Kampala Diary – Day 1


3PM I arrive at the airport in Entebbe, Uganda. My cousin has been living with her partner in Kampala, the capital for the last three years. They both work as economists for energy companies that offer rural people low-interest loans to purchase solar panels.

I immediately notice that the air has a different smell and taste and temperature. The horizon is gray and I feel the warmth of the sun through the mist. I sense this odd shift in my self-perception as I morph from an insider in the Netherlands to an outsider in Uganda. I am one of the few white people in the airport. Suddenly I don’t blend in anymore. I try to maneuver casually through space but I feel this post-colonial apologetic modesty somehow. The Ugandan shillings I withdraw to pay for my visa come in bills of 50,000. Soldiers dressed in black, most of them are holding assault rifles in their hands, move among the taxi drivers and airport employees. I try not to stare. My cousin’s chauffeur waits for me in front of the airport – a privilege I have never before experienced.

3.30PM We drive alongside Lake Victoria, chatting while I look out the window, drinking it all in. Uganda is a densely populated country. Groups of people everywhere, sitting on the sides of the road in plastic chairs, under trees, just laughing and talking and looking around. Orange dust covers the roads. I see it all over, in the air, on the car windows, on the giant leaves of the banana plants that grow beside the road we drive along. Thick vegetation blankets the countryside because of the warm tropical climate. I see only two colors: orange and green. Makeshift markets line the sides of the roads, people selling all kinds of stuff, a lot of shoes, bed frames, triple bunk beds, blocky furniture and clothes: extra designs of neon jumpsuits and checkered dresses but also traditional patterns. The architecture we pass is bizarre, the suburbs like villages with compact orange brick houses and half-developed illogical architectural conglomerations replete with roman pillars and asymmetrical balconies. Motion wherever I look.

5PM We get to the house, a private compound with a guard who waves hello and lets us in. My cousin O is excited, still working, little dog, little tropical garden. O and her partner works hard, always on calls, handling the company, their employees, the data. More motion gesturing drama drama. She pays the chauffeur. She’s a bit shocked when I tell her I asked him if he knew where to buy some ganja. Best to ask the locals is my policy, unaware that O & R have a woven basket full of bush kush on the terrace. Perfect. The bush kush comes in huge buds and has a soft high but it makes me cough. They tell me society here is more conservative: don’t show your knees, and don’t make people feel awkward by asking them for drugs. I rest and unpack before we go for dinner. It’s all quite overwhelming.

 7PM Most people travel in cars or taxivans or mopeds, We see three or even four people on a single moped. The traffic is dense and out of control. Sometimes passers by stand in as traffic policemen. Later I learn that the mopeds are called Boda Bodas because they were used to take people over the border. We are going to the fanciest restaurant in town. It offers Belgium cuisine in a grassy courtyard with little stone pathways leading between the tables and the bar. As it turns out Belgium cuisine is little vegetables and delicious steak with pepper sauce. We talk politics, sort of. I participate tentatively, trying to exude knowledge even though my job does not involve much authority or transatlantic business tickets to New York for a meeting, nor do I help large swaths of impoverished people gain access to electricity or rights. I am an artist so I have a special status. I smile at the waiter, trying to make him feel relaxed, not servile. He maintains a poker face.

 9.20PM We go home early due to the curfew. The curfew is not that strict anymore. You can break it and the worst thing that happens is you have to pay the roadblock police manning the roadblocks. They tell me it’s better than last year when driving or leaving your house for anything but groceries was against the rules. Now it’s good, happy people are out and about, there are even secret clubs open. O & R don’t go to them though, too risky. Mmm, secret clubs, I think to myself. I lie under my mosquito net feeling excited about being so far away from everything I know. A mass of insects is being noisy outside my window. I can’t sleep. When I do, I dream intensely and sweetly about crumbling terraces and many-legged beasts eating flowers.