Uganda: Kampala in the rain

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Let’s face it, no city is nice in the rain. But this statement is particularly true about Kampala, as I’ve recently had a chance to find out.

I get up at 6 am, mindful that traffic in and around the city can be frantic. The sky is heavy with rain clouds and by the time I leave the breakfast room at my hotel it is raining. No, wait. To say it’s raining is a serious understatement. It is pouring, pissing, weeping with rain so intense that you don’t see drops or strings of water, just a constant wet wall.


It is not a good sign when the driver who was supposed to take me to the city is not there at the agreed time and is not picking up the phone. Feeling slightly doubtful, I find another driver who is not only willing to take me to Kampala, but also manages to convince me that it never rains here for more that one hour. Two hours later, we are standing in a ‘water jam’ in the rain that has only intensified (hard to believe as it it). The streets have turned to rivers and more and more cars are getting stuck and blocking the passage.

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I can barely see anything at all despite the wipers working continuously. There is not much to see anyway, as streets are almost deserted – whoever can stay in, stays in. Those trapped outside are running for shelter under whatever cover they can find, mostly under shop roofs.

It is clear we will never make it on time to the meeting point with my guide who is supposed to take me on a walking tour of Kampala. So I call to let her know I’m running late. She laughs when she finds out I’m actually on my way – she is of course at home.

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Not wanting to give up just yet, I ask the driver if he can show me around the city and I recite from memory a few landmarks I read about in my Lonely Planet.

Our first destination is the National Mosque, a gift of the Libyan dictator Gaddafi to the people of Uganda. The enormous building is locked and the tent marked ‘tourist office’ is zipped up and empty. The security guard suggests the ticket officer may be at the restaurant nearby. He is not there, but someone I find there knows the guy and agrees to call him. After some long wet minutes an elderly man arrives, incredulous that there in fact is a customer willing to brave the rain. He wraps me up tight (a mandatory headscarf and a long scarf to imitate a skirt) and we enter the mosque.

– I will now fetch the guide – says the old man and disappears. While he is gone, I walk around the huge empty space of the mosque. A few minutes later the man comes back announcing that he cannot find the guide and offers to show me around himself. I’m pretty much done, but I agree, not wanting to hurt his feelings. Half an hour later, a very wet young man arrives – the guide. I now repeat the same tour with him. The mosque is nothing special, but I enjoy the view from the minaret, even though I’m soaked wet within seconds and the roaring wind almost pushes the umbrella out of my hands.

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We then drive onto the most prestigious avenue in Kampala, one that connects the Parliament with Mengo Palace, the former residence of the Kings of Buganda. Uganda is in fact a kingdom, although real power is held by the government and the Prime Minister. It turns out that we cannot enter the palace itself. Instead, the palace guide and I are standing outside in the rain and he is telling me the long and convoluted history of the kingdom, including the names and dates of reign of all the past monarchs. The story ends with the most interesting bit: how the palace was captured and turned into a military base by dictator Idi Amin. It has not been occupied by the kings since, even after the liberation of the palace in the 90s.

We then walk across wet and muddy fields next to rundown but clearly inhabited houses towards the torture chambers. Thousands of people were held captive and electrocuted there during the bloody regime of Idi Amin. What remains now is a dark, partly flooded tunnel, on the side of which there are small concrete cells, each of which used to hold so many prisoners they often died of suffocation. The rain only intensifies the grim aura of this place. Using a few wobbly rocks, we get inside to look at the cells, trying to avoid falling into the water, even though this water can no longer hurt us. I can’t see much, but the flash in my camera reveals names inscribed on the walls by prisoners who didn’t want to die anonymous.

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It is at that moment, in the middle of the torture chamber, that I receive a work phone call summoning me back to the hotel.

Oh irony of ironies, the rain has stopped. By some miracle performed by their Chinese constructors, the streets of Kampala have drained and look almost dry. Worst still, the sun is out. In an instant, the city fills with life. Sellers of all kinds of goods, from watermelons to furniture, are shaking water off the plastic covers protecting their ware. Others are busy taking their produce to the market. In a blink of an eye, a massive traffic jam has formed, luckily for the most part in the direction of the city centre, opposing to ours. The driver explains that people stay put in the rain, so now everyone is leaving their home and trying to drive to work. Among the cars, moto taxis are zigzagging gracefully, and pedestrians are cutting their route short dangerously close to moving vehicles.

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Luckily, the traffic is moving, but the impatient motorbikes are still pushing their way in front of cars. When we almost hit one, my driver swears and shows me a terrible fresh scar covering his whole forearm – a memento of a moto taxi accident he had two weeks earlier after a heavy rain.

Next time I’m in Kampala, I will know better than to go out in the rain.

 

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