Clubbing in Kampala



I have been keen to see Kampala’s nightlife for some time. So when my last day in Uganda happened to coincide with Ronald’s birthday, it was inevitable that we would end up in a night club.

After returning from Jinja, we headed to Amnesia. Amnesia is apparently well known for its theme nights, though I couldn’t discern any particular themes when we were there.

On one hand, the club was fairly refreshing. In the UK, nightclubs are rubbish, and everyone knows they are rubbish, but it still costs a small fortune to go to one. It’s a strange economy, and on reflection I have no idea how they survive. By contrast, Amnesia was rubbish, everyone knew it was rubbish, and it was splendidly cheap

The social dynamic in the club was interesting too. In Uganda, the women approach the men, not the other way around. It fits into Uganda’s broader gender roles where the men are frankly pampered while the women do all the hard work. Some of the women can be fairly forthcoming, and apparently they were interested in the only Muzungu in the room (though I was characteristically oblivious to this).

So perhaps they weren’t so forward after all. In any case, they were nowhere near as forward as the women in one Rwandan nightclub I visited in 2012. It was laced with prostitutes, and an accidental stray glance could get you surrounded by hookers. At the back of the club was a small doorway, you turned left for the toilets and right for the brothel

I’m going to be honest; I didn’t actually enjoy Amnesia very much. As soon as I walked into the room, I remembered that I hate nightclubs. To enjoy myself in a club, it really has to be silly enough for me to enjoy it ironically. The problem with Amnesia is that it took itself too seriously. Where was the cheesy 80s pop? The naff themes? The students in fancy dress

The other problem is that Amnesia was exactly the same as so many other nightclubs in the UK. There was nothing unusual, no unique African take on the nightclub concept to spark my interest.

The situation was also hindered by a slightly strange social dynamic. I was with Ronald and his female interest, Patience. Patience was pleasant enough, though at times she seemed to be either pissed off with Ronald or playing it very cool indeed. Though the situation became predictably more awkward when Patience started to play it less cool.

I’m used to socialising with my friends and their partners, so why did it feel so strange this time?

It occurred to me that I was in a group with Patience, but I did not know her and that it was almost impossible for me to get to know her. In a club where the music is far too loud to talk, our only communication was the occasional saliva-laced remark into the other’s ear, neither of us ever quite sure that the other understood what we were saying. I’m not the most relaxed person in a nightclub, and I found this awkward situation strangely inhibiting.

The real problem, of course, is that pre-drinking has not arrived in Uganda. This is the practice where a group meets in a bar or somebody’s house to drink before going to a club. It’s probably not a good idea medically, and Theresa May won’t like what I’m about to say, but socially it is absolutely essential. It is the way you bond as a group before entering a location where audible communication is almost impossible. It means that you are already a coherent group, that you no longer need to get to know each other, before the available forms of communication are narrowed down to shouting, sign language and rhythmic body movement. And I excel at none of these forms of communication.

Admittedly, there are some people where it can be healthy to limit communication in that way. Frankly, it’s probably one reason why clubs are popular; because you don’t have to sustain conversation for hours on end. But even so, I felt bad that I never had the chance to get to know Patience.

Mixed with this was the melancholy of leaving Uganda after spending four months getting to know it and growing so fond of it. Of course I will come back, but who knows when and under what circumstances.

So I sat back as the next piece of bland western hip hop washed over me. “Do you need another Nile Special?” Ronald asked with a broad grin on his face. “Why yes, I rather do.”




The source of the Nile

I left Kabale in the early morning on 8th May, taking the eight hour journey back to Kampala. I travelled on the Post Bus, one of the many buses operating the Kabale-Kampala route, just as I did when I first came to Kabale four months ago. Similarly, Ronald also came with me for the journey.

The reason is that I managed to persuade Ronald to visit Jinja with me. It is Uganda’s second largest town, after the capital Kampala, and lies about two hours east of the capital city.

After a quick lunch in Kampala we headed to the taxi rank. It is a strange thing, and Ronald was perplexed by it, but I have a real fixation on using Ugandan taxis. I’m not talking about any taxis, but the minibus-sized ones that are a feature of every Ugandan town. In Swahili they are known as Matatus, though that term is not widely recognised in Uganda. In Uganda, they are simply called taxis.

Why am I interested in this particular type of taxi? Well one features prominently in the plot of a book by one of my favourite African author’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

These taxis are filled with as many people as possible, and they only leave for their destination one they are full. They can take a long time to get there since they constantly stop to let people on or off. Passengers also run the risk of being stranded when the driver, sometimes without any warning, decides he will go no further.

