There are a few things you need to know about Kampala.
Ugandan traffic (at least in Kampala), is Canadian rush hour on steroids with no rules (if there are any, nobody seems to follow them). It is absolute chaos, in every sense of the word, with bad roads, daring bodaboda drivers, deep potholes that resemble dark crevices of doom and leisurely pedestrians weaving in and out of oncoming vehicles. Amidst the already bustling disarray, someone left out street signs. Lovely.
Caitlin, my roommate for the next week until she heads six hours north for her placement in Arua, says she could write an entire post alone on the traffic here.
I could write a book.
Yesterday, my boss at Madrasa, Shafique, brought us around the city in a standard four-by-four truck. I feel the need to re-emphasize the gridlock traffic and that this is a city built on seven hills. We met his lovely family and were able to see a large portion of the city. From the safety of the truck, we entered the town center, which in the moment, and even now, felt rather indescribable, but I’ll do my best.
There are people everywhere: selling shoes, clothing, electronics, anything and everything you could possibly need or want. Men with towers of boxes balanced effortlessly on their head breezed through the packed crowd as others weaved in and out of vehicles and merchant areas. To an outsider’s eye, it was pandemonium, to them there seemed to be a fluid understanding in all of the movement.
Shafique warned us to avoid this area, as the densely populated streets allowed us to be easy targets. There was a silent understanding between Caitlin and I that, from the comfort of a locked vehicle, this was fascinating, but to be on those streets, dodging both everyday citizens and maintaining our safety seemed a task far outside our abilities.
Today, however, Caitlin and I were left to our own devices and thought walking in Kampala would be the best way to a) get money and b) familiarize ourselves with the city on foot. We ventured out.
It’s hard to explain the trepidation you feel when walking in a new, unfamiliar city that doesn’t seem to have any formal system for marking roads or businesses. And while your certain safety checks (police station, info booth, signage), are amiss, there is a certain beauty to the chaos, a type of freedom that doesn’t exist within the constraints of the North American lifestyle. People are everywhere, driving on the right and wrong side of the road, bodabodas (small scooter like taxi services) make the street their own and when there is no sliver of space to squeeze through, the sidewalk seems fair game as well. Markets selling meats, fruits and bread line the side of the road in clusters, small booths selling airtime, prepaid electricity and phone chargers set up shop in between markets and on road corners, while local entrepreneurs sell whatever they can in the little space left. Other then the paved street (sometimes), the sides of the road are a red-brown dirt that reminds me of baseball pitches, the kind that stains anything it comes into contact with.
There is an enormous mosque at the top of the hill near Mengo (the area we are living), which we decided would be our landmark for the journey. Not entirely helpful considering we never really knew where in context to the Mosque we needed to be, but I digress, there was a comfort in its familiarity.
We took a few long cuts (mostly to avoid the ‘belly of the beast’ as Caitlin called it) and a few wrong turns, only to very often feel like we were in the same place we had left off. We weren’t lost, we just weren’t entirely sure where our destination (a Barclays ATM) was.
(I feel the need to interrupt this post to say Britney Spears’s “Oops I did it again” is playing on full blast at an event across the street)
After some near death road crossings, a few locals asking if we loved them (Caitlin did), and a few moments of undoubted confusion, we stood at the edge of the crux. No more then 500 metres in front of us was the city’s most tumultuous area.
We saw it, we felt triumphant in our (mostly Caitlin’s) ability to find it, and yet, we turned around. We did not conquer.
I truly want to experience every aspect of this city, to immerse myself in everything it has to offer in my eight month’s here. I want to feel as though, when people visit me, I can show them around with confidence, and yet, staring at that vast, swarming crowd below, attempting to weave our way through when we were already an hour’s walk away from home, with night and rainfall threatening (okay, it was four o’clock and sunny, but still), we turned around.
Everyone keeps telling me to go with my gut. So we did. (Happy mom and dad?) And next time, maybe after making a friend or buying a map (questionable), we will conquer, find what we need, explore and feel confident in our ability to do so.
Until then, there is a very friendly restaurant two blocks away that sells chips and ketchup.
“You’ll need coffee shops and sunsets and road trips. Airplanes and passports and new songs and old songs, but people more than anything else. You will need other people and you will need to be that other person to someone else, a living, breathing screaming invitation to believe better things.”
