I have been to almost all the East African capital cities. Wait, is anyone keeping track of the number of East African countries? How many are they now? 5, 7? I stopped counting. South Sudan, still in its diapers, chaotic as it is, is the new entrant. Soon, DRC will bring its fat ass and plead to be added. Somalia, together with Eritrea, will wheel their beautiful women (we won’t mind, really) into East Africa’s WhatsApp group.
Anyways, I have been to Bujumbura, Burundi; it’s planted firmly at the navel of Lake Tanganyika. It’s a town that speaks with a lisp, its natives wandering about in yips. I have been to Kigali, Rwanda, with its neat roads and an impressive savoir faire and beautiful women. I have been to Nairobi, Kenya, with its tall buildings and gridlocked traffic. Nairobi looks like God’s pillow. It’s that neighbor who thinks he is doing better than you and is not afraid to rub it in your eyes. I haven’t been to Dar; it hasn’t robbed my heart. I love its sandy (sunny, too) beaches and the photogenic coast and the glowing women and the thick Kiswahili and the food porn and the diverse culture, but I haven’t gotten the liver to go down there (don’t look there, er).
And this brings me to Kampala. Mercer, the other day, ranked Kampala as the best city in East Africa. Daily Nation, a Kenyan newspaper, published the story and I want to think Kenyans gave it a side eye and pouted. Naysayers hit walls in protest and stuck needles in their eyes. Kampalans wetted their loins and swelled in pride. I love Kampala. I love this city. I choose Kampala over the rest of East African cities. This is the boiling pot of everything. The sun rises and sets in this metropolis. It’s the pulse of East Africa. You want it, Kampala has it. Every road leads to where you want to be. Kampala comes with a great resume. I love its panache. Its brevity. Its verve. Yes, it is soiled in its flaws, but has learnt the art of moving on. Owino Market is our Wall Street. Downtown Kampala is the cash cow of this city.
Kampala’s heart pounds like a jackhammer. The sodden heat reminds us that we aren’t far from the Equator. It’s unpredictable here. This minute, the sun burns more fiercely than a funeral pyre, the next, it is cold as twigs in a frost. God blessed New York with technology and skyscrapers and Times Square, but He blessed Kampala with a good weather. Many things will make you fall in love with this city. If New York is the city that never sleeps, Kampala, too, never bats an eyelid; it’s lively as it is insomniac. Our nightlife is as vibrant as Las Vegas without the showgirls and gambling and neon lights. The bars are open 24/7, so as the churches and mosques. Put your ear on the ground and hear the middleclass faking an accent, faking a life, faking an orgasm, but it’s this middleclass that dresses Kampala in its nice outfit. The leafy neighborhoods of Kololo and Muyenga and Naguru and Bugolobi remind us that much as the western world views us as a poor country, people have big bank accounts, big cars, big houses and big egos.
When it rains, Kampala floods with good luck and hope. The slummy outskirts of Bwaise, Katanga, Katwe, Kamwokya, et al, remind us that even the brightest of roses have thorns. It’s the National Theatre where the arts dress up and dances salsa. The street is the jungle where the weak is devoured, but on these streets, heaving with commerce, you will get anything you want. A brand new iPhone 8 (yes, someone will try to sell it to you). Vendors are selling wisdom in dog-eared books. They are selling shoes that will take you anywhere. They are selling you medication that will cure self-hatred and a migraine. They are selling a concoction that will raise your hopes and libido. The traffic is claustrophobic, but we love it because this is where we get to gather, all of us, as Kampalans, in the quest of grandeur.
Everyone is chasing a dream, or someone in Kampala. Businesses are starting up in one corner of the city and crumbling at the other corner as well, but we remain hopeful because as the next day comes, it will carry itself with an opportunity. If your pockets are deep, have a meal in our upscale restaurants, but if you can’t afford that expensive meal, walk across the streets and get a rolex. It’s hot. It’s tasty. Swallow it when it’s hot. Let it burn your hands. Kampala is no longer a city of 7 hills, the number has increased over time. Turn the nose of your car and drive to Ntinda and Kisaasi and Naalya and Kiwatule. This is where the middleclass sit and play chess in the pursuit of validation. Get into a taxi and listen to the witty dialogue between touts and drivers that is funnier than Trevor Noah. Jump on a Boda Boda and be reminded that the Fear Factor Show was scripted, that the real Fear Factor is snaking through the speeding cars as though conducted by a rich kid in Lubowa on his PlayStation.
Kampala doesn’t need a filter; its beauty is raw and natural. It doesn’t need sparkling nail varnish, or a lipstick to seduce you. It’s Dubai without the Burj Khalifa. It’s Cape Town without the Table Mountain. Kampala is London without the cockney accent and the London Eye. It’s Egypt without the pyramids. It’s Paris without the Eiffel Tower. It’s the ninth wonder of the world. This is Monte Carlo of East Africa. Yes, we have potholes, but our hearts are not hollow. Our roads are dusty, but we dust our shoulders and walk to our dreams. Our leaders are corrupt, but they haven’t robbed our smiles and abilities. Kampala is Leonardo DiCaprio with an Oscar in hand. It’s happiness. We have the poor and the rich, but we take in the same air in our lungs. Kampala is a city that never slips, it never falls.