I thought I knew Africa. I’ve trekked the Atlas mountains in Morocco and haggled in the souks of Marrakech, I’ve eaten ‘brik’ in Tunisia and I’ve got lost in the enchanting streets of Stone Town, I’ve witnessed a lion kill a wildebeest in the Ngorongoro Crater and I’ve sampled the nightlife of Dar Es Salaam. I’ve spent 2 months teaching in township schools in South Africa during my gap year and just this Christmas, I went back to visit my brother who now lives there.
Although this is my first time in Uganda, I thought I knew what to expect. I’ve seen Last King of Scotland, read about Idi Amin and the atrocities Uganda’s previous leaders inflicted on their people and like the technology-reliant Westerner that I am, I’ve browsed Pinterest to get a sense of what Uganda might be like. But I soon realised, as my driver tore through the ‘jams’ of Kampala past crowded markets and butchers selling meat on the dusty roads, that my preconceptions amounted to very little and I was truly venturing into the unknown.
Uganda, as Ugandans will proudly tell you, is ‘real Africa’. When I tell my new colleagues that I’ve been to Africa before, they raise their eyebrows – ‘that’s not REAL Africa’, they scoff, with a patronising smile. At first, I felt a little insulted. My time teaching in a South African township was an eye-opening experience and certainly felt like real Africa when my 18 year-old self was there – trying to control a class of 40 xhosa-speaking students. But the longer I spend here, the more I’m starting to understand what they mean.
Take Uganda’s ATMs for example. They’re unpredictable at best. They may carry a sign saying Mastercard but this, I’ve learnt, means nothing. It’s luck-of-the-draw and en route from the airport I got my driver to stop at half a dozen ATMs before I found one, which inexplicably complied. I walked away feeling triumphant (my pockets stuffed with 1.5 million Ugandan Shilling!) but also a little perturbed that in a capital city it is THIS hard to get cash out, even armed with both a Visa and Mastercard.
But the ATMs were just my first experience of Uganda’s widespread unreliability. The spontaneous power cuts, unpredictable water supplies and inconsistency of the boda boda men’s driving abilities (not to mention the varying fares you can be expected to pay for these near-death encounters) are all daily occurrences which I’m not quite yet accustomed.
Living in Kampala requires patience, composure and a very good sense of humour. But, as I’m constantly being reminded, this is ‘real Africa’ and if everything was reliable, safe and in good working order, it might take away from what a delight enchanting but chaotic city is to explore. I’m starting to realise, whatever Africa I thought I knew… Uganda has a lot to teach me.