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24 Things to Know
Before You Go to Kampala

This guide is a joint effort by Grace Natabaalo, a Ugandan journalist based in Kampala, and Jamie Hitchen, a researcher at the Africa Research Institute.

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Fly to Entebbe. If you’re heading to Kampala, look for flights to Entebbe, a town about 30 miles south of Kampala on the shores of Lake Victoria and home to Uganda’s only international airport. Once there, a taxi is the most straightforward way to reach the city, and should cost 90,000 Ugandan shillings (US$25). Even with any shortcuts your driver might know, the journey is likely to take a couple of hours, so sit back and take in your new surroundings. (Remember, the traffic is just as bad going the other way, so leave plenty of time for your return to the airport.) —Jamie

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Get comfortable. Kampalans are fiercely proud of their city. I have lived in Kampala since I was two years old, went to school and university there, and now work there—the most fun, friendly, and affordable capital in East Africa. (We may be biased, but we’re backed up by quality of life surveys, which have named Kampala as the best and most comfortable East African capital to live in.) Sure, traffic in the center is a problem, and the city may not score as highly as other cities on infrastructure, but it’s cheap, friendly, relatively safe, diverse—and it has some serious party chops. —Grace

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Learn some Luganda. English might be the official language, but Luganda is the lingua franca. Ugandans from all over the country who come to live in the capital learn it to fit in and to make a living. You can, too. Here are some phrases to get you started—and get you better bargains and bigger smiles: Oli otya means “how are you?” Respond with gyendi—“I’m fine.” Geybale ko Nyabo (woman) or sebbo (man) is a common greeting, webale is thank you, and when you want to feign shock, surprise, or incredulity, banange will be sure to draw some laughs. —Grace

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…and some Uglish (You-glish): This is a Ugandan English dialect that has crept into everyday speech. Many people who speak Uglish don’t realize other English speakers don’t use the same expressions. There is now a Uglish dictionary, but here are some examples: when someone gives you directions, “slope down” means you should follow a road downhill. If someone says “you are lost” they mean they haven’t seen you in a long time, and if someone asks you to “please extend” they want you to make room for them to sit down. —Grace

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Eat your weight (or more) in green bananas. In 2012, the average Ugandan ate 660 pounds of bananas a year. (That’s 1.8 pounds each day.) Matooke (green bananas) literally translates as “food” in Luganda, and is an integral part of the city’s diet and of Baganda culture. (Other staples like sweet potatoes, “Irish” potatoes, spinach, and meat stews are almost always accompanied by matooke.) Matooke can be served boiled or steamed, whole with offal or beans for breakfast (katogo), mashed, or steamed in its own leaves. Luwombo, a meat stew steamed in—naturally—banana leaves, is a particularly beloved delicacy. Shaka Zulu in the Bugolobi neighborhood is a popular spot for luwombo, or you can have it delivered with the Hello Food app. Katogo is Jamie’s particular matooke vice, but local eateries only serve it in the morning. Look for it at Trudy’s Diner, near Tank Hill, but order the offal version or don’t bother. —Jamie & Grace

Bunches of ripe food. Photo by: Katumba Badru

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Get connected. Uganda’s National IT Authority provides free Wi-Fi in select parts of the city at select times. For example, in bustling Kisimenti, there is Wi-Fi between 6:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. on weekdays, and 3:00 p.m. Saturday to 6:00 a.m. Monday. (Here’s an incomplete list of locations.) Buy a SIM card when you get to Kampala; data is relatively inexpensive and coverage in the city is good. —Grace

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Know before you stay. Uganda’s most luxurious hotel, the Kampala Serena, wasn’t always so desirable. In the 1970s, the Nile Hotel, as it was then called, was where Ugandan leader Idi Amin held and tortured political opponents. Uganda’s post-independence period was characterized by power grabs by strongmen. In 1967, Milton Obote changed the country’s constitution and put himself in charge, only to be deposed in a military coup in 1971 by Idi Amin. Amin’s despotic eight years in power, marked by the persecution of ethnic groups and intense political repression, were devastating for the country. He was ousted in 1979 (with Tanzanian involvement) and Obote returned to power. In 1986, current president Yoweri Museveni’s liberation movement, the National Resistance Army, took control of Kampala after a five year ‘bush war’ and he’s been in charge ever since. After over 60 years of independence, Uganda has yet to see a peaceful transfer of power through the ballot box. This book is a good start for decoding modern Uganda. —Jamie

