The plush seats of Emirate Airlines have gently deposited me in the heart of Africa, and as a sage once said, “This isn’t Kansas anymore, Toto.” I was welcomed by a three-hour wait in the immigration line, equatorial heat (which is somehow much milder than Frankfurt’s weather, ily climate change), and the kind faces of the temple choir director, Gloria, and her husband, Nelson.
Carolyn, known as “Jjajja” (Luganda for “Grandma”) to the Kampala Baha’i community, swung around in her car to drive us away from the Entebbe Airport to her compound in Kampala. Perhaps seeing the equal levels of awe and distress in my face, Carolyn brought us to Cafe Javas on the drive home, explaining, “This is your last taste of the Western World,” as she ordered two Chicken Supreme Pizzas for the table. I could see all familiarity disappearing with each bite.
On the drive to Kampala, we passed stretches of banana farms, tea plantations, loose cattle and goats, and anarchic traffic. The tarmac road eventually turned to dirt and suddenly we arrived on at Carolyn’s compound. Being the secretary of the Local Spiritual Assembly for the Kampala Baha’i community, Carolyn has generously converted her large Kampala estate into a community center and boarding house. Along with organizing various community events within her home, she hosts three members of the Baha’i community: 1) Shoghi, a diligent high school student and dedicated football fan, 2) Cyrus, a college graduate, now studying for the CPA, and 3) Wes, the kindest elderly man in the world, who loves to sing. I quickly learned that this compound would become my safe haven through my stay in this beautifully chaotic city and thus would become my Home.
I can distinctly remember Jjajja’s first Kampalan complaint: “This city never sleeps, it’s as if the air is always buzzing with sound.”She was not wrong; we live adjacent to a Gayaza Road, which features piercing honks from the perpetual taxi during the day and booming music from the local bars throughout the night. Just when the DJs begin to quiet their stereos, the Salat al-fajr (Muslim call to prayer before sunrise) takes over the soundscape. It is always buzzing, and I am enamored by this (though my sleep schedule occasionally suffers). There is something so raw and alive and persistent about this city that I could have never expected coming from the ever silent streets of Kriftel, Germany.
My host-brothers informed me that the cheapest and fastest mode of transportation in Uganda is a motorcycle taxi service, known as “boda boda” (supposedly coming from their ability to bring a rider from “border” to “border” without required vehicle registry). 3,000-5,000 Ugandan Shillings (about 1 USD) can get you nearly anywhere in the city, but these bikes are not designed for the faint of heart. Without seatbelts or a helmet, a rider will be whipped around, as the driver finds the most efficient way to weave through traffic. Hundreds of bodas will swarm the streets making a trip to the House of Worship or downtown Kampala an exhilarating, yet very dangerous event. A singer in the Baha’i Temple choir that I spoke with commented that Kampala is ruled by “functional anarchy,” which I quickly noted on my first boda experience.
It is nonetheless a great way to witness the local way of life. With my frequent use, I have gotten to know many of the boda drivers in my neighborhood by name and my first steps out of Carolyn’s compounds are often accompanied by a warm “Ki kati Christopher, where can I take you?” from the Katalemwa stage (boda stand).
Along with my risky rides on boda bodas, I have often opted to walk around the close neighborhoods, such as Mpererwe and Komamboga. Being a few kilometers from the Kampala Kamwokya (city center), these areas are less “developed” than some more urbanized neighborhoods, making my walks full of surprises.
I am often the only white person within a vast radius which has been–honestly–a challenging experience. I am often the recipient of stares and calls, children swarm me, screaming “Mzungu” (meaning “wanderer” or “stranger”), and at first I didn’t know how to interpret this attention. Finding myself in the center of the bustling Kalerwe Street Market, I gravitated close to my host-brothers as vender begged me to purchase their artfully stacked produce.
Being white in the Western world, it is easy to forget that you have a “race,” but my short time here has taught me much about this aspect of my existence. I am lucky to be experiencing the racial minority from a place where most people don’t look down on me for my skin tone, as so many people of color experience in America. I am also lucky to be within Kampala’s racial lingua franca of hospitality toward a friendly, white man; an overwhelming majority of locals have greeted me with extreme kindness when I smile or say hello. I have formed fast friendships with Ugandas from the Baha’i community, especially through the commonality of music. The venders in my neighborhood seem to have memorized my order of a rolex (chapati flatbread with an egg) and roasted maize when I pass them for a mid-morning snack.
The past week alone has been packed with challenges and rewards for which I could never have planned, and I think American culture could learn a lot from the way native Ugandans approach people of different colors as family.
My experience thus far in Kampala has been “family.” Every morning, I share tea and breakfast with the house-helpers, Auntie Jane and Teddy, every afternoon, I am packed in the car with my host-brothers to get groceries at the market, and every night I find myself at some Baha’i devotional gathering with my Jjajja and the warm members of the Kampala Baha’i community. This Kampalan buzz is constantly in the air, like a hug… everything here is overwhelmingly alive and somehow living together. I truly am in the heart of Africa.