Getting Settled In Kampala, Uganda
On Sunday morning I collected my bus ticket (£10) from the Kigali terminal and took an aisle seat near the front for an 8am departure.
As I’ve documented previously, Rwanda is hilly, and so as we headed up the country there were many windy bits for the bus to sway from side to side. It was weirdly satisfying to see everyone’s legs swing left and right in sync as we negotiated some particularly sharp corners.
On the recommendation of my (now ex-)housemate Marcus I was reading the eBook version of the Talk To Strangers blog. I’d not heard of it before but in short, a guy writes a blog for a couple of years about his encounters (mainly positive) striking up conversation with strangers. It’s really good.
Anyway, after working my way through the first few months of the story we were off the bus and at the border and I wouldn’t have been able to look myself in the mirror if I didn’t at least exchange some small talk with the stranger I’d been sitting next to for an hour and a half.
Ange, it turns out, is finishing her Masters in International Development in Kampala and has been back in Kigali for a couple of months seeing family for the long holiday.
We continued chatting on and off for the rest of the journey while exchanging snacks.
I’ve been told by several people that Kampala is a party town, though that might just be in contrast to Rwanda’s relatively prudish reputation in the region.
Intentional or otherwise, the featured entertainment on the bus reflected this transition.
The journey began with earnest Gospel Rock and lots of swinging arms playing on the TV all the way until we reached the border.
In Uganda the tunes became less preachy, but still softly melodic as we headed east across the country.
And upon approaching the capital we had descended to men with gold chains sharing cocktails with scantily dressed females with glossy hair and wiggly hips.
Laying foot on the city for the first time I noted everyone was fully clothed and, with the help of Ange, found a taxi to take me to my Guesthouse nearby.
Despite Rwanda joining the Commonwealth in 2009 their currency is still the Franc, and it definitely has a pretty Euro feel.
Not in any high level foreign exchange way, but literally how they sit in your hand.
This only occurred to me as I received change from a pack of plantain chips and realised the Ugandan coins felt familiar to the sterling that has occupied my wallet for most of my life.
You see Uganda was a British colony and retains the Shilling as its unit of currency so it’s kind of the same.
Other Britishisms that have occurred to me so far include:
- car drivers sit on the right (just as I’d adjusted to getting in on the wrong side)
- plugs: we’re back to three pins.
- people use “cheers” as a synonym for “thanks”
- the place where you go for a drink is called a “pub”
My aim for the first couple of days was to find somewhere semi-permanent to stay during my time in the city.
This involved a couple of prerequisite steps such as getting cash and a SIM card.
Withdrawing money was pretty straightforward. I’ve been using one of these Revolut cards, and in Uganda it’s essentially like using a local debit card (no fees or conversion rate commission). It also gives you an update on your phone via the app to let you know each time you do a transaction. All very futuristic/ will seem commonplace in a few years.
Getting a SIM card just involved sitting down with a guy at a phone shop for 30 minutes whilst I registered with the local network (MTN) and then topped up for a data package.
For accommodation I checked out a room that was advertised on the Expats in Kampala Facebook group. I spoke with a German girl called Sabrina over Facebook and then coordinated with her partner Faizel over WhatsApp to get directions to the place.
It was a short motorbike journey across town (here it is called a “boda”, I’m sure I’ll explain more in a future post) and then I walked up to see the house.
After looking around, and over the contract, it all seemed legit so I agreed to send over the rent and we went for lunch.
I was surprised that the mother and daughter at our table were so open about their love lives.
We took our seat and Sylvia (mother, maybe late 30s but looked good for her age) launched into telling us how guys were coming up to Chloe (daughter, I’d guess 18) and hitting on her.
Chloe was fairly nonchalant. As in “if you’re going to give me these genes Mum, wadda you expect guys to do?”
Sylvia basically said she was jealous (people thought they were sisters), and then told Chloe that now she’s got a boyfriend she should quickly move onto another as “your eyes have now been opened”.
As unusual as I found this lunchtime small talk, I should note that Sylvia and Chloe weren’t complete strangers, but Faizel’s “sister” and “niece”. If they’re telling Uncle Faizel, that makes it less weird, right?
The reason I’ve put those in quotation marks is that 4 of the 5 people Faizel has introduced me to so far have apparently been family members, and I get the impression that here, family is a relatively loose term that can be earned through prolonged periods of friendship.
Anyway, it was “Mama’s” restaurant we were in and after she brought out a selection of local dishes we returned the cutlery and went straight in with our hands.
As I found when in India, I was operating on about a 70% efficiency relative to my companions, but was still able to give back a clean plate and a “webale nyo” (thank you) by the end of the meal.
At 10am the next morning I was leaving my Guesthouse to take a taxi over to my new digs, and get acquainted with the neighbourhood (Kigowa).
The room I was to be staying in was getting furnished and so I was in a spare one for the evening. I spent the day sorting some life admin, and setting up a few meetings with the various people/businesses I’ve been introduced to in the city.
In the evening, the house were hosting a party, and so after returning from a run, another housemate and I nipped out to collect supplies and get things ready.
The girls were (mostly) fully clothed, but there were definitely gold chains and wiggly hips.
A good group of people arrived throughout the night and I got to meet a lot of the friendship group that were based here. Faizel is a music producer, and so a lot of his friends are artists, creatives or worse… dancers.
When it comes to cutting shapes I already feel at a disadvantage to Average Joes I’ve met here. There appears to be some gene that allows you to just “be cool” on a dancefloor which they have, and I just don’t.
And so as the night wore on, people started loosening up a bit, and a space was cleared to let those who wanted to physically express themselves to the music get on and show us their moves.
Now, I might have been inclined to give a little two step until I discovered that these people literally get paid to be good at dancing. Unsatisfied with their innate competency, they’ve gone and undertaken years of training to get even better at this craft.
The disparity in quality would’ve made it look like an Old Lady Tea Dance.
And nope, I wasn’t keen on playing the role of dazed pensioner and so instead was just fine chatting along to one of the local artists.
I should note though that the dancers were all dead friendly. Maybe I’ll get lessons.
On Wednesday my room was ready meaning I could begin to fully unpack, and therefore satisfy myself with concluding this introductory blog post about getting settled.
So far, Uganda’s been a blast.