To be honest, I didn’t know much about Uganda.
Aside from the movies, the stories and Idi Amin’s apparent habit of enjoying human flesh, I expected a softer version of Kenya’s chapati-eating belief system, Addis’ remains of African diversity and Nairobi’s traffic.
One thing is certain, Kampala slapped me with a truth I wasn’t ready to admit about myself.
A Strang(er) Kind Of Co-Existence
The blatant difference between Kampala and my home city, Maputo, is that areas aren’t as clearly demarcated according to the type of people who live in them. That is, while spaces in Maputo are, in principle, made for the public use of all, one finds that people always thread with caution. While you can be seen to walk the pave way of a street, to sit and eat in a restaurant is a different story.
In Kampala, there is an interesting, almost purposeful, mix of social realities co-existing without conflict — or without an apparent conflict. This is what I cannot seem to accurately deconstruct.
It seemed so intentional, that stepping in Kampala as a foreign African, I found it unsettling to see that here, people co-exist, no matter the spaces, but through the functions these spaces serve. Such functions, whether eating, working or passing through, serve all inhabitants of the city.
Perceived Safe Spaces: Race, Class or What?
Sitting there, in a normal, bustling evening in Kampala, I couldn’t tell whether this was downtown or not.
I simply couldn’t tell! (the exclamation indicates the frustration) In my mind, and in my lived experiences, if a space is crowded and displays an elevated presence of (black) Africans, I situate myself, hold on to my bag and walk with my head up high for this is downtown after all.
My earlier assumption caused a certain discomfort in me. Could it be that, for the simple presence of a certain kind of people (black Africans), I feel uneasy and unsafe? Is it safe to conclude, I thought to myself, that a space occupied by those I perceive to be rich (whites) gives me a greater sense of safety?
Well, yes, I frankly concluded.
It is how most of our cities were (and are still) architectured. The way the space looks dictates who gets to live there, or at least who, apparently, is deemed more ‘fit’ to sustain the kind of the lifestyle the space demands. Often times I’ve heard people complain about pollution, which occurs in some areas more than others, and blame it on its inhabitants simply because “they live like this“.
Whether poetic or not, I faced the realization that I, too, have been perpetuating, even if subconsciously, the belief that the “downtown” is a crowded, dirty space full of theft and suspicious corners, because of those who transact in it – often the poorest in the social hierarchy.
Blurred Lines In The Periphery, Theorizing the City
The plot twist is that everyone gets to sit with each other. Whether or not said area is labeled ‘downtown’, it is a corridor, a way through which the entire cities’ inhabitants have to pass through.
It is still a challenge for me to tell who is who, what kinds of social classes exist and how these interact with each other, if they are, at least superficially, sharing the same spaces for similar functions.
Perhaps thanks to the city’s natural geographic landscape, or perhaps to under-publicized social policies, I’ve noted that there is a genuine interaction that stems out of Kampala’s urban ambiguity.
Whenever asked about this, people reassured me that “every type of person can live anywhere”. The extent to which this is verifiable is something else. Still, my short trip to Kampala made for a good impression, and left me with eyes far wider than the usual.
It made me come back to Maputo, observe our social politics and re-evaluate the way in which we exist together, or pretend to do so.
- For the City Yet to Come: Remaking Urban Life in Africa, Abdou Maliq Simone, 2003
- The Construction of Poverty and Homelessness in US Cities, Susser, 1993