Happy Valentine's Day

Posted February 15, 2007 in Uganda

I came to Uganda alone, and so for Valentine's day I did not have dinner with a special someone. Instead, I met up with my Canadian friends Chris and Chelsea (and their Ugandan friend Grace, a guy almost our age) and we got drunk. The night was nothing extraordinary by Ugandan standards; but it makes a good opportunity for me to talk about the city lifestyle.

By day, Kampala is fairly quiet. Traffic is daunting, and beyond that the streets are peppered with various people sauntering from one place to another (people saunter here; walking takes too much energy, I suppose), matatus (more on that soon), and stalls selling cell phone airtime or water or various other useful/useless things.

Transit through Kampala comes in three varieties:

  1. First, what we know as taxis are known here as specials: special-hires. The prices are wildly negotiable; in general, a non-gullible mzungu (or group of mzungus) can get a ten-minute drive for about 6000Ush, or USD$4. (A mzungu is a white person: like me!)
  2. Next, there are the matatus. These are big vans which hold 14 passengers, a driver, and an assistant. A matatu will lie in wait at a busy street corner until full, at which point it will drive to its destination (with a few stops along the way for passengers to disembark). To find the right matatu, one can simply start yelling out a destination: various drivers will point the passenger to the correct mutatu. (This makes taxi parks, with their 30 or so mutatus, fantastic fun.) The cost from downtown Kampala to Mulago hospital is 600Ush, or USD$0.50.
  3. Finally, there are the boda-bodas. These are motorcycles with seats on the back for one passenger. Passengers are not given helmets. Traffic laws being what they are (are there any?), the drivers do quite a bit of weaving, squeezing between cars, hugging the curb, etc. Best of all, women are expected to sit with both legs on the same side. This form of transit is the cheapest option, at something like 150Ush. I have not gathered up the nerve to ride one, but I might use one at some point for a short distance, just to say I've done it.

Last night, around 8pm, Chris and Chelsea (who have been here longer than I have, and are showing me the ropes) and Grace (who has been here longer than the three of us, obviously) took me on my first matatu ride. Cheap, efficient... I like it! We went to downtown Kampala, asked around about a place to get some beer, and found a great bar with an upstairs patio. We all got Nile beer. A round cost 10000Ush (under USD$7): the price of a single beer back home! Better yet, Ugandan beer bottles are pint-sized. Three of those and I was a pretty happy person.

By the time we left it was around 10:30pm. There are tons of people downtown at night; it was fun just to be there. We went to a bakery and got some snacks, and then we went to the taxi park (my first visit to the matatu park!). From there, I started yelling out Mulago until I was ushered into a van. The people in the matatu were helpful, telling me where we were, when to get off, etc. Unfortunately, the matatu went to the wrong side of Mulago hill. But the driver and assistant were very nice, and they dropped me off a stone's throw away from the hospital on their way back to town. Thus ends my first solo (and inebriated) matatu ride.

The people in this city are very nice and very helpful. The night life is great. And the city feels very safe. I obviously wouldn't take any unnecessary risks, but walking tipsily down some streets at night felt absolutely fine.

Thus ends a very happy Valentine's day.