(typed hastily on my iPhone during the never-ending flight from Toronto to Addis Ababa)
It has been quite the journey up until this point, and I expect quite the journey lies ahead. After a rigorous application process, a stream of interviews, telephone calls and e-mails, and a month of uninterrupted 9-5 training from a handful of the development field’s best experts and professionals, I am finally headed to Kampala, Uganda for an eight month Aga Khan Foundation fellowship with the Madrasa Resource Centre.
It felt surreal this morning, and partially still does, as I sit in the same plane, in the same seat for the eleventh consecutive hour. There was a brief tease from the pilot, who announced a stop in Rome for refuelling, however enjoying Italy was quite difficult via a small, oval window from the aisle seat.
In my usual style, today began with chaos: panicked exits, dragging a suitcase large enough to fit a body (and heavy enough to have one in it) down two sets of stairs, lost family members and rushed check-ins. Only to discover, of course, that my bag was not only 10 kilos overweight, it was 10 kilos over the allowed weight for Air Canada luggage. My dad muttered something about the safety of union workers being unable to lift my bag, which was now open on the floor of the priority line check-in counter. Socks, clothes and the miniature pharmacy courtesy of my parents spewed out of the bag as I distressingly attempted to relieve my overstuffed bag of ten kilos worth of things. Everything seemed like a necessity, even my excessive stock of peanut butter and Nutella. Tears of panic and stress streamed down my face as I threw anything and everything out of my bag, at this point willing to toss the entire thing if it meant ending the rather public meltdown and getting through security.
At this moment, the check-in clerk informed me that she needed the address of my final destination in order to process my ticket. Lovely. I whipped out my laptop, cursing the free airport Wifi as my parents continued to unpack my bag.
My dad, a military man, with his quick thinking and problem solving skills had a new suitcase within minutes and was paying for three checked bags, promising all of my things would arrive safely in Entebbe.
I had, and am continuing to have, visions of myself arriving at the airport attempting to balance a school bag, a 60L travel pack, the aforementioned suitcase of a small village and this new bag, all whilst being introduced to an entirely new and unfamiliar setting. Great.
(I did, in fact, survive. I took up the equivalent space of a small train and looked like an idiot, but I managed.)
The initial check-in ordeal had thrown off my composed confidence that I was undoubtedly ready for this experience, assuring everyone who knew me that yes I would be careful, and safe, and home, and that eight months would fly by. And after careful consideration (while also assuring multiple concerned passengers and airport personnel that no, this was not my first time flying and yes, I was alright), I realized that my early morning start and related meltdown weren’t about excessive things because, after all, things are replaceable and honestly, almost irrelevant. The circumstances and my respective reaction are actually representative of the reality of this journey.
I have no idea what I’m doing.
And as I stared, wide-eyed, at the check-in clerk, I realized that all of the training in the world could not prepare me for the unexpected. The truth is, I have no idea what to expect (I still don’t. I imagine this will be #trending for most of the eight months I’m here). I have mastered a particular spin of the terms of reference and information I have received to dictate to curious friends, family members and strangers, but I’m still not all that sure and the doubt I felt in that particular moment coupled with what already felt like a mistake, not even ten feet into the entrance of the Ottawa airport, I was paralyzed with the idea of failure.
It wasn’t until sitting on this plane, in the same seat for what is now approaching twelve hours, where I have exhausted all possible distractions that I have come to terms with the rush of emotions I had felt earlier today.
Today was a day full of goodbyes, ones I had and hadn’t anticipated. There were family goodbyes, see-you-soons to friends and loved ones, but I also said goodbye to my home, my familiarity and any established routine I had made, and in September, I will also grasp the fact that I will not fall into the regular routine that is school and education and will instead, for the first time, be pursuing what I truly want to do without the confines of my usual comforts.
What I need to remember – and what I will push myself to recall during both the best and worst of times over the next eight months – is that this is the opportunity of a lifetime, one I am incredibly lucky to have. And if I am to hold any expectations, it is that while I may succeed, fail, or both (I would bet on the latter), I will put all of my effort, heart and mind to keep trying, and loving, the work I will be doing.