Ronald managed to swindle me into the front row of the taxi for the journey to Jinja. It had a great view but the fold-down seat did not make for a comfortable journey.

Jinja is probably Uganda’s most industrial town; it is renowned for its sugar industry and for the famous Nile Brewery. The journey incorporates a strange mix of this industrial landscape, large plantations and the deep Mabira Forest, the largest forest in Uganda. Approaching Jinja, the road traverses the famous Owen Falls Dam, one of the main sources of Uganda’s electricity. The crossing affords spectacular views of the Nile as it flows out of Lake Victoria.

The roads in Jinja are quiet. In my experience, uniquely quiet for a Ugandan town. It gives the town a calm, provincial atmosphere; a million years away from the sheer chaos of Kampala. The result is that the town is not in the slightest stressful to walk around; in fact I rather enjoyed our evening walk.

Jinja also stands out because of its sizeable Indian population. Despite the best efforts of Idi Amin, Uganda still has a thriving Indian population. They tend to be business owners and industrialists, and their relative affluence continues to alienate them from the majority black population. In Jinja, these are the Basoga, whom I am told are renowned for the good chapattis and slow intellect.

The main reason, and possibly the only reason, for a tourist to visit Jinja is that it is the site of the Source of the Nile. In 1862, English explorer John Hanning Speke stood on the west bank of the river, overlooking a set of waterfalls which he would declare the source and subsequently name after the Marquess of Ripon, a President of the Royal Geographical Society. It was the culmination of that Victorian obsession with finding the source of the iconic Nile, a symbol of the almost complete lack of knowledge possessed by Europeans about central Africa.

Ugandans are often quick to point out that their ancestors, of course, had already discovered it. But, while they would have known that there was a big body of water there, they could hardly have known that it was the iconic Nile, the longest river in the world, which empties into the Mediterranean Sea. It seems like a slightly cruel snub to deny Speke the recognition for making the link between Lake Victoria and the Nile.

The irony is that we now know Speke was wrong. The Nile has many sources; the most remote of which are currently thought to be a set of springs in Rwanda. In any case, the waterfalls that Speke identified as the source do not even exist anymore; they were flooded when the Owen Falls Dam opened in 1954. Though this has not stopped Jinja’s tourist industry from conveniently identifying a nearby spring, bubbling underneath the river, as the source of the Nile.

The source itself is a strange combination of underdevelopment and commercialism. You can end up paying quite a lot of money, but it’s not clear what you’re paying for. Though, we went on a nice boat ride onto the river and inside Lake Victoria. It was also worth paying just for the look on the guide’s face when we told him he was on the wrong side of the river, since Speke stood on the other bank.

The visit was also good fun because it was Ronald’s birthday. As he would say, it was very nice.

Uganda and its people

Congolese figuresThere’s a book in my living room here called The Peoples and Cultures of Uganda. It’s a school book that I borrowed from Lilian, but it is one of the few resources I know about Ugandan culture and society. It splits the country down into its different peoples and cultural groups, and then explains how each one is distinct and interesting.

At the beginning of the book is a strange little preface written by one of the authors, a professor from Makerere University. It is really a short essay, which starts as an introduction to the book but descends into a polemic against the use of the word ‘tribe’ to describe Uganda’s different peoples. What is the difference between the English and the Bakiga, it asks; yet one is defined as a nation and the other as a tribe. The author rallies against the word which, he says, implies simplistic, small minded and unthinking solidarity. We only ever use the word in a negative context (ie tribal politics), so why are we using it routinely to describe social groups with long and proud histories?

The anger of this article is impressive. While here, I have become a fan of the Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o; whose books are an outraged tirade against colonial oppression, his anger only compounded by the fact that so little seemed to change after independence. I’m so used to colonialism being something that we apologise about, that I have never really reflected on the sheer anger that many Africans felt about being ruled by another country. How dare these people sit in isolated luxury, exploiting poor people in distant countries, and then claim to know what’s best for them? The arrogance is infuriating.

The strength of feeling is less tangible in Uganda, where colonialism ended relatively peacefully and amicably, than, I suspect, in Kenya where British rule was only cast off in the bloodshed of the Mau Mau rebellion.

Yet Britain and Uganda have strangely similar, schizophrenic memories of colonialism. On the one hand, both countries have a strange nostalgia. I have heard many Ugandans say that the decades of war, corruption and chaotic government following independence, the years of Amin, Obote and Joseph Kony, saw the hospitals, schools and economy deteriorate. The result is that Ugandans look back on the colonial era with rose tinted glasses; they often say it was an era when the hospitals were fully stocked and the schools were better run. It is reminiscent of an old Englishman lamenting the decline of the British Empire.

