A Sensory Tour of Kampala

June 26th 2015

My small number of regular readers may have noticed that I’ve taken a brief hiatus from blog-writing. It’s not because I have nothing to say; on the contrary, for the past week or so my head has been spinning with fragmented concepts and half formed ideas. As a result I have a growing number of partially written blog posts cluttering up my computer desktop. But I can’t seem to organize them into coherent ideas the way I could when I first arrived. I think it’s partly because now what I have to write about is more than initial impressions, since after six weeks here I’m beginning to understand the underlying factors that affect the reality of Uganda. And these factors are as complicated as they are fascinating. So naturally I’m feeling a bit daunted by the idea of putting my thoughts and realizations on paper. When I’m feeling brave I will delve into these topics, but for now – to break up my writer’s block – I’m going to stick to simpler ideas.

A few weeks ago, during a crackly phone conversation with my dad, he suggested that I write using my senses. What does Kampala look like? What sounds do we hear regularly? At the time I dismissed the idea, but thinking about it now I realize that the sights and smells we now take for granted are drastically different than the ones in Canada and other parts of the world. Every day here is a sensual overload. So without further ado – and to my dad’s satisfaction – here is a sensory trip through Kampala:

Sound. Unlike in Canada – where noise complaints are the fear of every socially-inclined university student – Kampala is truly the city that never sleeps (sorry Seattle). From 4 or 5am until well after midnight our neighbourhood is alive with a wide range of noises. For example, as I sit on the balcony writing this I can hear the nearby church playing generic pop songs in an incomprehensible language. There are birds squawking in the trees, a rooster crowing somewhere down the road, and men chatting downstairs in the courtyard.

Our building is particularly bad for noise. Like the Killam Library at Dalhousie, the center of the building is empty and open to the sky, with the stacks – or in this case apartments – taking up the outside. Kind of like a concrete donut. I have yet to discover the benefits of this design, but its biggest flaw is that you can hear everything going on in the building. And I mean everything. The baby on the 10th floor, the Chinese missionary church on the 10th, and something that sounds like a giant photocopier continuously churning out new pages. Children are constantly stomping up and down the stairs, shrieking as they race their friends. Their nightly games of basketball and soccer are the soundtrack to our dinners.

Most of the time this cacophony of sounds is mildly annoying. But at 4am when music starts blaring in the parking lots it’s positively infuriating. Do people have no respect for others and the fact that they might actually be sleeping? That they have to go to work in few short hours? Jeremy, Shelby and I frequently get up in the morning to recount tales of our sleepless nights listening to a chorus of dogs serenading the city. But no one else here seems to mind. The constant noise is just part of life in Kampala. And as Jeremy pointed out, the sounds are usually an affirmation of community. The children, churches, babies and conversations are signs that people are interacting and enjoying each other’s company. While in Canada we live well in communities by respecting each other’s space, here people do so by filling it.

Smell. Kampala has many smells, but the most constant one is the smell of smoke. Or more specifically it’s the smell of burning garbage. Here in Uganda, like most other African countries, it is a common practice to burn garbage in small outdoor fires throughout the day and night. I don’t quite understand the logic of this, but it means that Kampala is always engulfed in a thin layer of smoke, like the kitchen after you leave something cooking for too long (queue the fire alarm). But contrary to what you might think, the smell isn’t repulsive, but rather fairly neutral and even comforting. I can imagine that if I return to Uganda at some point in my life the smell will trigger memories of “that one time I lived in Uganda the summer after graduation”.

Taste. Kampala tastes like rolex. If you don’t know what rolex is, you’re missing out. It’s one of the most popular street foods here and throughout East Africa. By around 6pm it’s common to see vendors framing the streets, armed with dough and hot cooking plates. Essentially rolex is a chapatti (i.e. a fried tortilla-like disc) filled with a thin omelet featuring cabbage and tomato. The vendor will mix the eggs in his one cup, flip the omelet with a knife, and wrap the finished product in a bag made out of newspaper. It’s very economical, and the result is delicious! A rolex gives late night poutine a run for its money.

I could go on and on about rolex, but Kampala has other tastes too. It also tastes like a Nile Special beer: cool and light and refreshing. It tastes like the heaping plates of peas and rice that are delivered for lunch at work every day for the cheap price of 3000 shillings (just over a dollar). It tastes like the mango, banana, pineapple, passionfruit smoothies that Shelby graciously makes us for breakfast each morning (thanks Shelby!). It tastes like the chocolate muffins that we buy several times a week from the neighbourhood supermarket. And it tastes like the gelato from Acacia Mall that we get as a ‘special treat’ (i.e. two of three times a week). If you haven’t guessed yet, we really like our treats.

Kampala feels like many different things. It feels like the pain in your hand after it has been clenched around the back of a boda boda. It feels like the sweat on your neck on a particularly hot day. It feels like the small keys on my $30 phone as I try to beat my high score in snake (Must. Beat. Jeremy’s.Score.). It feels like the weight of mounds of dusty clothes as you search for gems at the Friday market. It feels like the itchiness of a collared shirt after a day-long meeting in the Hotel Africana, where we spend at least one day a week. It feels like my gritty yoga mat when Shelby and I do one of our P90X3 workouts (Tony Horton: “one more biiiiiggg gorgeous breathe!” Me: “God this guy is annoying”, Shelby: “D’you think we could still follow along if we muted it?”).

Sight. Kampala looks like a series of lush rolling hills speckled with terra cotta roofed houses. It looks like the intricately braided and ever-changing hairstyles of the local women. It looks like the oversized and slightly dirty uniforms of children as they swarm the streets after school. It looks like the large bumper stickers on the white and blue mini-taxis that clog the streets, saying things like “Trust in the Lord”, and “Use soap and sunscreen” (no joke, I saw that one on my way home yesterday). Kampala looks like the US Aid public service posters, warning against unsafe sex and urging people who are sick to get checked for TB. Kampala looks like my computer screen as I sit for eight hours a day researching and writing, researching and writing. And it looks like the inside of my mosquito net as I fall asleep at night.


2 thoughts on “A Sensory Tour of Kampala

  1. Thanks Rachel for the post. It is nice to get out of Jeremy’s head once in a while :). I could not have guessed about the smoke in the air. Now, who can tell me which direction your balcony faces? I just got to know (Jeremy seems unsure).


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