If you want to fully immerse yourself in Kampala life, make sure to book a walking tour with Steven. Born and bred here, he knows Kampala like the back of his hand and will show you a side of the city that few tourists ever see.
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An Introduction to Kampala
Kampala is home to an estimated 3.8 million people, of which a large chunk live in one of the 57 slum areas. Across Uganda, a third of the country still lives under the poverty line of $1.90 a day. It isn’t a pretty city, and it certainly isn’t geared up for tourists, but it’s definitely a great introduction to urban life in much of East Africa and a safe place to explore it.
Kampala is the second most polluted city in Africa and is hugely congested. It doesn’t matter what time of day or night it is, the roads are crammed with crawling matatus (minibus taxis), boda-boda’s (motorbikes), cars, pedestrians, bicycles, street vendors, and trucks. I haven’t quite worked out what the rules of the road are yet, as far as I can tell, a free-for-all all! If there is an inch between passing vehicles, that is deemed enough room to park a bus! Motorbikes think nothing of dodging moving cars, even if it means knocking their knees as they do it.
The side streets are no less chaotic. There may be no cars or trucks, but the narrow red dirt paths are crammed with people selling goods. So long as there is enough space for one person to pass, that is enough! The rest is prime real estate for selling whatever will likely make them money.
The noise of horns, engines, music, chatter, and preachers all blend into one, while the air is filled with dust, car fumes, smoke, and the smell of stagnant water. And that’s before you enter a market where live chickens, fresh veg, smoked fish, and quickly putrefying meat all come together.
What to expect from Steve’s Kampala Walking Tour
Walking through Kampala is certainly an assault on the senses, but one I’d highly recommend! And I highly recommend doing so with Steve, who was friendly, funny and very knowledgeable! So, what will you see on a Kampala Walking tour?
1. University of Makerere
This is where the walking tour starts. A tranquil green campus founded in 1922 by the British rulers after they came under significant scrutiny for not investing any of the taxes they were charging residents into the local economy. Some famous presidents have studied here, including Paul Kagame, who actually grew up in the Kyangweli Refugee Camp we visited earlier that week.
Thirty-five thousand students study here every year. 75% are private students who have to pay in the region of $2,000 a year to cover their fees and accommodation costs.
The average Ugandan wage is $78 per month ($936 per year), which is a huge barrier to further education for a large percentage of the population.
A 1/4 of the students get in on a grant based on good academic results. However, they don’t get the opportunity to choose what career they study. They are mainly filtered into teaching degrees as there is a shortage of teachers in the country. The average salary for a teacher is $550 per month.
To put this into context with the cost of living, Derrick (our driver when we visited Kyangwali Refugee Camp) has a small 2-room apartment (1 room, 1 living room/kitchen). It is on the city’s outskirts as it is more affordable there. He pays $70 a month in rent.
2. Katanga Slums
From the tranquil university, the Kampala walking tour continued down toward the centre of the city, passing through the Katanga Slums. The slum is situated on a flood plain and is home to approximately 20,000 people spread over a 1.5 km area. The dwellings are mainly made up of wood, mud, and brick structures and include some student hostels too. Narrow channels weave between these homes, often beside open sewage filled with stagnant water. However, when the heavy rains come, the sewage overflows onto the pathways and into people’s houses.
Every structure is half home, half business. They had a “house of pain”, which I thought was apt for a gym. When I say gym, please imagine something smaller than a new-build one-car garage, with a mud floor, a wooden bench, and some weights.
I felt awkward walking through the area. Steve’s perspective is that people need to see every side of life in Kampala, which I agree with, but I would rather have gone there with a purpose. Maybe to buy the locally made Wagari spirit, to see the work that one of the local charities do (and hopefully for them get donations from the visitors), or simply to stop at one of the many businesses to buy goods. In fact, I’m kicking myself for not forcing us to stop to buy water, biscuits, lollies, etc.
3. East African Craft Centre
The walk through Katanga offered a shortcut to the more affluent hospital and embassy sector, where the buildings were in complete contrast to what we had just walked through. Big houses hide behind walls and barbed wire, with large tropical gardens and fancy SUVs in the drive away.
The tallest building in East Africa is being built with Chinese investment, soon to house pensions. I wonder what cut of the hard-earned pensions will be used to repay the build?
It’s always shocking to see the contrast in living standards that exist right next to each other. I wonder how many people living in the slum work in these fancy houses as cleaners, cooks, and gardeners?
Our Kampala walking tour eventually brought us to our next stop: the East African Craft Village. Predominantly catering to muzungus, it was quiet, which meant every seller had us as their target. Luckily, they were all friendly and appreciated a light-hearted, joking approach to saying no. It also gave me a chance to practice my Luganda with each of them. I ended up buying some overpriced Ugandan bracelets and a new cloth bag.
By the way, muzungu is what they call white people. Small kids will run up to you chanting muzungu, muzungu, muzungu. Some older people will call you muzungu too, generally in a friendly manner. Muzungu means to roam about, and since the first Europeans that came to East Africa were exploring, they were called muzungus. The name has stuck.