Yet just as strong as this nostalgia is the feeling of deep shame, felt in both countries. As Dr Geoffrey once joked to me; “you know, you people poisoned us.” Admittedly, he was referring to the English Premier League, which obsesses Ugandans even more than English people. But there is a sense of embarrassment at having been ruled by another country. And, as the author of the preface to The Peoples and Cultures of Uganda points out, the belittling language of colonialism has proved stubbornly hard to extinguish.

Ugandans frequently refer to Uganda as a young country in conversations about development. We have only been a country for 50 years, they say, whereas you are old countries. It’s as if having been formally independent for only a short period of time is a valid explanation for the country’s poverty. But what does this mean? People have been living in what we now call Uganda for as long as anyone as lived anywhere. If Scotland votes for independence in September will it instantly revert to a hunter-gatherer society? There is this idea that Uganda is a juvenile country, that it is immature. That it is barely capable of taking responsibility for itself. Whereas, presumably, the industrialised West are the grownups of the family of nations. This inferiority complex sometimes seems so deeply ingrained in the way that Ugandans see their place in the world.

This is why I am interested in Bakiga folk stories. They are an important part of Uganda’s heritage and traditional culture. Yet people so often think they are unimportant, simply because they are native to this part of the world. Whereas Ugandans crowd in to watch Western films and English football. The casual indifference to Uganda’s own heritage could result in its loss forever.

Similar feelings exist in Britain too, and colonial guilt has become almost a national preoccupation. We are used to thinking about the world in the context of our ancestors’ involvement in it. Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, India-Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Sudan; all deeply troubled areas whose problems were partly created, or exacerbated, by Britain. For British people, it’s often easier to apologise and move on than actually reflect on the impact of colonialism. It leads to the bizarre situation where British people are sometimes more enthusiastic about giving up colonial remnants than the ‘colonised’ people, especially with regard to Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands.

The reason that I wanted to write this blog post is because, in my little experience, Uganda’s tragic inferiority complex is entirely unjustified. So many Ugandans have remarkable personal stories. There are so many people who have overcome unthinkable odds to get where they are now. I have met so many apparently normal, decent people who, when you scratch beneath the surface, you find that they were child soldiers, or that they were orphaned in the most terrible circumstances. That they had to regularly evade ambushes, that they smuggled people from political persecution or that they raised a family in the face of gut wrenching poverty. That in addition to themselves, their meagre salary also supports an army of orphaned relatives. That their family was devastated by the HIV/AIDS epdicemic.

Yet Ugandans are talented people. They are frequently multilingual, able to effortlessly glide between Rukiga, Luganda, English, Swahili, Lugbara and Kinyarwandan. They are also extremely entrepreneurial. Ronald in particular has a remarkable ability for turning a bit of money into a bit more money.

I know several Ugandans who were the only child, out of a dozen or more siblings, that went to school. Sometimes, inexplicably, they were chosen by their parents; they only one for whom they could afford a school uniform and books. Why them? They have no idea. Yet they are now educated and relatively well off while the rest of their family scrape by however they can.

Others through sheer hard work were able to scrape together enough money for an education. They collected tiny amounts of money however they could; perhaps collecting jerry cans of water for their village or selling fruit on the streets. The tragedy is that all of the others who could not go to school, all of that potential, was lost.

My point is that, by being born in Uganda, Ugandans have been forced to live testing lives. By comparison, I won the lottery. Yet it’s hard to feel pleased about it when it seems so unjust; why on earth did I have such an easy life? I suppose the answer is to use that privilege to do something about the inequality.

How are you, Muzungu?

Congolese figures

Congolese figures of an African and a European

It’s the phrase that any visitor to East Africa will immediately recognise. Crowds of children, eager to catch a glimpse of an unfamiliar white face, with broad smiles. Each them shouting “Muzungu! How are you, Muzungu?”

It is one of the few English phrases that all Ugandans learn; “how are you? I’m fine.” It roughly equates to its equivalent in Bantu languages, where there is often no distinction between ‘hello’ and ‘how are you’. It leads to the odd occasion where saying ‘hello’ to a Ugandan will solicit a one word response: ‘fine’.

Muzungu itself is an interesting word. It literally translates as ‘white person’. ‘Zungu’ is Rukiga for the colour white, and ‘Mu’ is a prefix which indicates an individual person. But the word has a richer meaning than merely a white person; it is used for virtually any outsider regardless of ethnicity. So black Americans or Brits will be a Muzungu just like I am. Even Ugandans who associate with outsiders can find themselves as Muzungus.

