. The fact that native Ugandans also felt that the South Asians didn’t perceive them as equals worsened matters. With the mass exodus, the factories and businesses previously managed by astute Indian businessmen, ground to a halt and collapsed, as did the economy. When Museveni took over as President in 1985, he realised the error of his predecessor’s ways and tried to reconcile with the community and bring them back to Uganda.
The Baha’i Place of Worship
Located on a hill with fabulous views of Kampala, this peaceful place with beautiful gardens is diligently maintained by a group of hardworking ladies who work tirelessly in the heat. A lovely place to spend an afternoon and well worth the 30-40 min motorbike ride from the city. If you don’t want a guide, it’s free to enter and roam around.
The Bahá’i faith is a very open one, started in 1844 and then led by a messenger of God from Persia, Bahá’u’lláh – emphasising the fundamental principles of inclusion and acceptance despite differences. It also teaches the foundation of all religions is belief in one God, elimination of prejudices, equal opportunities for men and women, and always seeking out the truth for ourselves in spite of family, prejudice, custom or tradition.
“Consort with all peoples, kindreds and religions of the world with the utmost truthfulness, uprightness, faithfulness, kindliness, goodwill and friendliness”
We all have something to learn from the Bahá’i.
What food/drink can you buy for £5 in Entebbe?
£5 at the Entebbe Golf Club gets you 2 rolexes (the kind you eat, not wear), one pot of African coffee (a very milky, sweet, spiced concoction) and a Sprite.
The Entebbe Golf Club is surprisingly affordable compared to what I expected it to be and allows non-members to sit in its alfresco restaurant (beware of the mosquitoes). While the food isn’t mind blowing, it’s fairly quiet and a great pitstop enroute to the airport. Since I had fallen in love with the rolex in Uganda, I decided to eat it one final time before I left (yes EAT the rolex, not wear it).
In Uganda a ‘rolex‘ refers to an omelette rolled up with some vegetables in an East African chapati (slightly more doughy and oily than its Indian namesake) – widely available on the streets at most times of the day, reminding me of Indian kati rolls. Its name literally derives from the phrase “rolled eggs” – an ingenious creation that was started by a chapati vendor. Popular with students and businessmen alike, it’s a strong contender for the nation’s favourite snack.
It’s almost a certainty that any Ugandan you meet will grin widely when asked what his or her favourite dish is and respond with one of three answers – rolex, posho (a stiff, bland, maize porridge) or the infamous matooke (steamed, mashed green bananas served with vegetable sauces, peanuts or meat). All fall well below the £5 threshold.
Kabalagala (or Kabs if you’re in the know) is Kampala’s 24hr party suburb. Originally named after the popular local banana pancakes, it has the highest concentration of restaurants, bars and clubs in the city. Clubbing and partying all night were definitely not parameters I was looking at when I booked a guest house but I ended up staying here by complete coincidence while in Kampala. I didn’t venture into any of the bars or clubs, but Cafe Roma and the pizzerias on Muyenge Road were a decent refuge!
St Paul’s Cathedral, Namirembe
The oldest Anglican cathedral in Uganda, over a 100 years old, St Paul’s stands tall on Namirembe Hill. I went inside this red brick cathedral to listen to the organist. Stepping outside, there’s another great viewpoint over Kampala. Standing here you can watch the sun set slowly over the city and see the remaining 7 main hills on which Kampala started from – the Kabaka’s Palace on Mengo Hill and the Old Kampala National Mosque on Kampala Hill are the most visible.
Boda bodas (moto-taxis)
Boda bodas are a core part of Kampala’s fabric. Given the gridlock traffic that plagues the city for most of the day, the boda boda is the fastest way to cross the city and is used by all strata of society. It’s said that your first impression of Kampala is one of boda bodas and dust – that definitely was the case for me. Often waiting by the dozen on any given street corner, boda bodas come with a serious health warning – they are one of the leading causes of injury and accidents in Uganda. The drivers operate according to their own rules, zooming at reckless speeds: safety vests are a passing thought; a helmet if you’re lucky. The complete opposite of the well organised, easily recognisable, law-abiding moto taxis of Rwanda. In an effort to raise levels of road safety, a start-up – Safe Boda – that launched in Nov 2014, is trying to improve things via their app-based service. Their drivers are safety trained, wear helmets and reflective vests, and most importantly are not drunk.