4. Independence Monument
Purchases made, we continued our journey, eventually arriving at the Independence Monument. A woman with her legs and body tightly bound by oppressive ties but with her arms free, lifting a small child above her head, signalling freedom for a new generation.
Uganda was a British protectorate from 1894 to 1962. Sadly, it is now facing a new age of colonialism from the Chinese, with their promises of help and financial support. But in reality, it is just another means to export goods at very low prices for great profit with little benefit to the local economy. Like many former colonial countries, war followed independence as different tribes and ethnic groups fought for power in a territory brought together by their colonial rulers that previously would not have shared the same borders.
5. Nakasero Food Market
It was after the Independence Monument that the real chaos began. The Nakasero Food Market is the largest food market in Kampala. The market employs over 10,000 people across Uganda and the wider East African region.
I love visiting food markets around the world. They offer a real insight into local life, not just in developing countries, but even the local market in Moreton in Marsh is worth a visit! The conditions are a little different though! There was barely enough room for one person to stand between stalls at Nakasero, making it difficult to stop without causing a traffic jam!
The footing was muddy with (actually, I don’t want to think with what). The market is divided by different products: fresh fruit, fresh veg, smoked fish, meat that once was fresh, and then cages filled with live chickens: the only fresh meat you can buy there! You can choose whether you take the chicken alive or whether you want them to kill it there for you (back to my comments about what the mud is made up of!).
The power of learning the local language
Cold eyes watched us walk past, knowing we weren’t there to buy fruit or vegetables. But as soon as I said “gyebale ko, nnyabo” “hello, madam”, faces lit up with bright smiles as they replied with words I did not understand. They shook my hand or fist-bumped me and welcomed me to the market.
But the queue behind me and Doug’s concerns that light fingers might work their way into his backpack meant I had to keep moving without a chance to properly interact or take photos.
Once out of the main maze of stalls, we found someone selling fried grasshoppers, a Ugandan delicacy. Of course, I had to try it. I can’t say I will rush back for more, but it wasn’t bad. Maybe dipped in sweet chilli sauce they might have been better! Or perhaps dipped in chocolate!
6. Shree Sanatan Dharma Manda Hindu Temple
After all that hustle and bustle, we moved on to the serenity of a Hindu Temple. After removing my shoes, I wandered around alone with nothing but the company of a pigeon that insisted on an Instagram photoshoot.
The calmness of the temple was broken by loud music coming from outside. Being my usual silly self, I decided to do a foolish dance move when Steve said, “time to party”. Anybody would think I’m a comedian by the amount he laughed. Not just him though, the solemn-looking guard resting his AK47 on his lap was also cheering on.
I remember the days when I was too embarrassed to be silly. I still am in most circumstances. Yet, if a tiny bit of embarrassment can brighten up someone’s day, it is worth pushing through it!
7. City Centre
We left the relative calmness of the temple and moved toward the centre of town, where bigger buildings and international shopping malls are interspaced with the usual street vendors and the hustle and bustle that is synonymous with Kampala. Heavily armed police officers patrolled the street. We spotted one try and kick a motorbike rider off their bike when he didn’t stop for an elderly woman crossing the road. Not that they stop for anyone!
The number of guns on show by “authority” figures is pretty scary. I can see how things could turn pretty quickly. We passed the president’s convoy earlier that day (although the president wasn’t in the car). The security vehicles involve those with mounted machine guns!
Our journey through the city centre took us to the central matatu hub. Over 500 minibus taxis lined up waiting for their next customers. They are grouped by districts, and they pick up as many passengers as they can possibly fit in. They are licensed for 14 people, but if they can fit 20 in, then they will!
I realise that a taxi rank doesn’t sound that impressive, but believe me, it is a sight to behold! And the most organised chaos I have witnessed here so far!
8. Owino Daily market
Our tour finished at the busiest of the markets: Owino. There are over 50,000 vendors in the market, 70% of which are women. It started in 1971 when 320 vendors were relocated from the Nakasero market. Owino now shares the boundaries with Nakibuvo Stadium. It is estimated that at least 300,000 visitors come to the market every day.
This is also where all second-hand clothes donated from “western” countries are sold. It is basically a HUGE second-hand market. It surrounds a more permanent structure with “traditional” stores. These are non-branded Chinese clothing stores selling bright-coloured dresses that they display on wide-hipped big bum mannequins.
The market surrounds the stadium with a ring road that runs through the middle, and it is the only place I have seen traffic obeying the one-way rule!
There should have been a final stop on the tour, a cathedral, but we’d run out of time, and the cathedral was now closed, so we didn’t get a chance to see it. I am not too disappointed; we saw what we most wanted to see: the cacophony of life in Kampala.
Is this Kampala Walking Tour for you?
Kampala isn’t a city of touristic highlights. There are not many Instagramable spots and only one UNESCO Heritage Site: the Kasubi Tombs, which we didn’t get to visit. However, I absolutely loved the city. But I wouldn’t have had the chance to witness even a fraction of it if it wasn’t for Steve and his Kampala Walking Tour. He allowed us to immerse ourselves in the daily life of locals and experience many different aspects of Kampala. It is one of the best walking tours I have been on worldwide, predominantly because I felt I was being shown around by a friend.
Is this the kind of walking tour you’d enjoy?