The word also has connotations of wealth and privilege. Not entirely without justification, Ugandans have come to the view that outsiders who visit Uganda are wealthy and well educated. It seems reasonable when you think about the kinds of people who visit; tourists going gorilla tracking, businessmen, academics. Even aid workers, though not exactly well remunerated by UK standards, tend to be drawn from the middle classes. There is a phrase here that if you are lucky, you will be “as rich as a Muzungu.”

The word seems to be ubiquitous across East Africa. When I was worked in Rwanda in 2012, I was a Muzungu too. Although the language of Rwanda (Kinyarwanda) is very different from Rukiga. It is a common word across Bantu languages. It is also an old word, and there is a theory that it is derived from the word for spinning on the spot; meaning an individual who looks dizzy, and thus a reference to the lost-looking Europeans who arrived in Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries.

At first, it seems easy to be offended by this obsession with skin colour. The equivalent back home, greeting somebody as white man or black man, would be unspeakably offensive. Though I came to realise that nobody here means to be rude or derogatory. But in a country where virtually everyone is black, my skin colour is my defining characteristic. And in Bakiga culture, you are referred to by whatever most visibly identifies you. I am referred to as Muzungu in exactly that same way that teachers are referred to by the title ‘teacher’, used in place of a name.

So when I am walking down Kabale’s main road, the Boda Boda drivers all shout “Hey, Muzungu!” at me. If I walk through the taxi rank, the drivers descend on me asking where I want to go. They see me as a cash cow. They will charge me higher than the normal rate for wherever I want to go.

Being one of the only white people in Kabale has forced me to think about my skin colour in a way that I have never done before. Every day I am reminded that I am white, whereas back home I would rarely (if ever) think about it. I might notice that some people’s skin colour is different to mine, but I would rarely then reflect on my own colour, or what it signifies. Whereas in Uganda, I am constantly confronted by what it means to be a white person.

The irony is that, however irritating, the assumptions that go with being a Muzungu are largely flattering. People think that I am rich; and in Bakiga culture that accords respect. People also think that I am well educated; they think I’m going to say something useful when I open my mouth. It’s not nice to have people jumping to conclusions about you on the basis of your skin colour, but I can live with these particular assumptions.

But Ugandans coming to the UK would probably be faced with the opposite set of assumptions. Whereas my situation is annoying, the opposite would be absolutely horrible.

I suppose the whole point of travel is to broaden horizons. I expected to learn about Uganda, though I did not expect to reflect quite so much on myself and my home.


At this time of year, towards the end of the rainy season, the grasshoppers arrive in almost biblical proportions. Our open air eating area seemed to maintain a healthy population of a dozen or so grasshoppers; and they frequently find their way into the apartments.

Helpfully, they are considered a delicacy in Uganda. They are sold in the market for 4,000 Shillings a cup, and the locals go crazy for them. So there’s an easy way to deal with an influx of grasshoppers.

The grasshoppers themselves are not particularly big. When I was told that roasted grasshoppers are eaten in Uganda, I imagined a big grasshopper, several inches long, rotating on a spit. In reality they are just a couple of centimetres long, and when the wings and legs are plucked only a small grub remains.

We picked up some grasshoppers from the market last night, and brought them back for tea. Patricia was making pizza, so the idea was that we could have grasshopper pizza.

I have to admit that I felt a little bit queasy when presented with a bowl of grasshoppers, each of them looking back up at me with their little black eyes. When you bite into them, there is an immediate burst of juicy flavour. It tastes a little bit like a shrimp. By the end I was really enjoying them. The grasshoppers did not last long enough to make it onto a pizza.

There is a bit of a ‘yuck’ factor when it comes to eating insects, but grasshoppers are actually extremely nutritious. They are an excellent source of protein and far cheaper than beef, pork or chicken. When there are millions of people in the world who don’t have enough to eat, it seems like an outrageous luxury to dismiss such an accessible food source.

Indeed, even the UN has urged people to eat insects as a response to world hunger and malnutrition.

Patricia is currently picking grasshoppers from around the apartments, so I think they will be on the menu again tonight.



Some of the children in KIHEFO’s nutrition centre

KIHEFO’s projects have slowly grown to meet new problems as they arise. When they noticed a lot of malnutrition cases at the clinic and outreach camps, KIHEFO opened a dedicated nutrition centre for rehabilitating malnourished children and educating parents. As more cases of malnutrition came to light, KIHEFO started to look at ways that rural communities could better access nutritional food.

This is how KIHEFO’s rabbit project began. The idea came from Dr Geoffrey, the Executive Director of KIHEFO. His parents have kept rabbits for years; they are nutritious, cheap to maintain and they breed like, err, well, rabbits. Families can eat rabbits or sell them into other families to bring in extra money.