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Ride safely. The commuter jam in central Kampala brings traffic to a standstill every morning and evening. The best way to beat it is on a boda-boda—the local motorbike-taxi (and newly-minted Oxford English Dictionary entry!)—but prepare for a hair-raising ride, weaving through traffic. Always wear a helmet with a visor. Download the Safe Boda app for access to a network of trained boda drivers who can provide you with a helmet. Make sure to speak to any boda driver before hopping on, and give the bike a once-over. Avoid bikes with missing wing mirrors, and drivers who appear less than sober. —Jamie

Enjoying the ride in Kampala. Photo by: Katumba Badru

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Ask for directions. Most streets have no names, so you have to rely on people giving you directions, especially if you can’t get online. Kampalans will be happy to help, but remember they might tell you to ‘slope up’ or ‘slope down’ (see Uglish, #3). Often, your instructions will involve a jack fruit or mango tree; the city is very green, so trees are common landmarks. Watch people’s lips: sometimes they will point their mouths in the direction in which you need to go. —Grace

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Don’t wear a rolex; eat one. In Kampala, a rolex is a chapati rolled around a two-egg omelette with onion, tomatoes, and cabbage. It’s a popular street food and many stands operate 24/7, making it the perfect late-night snack. (The chapati is a culinary legacy from Uganda’s large South Asian population. Expelled by Idi Amin in the 1970s, many have since returned.) In Wandegeya, near Makerere University, ask around for a ‘titanic’ rolex, which comes with two eggs, two sausages, and vegetables. If you still haven’t had your fill, try the Kikommando (“commando”), inspired by popular characters from American action movies featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. It involves chopped chapati mixed with fried beans. If you’re still hungry after that, there’s no helping you. —Grace

Rolling up a rolex. Photo by: AJ Leon

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Hang out at a kafunda. A kafunda is typically a small roadside bar with one fridge, a small scattering of plastic chairs and tables, and one speaker blaring out Ugandan pop music, reggae, or dancehall. Request the song “Nkwatako” by Sheebah and order a local beer, like a Club—but be sure to tell the waiter that you would like it to be cold, otherwise it will be served at room temperature. Alternatively, Uganda Waragi—a locally produced gin—can be bought in small sachets or quarter- and half-liter bottles, depending on how big a night you have in mind. You can start a conversation with anyone at the kafunda without coming off as strange or creepy. Try it out at Royal Bar on Bukoto-Kisaasi Road. —Grace

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Pig out on pork. This is normally a group affair, so bring all your friends along. My favorite ‘pork joint’ is Rujumbura in Kibuli. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but it has all you need: large screens for sports lovers, plenty of space, and, of course, pork. Order grilled skewers and ask for bigenderako (sides). You can choose from avocado, cassava, grilled matooke or kachumbari (a mix of chilli, chopped tomatoes, and onion). Do not use a fork. Someone will come with a small jerry can with warm water and soap for you to wash your hands once the feast is done. —Grace

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Get everything at Owino Market. If your airline loses all your luggage—and clothes—don’t despair. Owino Market in downtown Kampala is the biggest open market in Uganda. It’s famous for second-hand clothes, shoes, and bags—but you can also get herbs and traditional medicines. Most of the clothing comes from Europe and the United States, so you will find most major brands. Thanks to affordable smart-phone access, many sellers (60 percent of stallholders are women) know the international value of big-ticket labels and will drive a hard bargain. The usual haggling rules apply: if they ask for 40,000 shillings, start at 10,000—and walk away if they insist on a higher price; chances are they’ll call you back. —Grace


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Dress wisely. For the most part, visible signs of tension in Uganda outside election campaigns are limited, but it’s wise to avoid wearing political party colors; light blue for the opposition Forum for Democratic Change, and yellow for the National Resistance Movement, whose leader, Yoweri Museveni, has been in power for 31 years. Museveni may have won five elections (in a recent interview with Al-Jazeera he said he must be a “wonderful dictator”) but the playing field has always been skewed in his favor. If you leave Kampala with the impression he is short of supporters, you may be correct—but the picture elsewhere is somewhat different. Kampala has robust support for the opposition, but, as with most places, it’s a different picture in rural communities. —Jamie

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See the nightlife. Exploring the city is as much about seeing it at night as by day. Kabalagala is a strip of bars, clubs, and restaurants, and a night out here will not end before sunrise. The streets are lined with young men grilling pieces of chicken on charcoal stoves, rolex-makers, and ladies of the night. Congo Vision, Cheri, and Capital pub are some of the most famous bars on the street. (I like Cheri because it has a fantastic view of Kabalagala below.) —Grace

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Speak loudly and carry a small handbag. Most bars restrict the size of bags they allow inside, for security reasons. Bar owners say people use large bags to stash stolen wallets and phones. So keep your tote small, keep a close eye on your phone and wallet, and dance away. —Grace