Accommodation: Manhattan Guest House, Namirembe, Kampala
Let’s cut to the chase: Wouldn’t stay here again. Pretty grimy and dingy; all a bit worn down. Hot water and water pressure were non-existent. The towel was damp. To his credit, the manager tried hard to make things right – by trying to fix the hot water (he didn’t succeed), by fixing the internet (half a day later) and by offering to call me a boda-boda when I was stuck. The location is a winner though if you’re serious about the cultural attractions in the city.
Accommodation: Hotel Acacia, Kabalagala, Kampala
Decent place to stay. Good breakfast with solid Ethiopian coffee. I had the ever popular ‘Irish potatoes’ (curried potatoes) on my last day. The restaurant also does food and drink outside breakfast. A single room with an ensuite costed $15/night (they accept only cash). Room and bathroom were clean, but on the last day I either had an overactive imagination or I saw a silver fish crawling on the sheets.
The people at Hotel Acacia were very helpful. They gave me plenty of advice on moving around in Kampala (see below) and kindly organised for me to use the Hotel boda boda driver for the whole day (9am-4pm) to see a few places in the city (costed 30,000 USH or $8.3).
It’s a great location for food and nightlife. But if that’s not your cup of tea and you just want to see the main sights in the city, it’s a 30 min car ride into town in Kampala’s notorious traffic. Best to stay in Namirembe!
Advice on moving about in Kampala as a solo traveller from friends at Hotel Acacia
> Don’t walk about alone at night.
> Try not to take your phone out in public places unless you are safe – it may be snatched.
> Be very vigilant in traffic jams – people have a tendency to snatch, grab and run. Even through car windows.
> Stating the obvious, but daylight hours are much safer that after-dark.
> Use the SafeBoda app if using moto taxis (or boda bodas) – these guys are registered, have reflective vests and safety helmets (or use Uber)
> Be super careful about DSLR cameras – take it out only if you’re sure it’s a safe environment.
> A big backpack attracts unwanted attention because people may think there’s a laptop inside: best avoided.
Mobile: Local SIM cards
Getting a local SIM card was cheap, but packages weren’t as good value as in Rwanda. MTN‘s network was down; I was recommended Airtel as the better, stronger network here. The poor lady at the counter was overwhelmed and the process was slightly more elongated than in Rwanda where things happened with express efficiency. You just need your passport for proof of ID.
- 1GB of data valid for a week costed 10,000 USH (plus 2,000 USH as Internet Tax) - SIM card alone costs 5000 USH - I also added 5,000 USH credit in case I needed to make calls or send local text messages Total = 22,000 USH (~$6)
Transport: Getting from Entebbe Airport to Kampala
As I landed with all my luggage, I was recommended to play it safe and take a taxi to Kampala, rather than trying to find my way via matatu (mini bus) which I was warned is risky in the best of situations, let alone when you’ve first landed in the country tired, disoriented and with all your valuables. The standard airport taxi costed roughly $30. I checked on Uber, which quoted between 65,000-90,000 USH ($18-$25) to Kampala. I mentioned this to a taxi booth and the driver there took me for a flat 80,000 USH ($22).
Safe Haven: Cafe Javas
Yes it is a chain, with many outlets in different parts of the city. But when your tummy is temperamental and you’re feeling a bit fragile, it can be a wonderful refuge. It not only does snacks and coffee but also a selection hot food. Prices are decent for the large portion sizes. Clean, with free (& fast) WiFi. I had the veggie burger, and a platter of masala fries for lunch. Their cappuccinos were a pleasant surprise (based on the ones I had in the branch opposite the Post Office).