So last year KIHEFO kicked off its rabbit programme. Just outside Kabale is a breeding centre where the rabbits are being raised, and then sold onto families. Alphonse, who is leading the project, has been training in rabbit breeding and management, so he will instruct families on how to look after them.

The only initial investment needed to start breeding rabbits is to buy some rabbits and then to construct the hutches. But once that has been done, they are remarkably cheap to maintain. It isn’t even necessary to buy food as rabbits will eat most weeds from the garden.

The main challenge is that, rather like back home, rabbits are not typically eaten in Bakiga culture. There is a bit of work to do to get people used to the idea of eating rabbits, but once it becomes more common to eat rabbits that barrier will start to fall away.

The rabbit project is part of a wider set of KIHEFO’s work to tackle malnutrition. Alphonse is also encouraging farmers to grow mushrooms. Other parts of KIHEFO are providing farmers with seeds to grow a wider range of vegetables. The idea with all of these schemes is that the beneficiaries share a proportion of the proceeds with their communities, so that the projects are self-perpetuating.

On Sunday, I finally had my first taste of rabbit. Back home, we’re used to meat coming in neat packages with an appearance that is entirely unrecognisable from the original animal. So it was unusual to watch my rabbit being slaughtered, de-furred and then gutted all in front of me. Though I’m glad I saw all of that, I think it gave me a new appreciation of my food.

Rabbit itself is really tasty. It is a good white meat with more substance than you would expect from a little fluffy animal.

HIV in Uganda

KIHEFO health camp

KIHEFO health outreach camp

Like much of Sub-Saharan Africa, Uganda has been hit hard by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Here it is a simple fact of life, and most Ugandans that I know have at some stage lost friends and relatives to HIV.

The country has an HIV prevalence rate of 7.2%, according to the UN, but it is ever present. Schools are decorated with small signs carrying anti-HIV/AIDS messages; AIDS kills, AIDS has no cure, avoid bad touches. It is heavily stigmatised; there are separate schools for HIV+ children. Often people do not want to be tested for fear that the result might be positive.

The situation has improved over recent years, and Uganda’s response to HIV /AIDS is considered one of the best in Africa. Anti-Retro Virals (ARVs), which suppress the impact of HIV, are now commonly available though shortages are a problem in government hospitals. But Uganda’s fight against HIV/AIDS has been largely bankrolled by international donors, especially the US Government, which are now retreating from direct support to the Ugandan Government.

The fight against HIV/AIDS has also been hindered by powerful social institutions. The Pentecostal Church embraces the idea of healing through prayer, to the extent that some believers would rather pray than take medicine. The prevalence of HIV in some of these church communities is breathtakingly high, as KIHEFO found at a recent health outreach camp.

One of the impressive parts of KIHEFO’s approach is that it works through church communities. The message is that prayer and medicine are not mutually exclusive; you can do both.

The irony is that people who claim to have been cured of AIDS, might not be as mistaken as it appears. The HIV test is complicated, and when administered correctly it has to go through several phases for a conclusive result. In principle, the test should only be offered in accredited centres but all kinds of places profit by offering the test on the sly. They tend to use only part of the test, so the chance of a misdiagnosis is high.

Recently, a lady came into the KIHEFO clinic who had tested HIV+ a decade ago, and had been taking ARVs since then. But when tested again, it was found that she was not HIV+. I suppose it was good news for her, but when HIV treatment costs $15 per month the cost of a misdiagnosis can be extortionate.

As well as the general stigma around HIV, there is also a stigma around the use of condoms. Young people are often reluctant to ask for condoms, the implication being that they are having sex out of wedlock. This is true to the extent that an elaborate code has emerged, where young Ugandans ask shopkeepers for “the other sweet” rather than say condom aloud. Teachers are allowed to discuss condoms in secondary school, but handing them out is strictly forbidden. Abstinence is the preferred method of prevention and it is encouraged from primary school.

While prevention has to be the focus, there is also a huge strain on the people who are HIV+. They can be ostracised from society and get no extra social support. Though things are changing here, HIV testing now routinely involves an element of counselling. This is especially true when a couple are tested, where there is a possibility that only one is positive. Support groups have also sprung up. These provide a forum for sharing problems and socialising, they also help to spread the costs of treatment and often have a role in identifying potential new cases. These groups are also a source of reliable information when it can be so scarce.

We sometimes think of HIV/AIDS as an old problem; a problem of the last decade. But it is not at all clear that this is true; there have been reports of an increase in the number of new infections in young people and in older, married couples. The problem is as prevalent as ever and has a legacy that will take generations to disappear.