Fish stands at night. Photo by: Katumba Badru

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Be aware. LGBTQ-friendly, Kampala is not: Uganda’s 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act, which proposed introducing the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality,” may have been annulled by the Constitutional Court on procedural grounds, but same-sex relationships remain illegal in Uganda. Socially, there isn’t widespread support for LGBTQ rights. There is a small, generally underground, LGBTQ community in Kampala, but their efforts to celebrate Pride in 2016 were forcibly shut down by the police. Few speak more passionately about the issue than Frank Mugisha, Uganda’s most prominent gay rights activist. —Jamie

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Pick up the Red Pepper. When the Red Pepper started up 16 years ago, people would slip it between the pages of other newspapers because they didn’t want to be seen reading it in public. Uganda’s tabloid trades in gossip, sex, explicit pictures, personal ads, and some politics. Although its scoops aren’t always true—they have been sued for defamation several times—its readership remains loyal. A recent headline read “City Babe Chokes Men on Boobies”. Intrigued? Pick up a copy. If you want a more conventional take on the news, the Daily Monitor and the Observer offer fairly impartial coverage. The New Vision is the government mouthpiece. —Jamie

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Get high. Kampala, like Rome, was originally built on seven hills, but the city has now sprawled out over more than 20. Many have great views, particularly these three in the west of the city: Lubaga, Namiremebe, and Old Kampala, which also host some important religious landmarks. Rubaga Cathedral on Lubaga is the oldest Roman Catholic diocese in the city; Namiremebe Cathedral was built in 1890; and the Uganda National Mosque (previously named Gaddafi Mosque after former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who funded its construction) can hold 15,000 worshippers. Each is worth the climb, but the panoramic views of the city from the mosque are the best. —Jamie

Kampala from above. Photo by: Gilles Bassière

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See the old Kingdom. Kampala is the seat of the Buganda Kingdom, which dates back to the 14th century. The Kingdoms were abolished in the early post-Independence period, but they were reinstated in 1993. Ronald Edward Frederick Kimera Muwenda Mutebi II is the 36th Kabaka (King) of the Baganda, Kampala’s dominant ethnic group. (The UNESCO-listed Kasubi Tombs, the royal burial grounds, are still being rebuilt after a mysterious fire in 2010, but you can visit the Kabaka’s palace in Mengo, an area in the west of the city.) —Jamie

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Yield for the president. Blaring horns and groups of 4x4s with flashing indicators signal the imminent arrival of a senior political or military figure, and fellow road users must pull over to let them pass. The general rule is, the more vehicles and armed guards, the more senior the figure. People say if the convoy includes an ambulance and a portable toilet, then it’s President Museveni’s motorcade. —Jamie

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Grab a vuvuzela. Kampalans are united in their love for the national soccer team, the Uganda Cranes. After a near four-decade absence from the competition—and some agonizing near-misses—they qualified for the 2017 African Cup of Nations. (The fact that the team didn’t make it past the tournament’s first round didn’t dampen the enthusiasm.) If soccer is your thing, get down to Namboole Stadium to see the team play, and to see the crowd get noisy when they start winning. (Fair warning: there will be vuvuzelas.) Check their international match schedule here. If you’re more of a rugby or cricket fan, head to Lugogo Oval instead. —Jamie

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Go to college. Uganda’s oldest and most prestigious university, Makerere University, was Kampala’s first collegiate institution, and the first in Britain’s East African colonies. Alums include the current president, several prime ministers, and many prominent intellectuals. Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul was a writer-in-residence here in the 1960s; American travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux taught here after he was expelled from Malawi. Sadly, Makerere’s education standards have dropped and professors and students frequently strike. When I was a student there back in the early 2000s, I liked to stroll through the expansive gardens and look at the grand, old architecture of the main building. You should do the same. —Grace

The main building at Makerere. Photo by: Katumba Badru

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Escape Kampala. When someone tells you they are going upcountry, that doesn’t mean north—it just means they’re leaving the capital. Join them. Kampala is a great city, but Uganda has much to offer. Whenever I need a break from the city, a long weekend on Lake Bunyonyi, a crater lake in the southwest, is the perfect way to recharge batteries. Stay at Byoona Amagara, paddle to some of the other islands on a pirogue and eat fresh crayfish from the lake at sunset. Bliss. —Jamie

Jamie Hitchen and Grace Natabaalo
Jamie Hitchen and Grace Natabaalo Jamie Hitchen is a researcher at Africa Research Institute, where he works on informal politics and urban development in Uganda, Sierra Leone, and Ghana. He tweets @jchitchen. Grace Natabaalo is a Ugandan Journalist based in Kampala and one of the most-followed women on Twitter in Uganda @Natabaalo.
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