Uganda, the Pearl of Africa, is a country with a fantastic natural scenery and a rich mosaic of tribes and cultures.
Traveling through Uganda you will be captivated by its beauty, overwhelmed by the friendliness of its people and intrigued by all that Uganda has to offer. Ecologically, Uganda is where the East African savannah meets the West African jungle. The Pearl of Africa is the home of chimpanzees, hippos, crocodiles and the majestic mountain gorilla. But that is not the only thing that Uganda has to offer. For instance, the capital city, Kampala, is a thriving metropolis where modernity meets culture, writes Tibebeselassie Tigabu.
Mall Revolution
Sitting in one of the “classy restaurants”, Cafesserie, the gentle breeze of Kampala’s evenings gives a refreshing feeling, far from the blistering February sun. A slow groove of music in the background is Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” The verse, Only love can conquer hate/You know we have got to find a way, seems to rhyme with the mood of the place.
Sipping wine with a variety of spaghetti and home-baked bread with hummus dip, many are enjoying their time. For a moment you forget that you are in Kampala; the place is full of foreigners or what the locals call “Muzungus”. It seems many of the upperclass establishments in Kampala are filled with foreigners. Is it a coincidence, or a systematic segregation of class? Looking at this, the topic of discussion between a Kenyan writer, an Ethiopian PhD student in Makerere University and myself was about class and privilege. We talked about how everything is political and tried to look at how James Baldwin, the famous African- American writer, would describe this place.
Located in Acacia Mall, one of the biggest and sophisticated malls in Kampala, many compliment the restaurant for the exquisite food. Acacia Mall, which is stretched on a 35,000 sq m. plot of land, has multiplex shops and restaurants.
Back in 1909, Sir Winston Churchill called Uganda the “Pearl of Africa”. The East African nation has stunning green valleys and is the source of the White Nile. Now the capital city of the “Pearl of Africa” is going through a tremendous “Mall Revolution.” Malls are everywhere and that seems to be the new lifestyle of Kampalans. Like most urban centers, it is common to see people with earphones hanging out at the malls. The mall revolution has also attracted multinationals like South Africa’s ShopRite. Some people take pride in the existence of these shopping malls in their neighborhood, taking a sense of ownership. The culture of consumerism is growing highly.
It is very difficult to keep up with the names of the malls; small and large, a mall next to another mall, is seemingly flooding the city. Apart from shops and cinemas, the fast food restaurant chain Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) has made its way to Kampala, which has become quite popular among the youth. And for a population that consumes chicken almost on a daily basis the presence of KFC will most likely be welcomed by locals. However, there are others who resent the arrival of the multinationals.
“I see it as an insidious and sophisticated form of colonialism that is potentially even more devastating than anything we have ever known,” one Ugandan writer said.
I have seen that Ugandans are very humble, warm and welcoming. The city is vibrant with cars, the boda bodas (local name for motorbikes) are swarming the streets and avenues.
Personal and for business:
One thing that left me pondering is the fact that almost all emerging middle class Kampalans have two mobile phones. “This one is the money maker while the other one is for personal use,” they say. They use different service providers for their phones like MTN, Airtel Uganda and Orange Telecom. Airtel is preferred for phone services and Orange is preferred for internet data. It is refreshing to see that the younger generation are busy working hard in order to afford housing in addition to other necessities like buying a car.
One thing that does not go side by side with the mushrooming of malls is road construction. And because of that traffic jams are terrible. At times the whole city seems to be in complete lock-down and it might take more than two hours to reach the center of town.
City of immigrants:
The new Kampala is the city of immigrants and many Eritreans, Ethiopians, and Somalis have chosen it as their final destination. Many of them hang out in the neighborhood of Kabalagala. Eritreans and Ethiopians would stare at you if they notice that you have their ” habesha” features. Then they would smile wave their hands.
Ethiopians have settled there and call it their home. They eat rice injera and listen to Muluken Melesse’s song; a typical scene in an Ethiopian village.
They are also interested in what goes on back home; especially on the political front. And at times the rage is strong. For instance, many Ethiopians who live in Uganda follow the case of Tesfalem Waldyes – one of the imprisoned journalists in the Zone 9 case – who used to live in Kampala a few years ago.
One interesting thing in Kampala is that in many Ethiopian restaurants, including Dukem, the chefs are Congolese or Rwandese. Congo, the war-ravaged country, has many of its people dispersed everywhere– Kampala being one of their destinations. They are known for settling for cheap labor. What is most interesting about them is how they mastered making injera, especially injera made with rice. Co-owner of Dukem, Emalem Yetimgeta, says that many of them are also good at making doro wot though they find making shiro wot difficult
She does not hide the fact that some Ethiopians and Eritreans despise the idea of having “foreign” cooks. She says that they even dare to go inside the kitchen and demand an Ethiopian (Habesha) chef. Emalem finds their entitlement hilarious.
Still the stereotyping of Ugandans is part of the conversation when Ethiopians are around, the conclusion being that Ethiopians are different as a people. Ethiopians seem to be obsessed in being unique. They describe Ethiopia as one people and a homogenous culture to differentiate themselves from Ugandans.
Within this conversation, hair is also greatly discussed. The weave culture has invaded many African cities. Both Ethiopians and Ugandans admire what they describe as “good hair” and are obsessed with long and straight hair.
Apart from hair, Ugandans also converse about religion. After asking where one is from, they ask if they are Christian. It is common to hear churches with loud speakers in every corner, preaching about “Christian life”. Poster advertisements about Christianity are eye-catching. There are radio shows and TV channels dedicated to improve one’s Christian life. There are those who refer to the Bible in every conversation.
As for TV, the celebrity culture in Uganda is amusing. There seems to be no privacy. Sex scandals and private affairs are public in a ridiculing way. Mary Luswata, one of the hosts on an urban TV show called Scoop, is merciless when humiliating celebrities. The TV show host says that some people tried to assassinate her, though I do not know if she was exaggerating or not. Even with an understanding about how show business works, I felt that she goes to the extreme. Coming from a culture where private affairs are left to the owners, it was shocking to see sex videos being leaked. But it’s not only Scoop. A popular tabloid newspaper Red Pepper is also renowned for putting out sex pictures on the front page. A UN employee who was caught red-handed having sex in a car was a major commotion a week ago. They are explicit and graphic. Ugandans adore their musicians and it is ironic that they’d watch their private lives get torn to pieces and play with their pain.
Nightlife:
Forgetting the hustle and bustle of the day, night life is impressive. One of the popular spots is Legend. Located adjacent to a rugby field, it seems there is no other place to hang out on Fridays and Saturdays. Enjoying the outdoors, many move with the rhythms of the dancehall. Beer being a big part of Ugandan culture, brands like Nile Special and Club, are consumed in large amounts.
On Fridays, DUI (Driving Under the Influence of alcohol) is strictly punishable. So many are seen holding a bottle of water and when one asks why, they say they are driving. Police officials who control this fine the perpetrators hundreds of thousands of shillings
What is interesting about Kampala are the cafés. They have their own character. One of the cafés located in Garden City, named Sound Cup, is one of them. Decorated with pictures of Ugandan musicians in black and white, this is where all the artists meet. Apart from their mochas, frappuccinos and smoothies, it provides books, music and free internet.
On weekends Kampalans leave the chaotic city and travel to Entebbe or go bungee jumping at the source of the White Nile. The feeling of the sand in your toes, the music, and the water gives one a refreshing feeling. The beach is filled with men and women who practice swimming, boys playing football inside the water, people dancing and eating calmly on the beach.

News Reporter