“Would you like warm or cold milk with your coffee?” The waiter replies politely. “Umm… cold is fine, thanks” I answer, surprised. My wife and our new friend whom we met a few days ago went to do some shopping at a farmers’ market nearby while I sat to think about the extreme differences between the two Kampalas that I’ve been getting to know in the week since we came here.
“Kampala Below” is the one I notice everyday as I travel around the city neighborhoods and interact with the day to day life. It’s a strange kind of non-tourism. You wander around the city and try to absorb the foreign ways and peculiar traditions. Talking about its poverty would be obvious, probably even pretentious, to choose the easy way out. It’s a city, made up of millions of different lives corresponding with one another in a somewhat repetitive fashion. To me, each day it becomes more evident how different it is than anything that I’ve known before.
True, the poverty is very evident to those that are not used to it, but it isn’t the main characteristic, it’s just the one more easily noticed. I still don’t know what it’s about exactly, I probably won’t be able to say what it is even at the end of my time here. But I do know that it has something to do with the kids running around and playing with make shift toys while their older siblings go to school with their fancy uniforms. It also has to do with the young couple walking down the street and going to eat at a local restaurant. It definitely has to do with the hectic drivers that insist on cutting you off but then smile broadly in an apologetic fashion, and the random people on the street insisting on fist bumping you while you walk down the road.
“Kampala Above”, on the other hand, is a parallel universe, a simultaneous activity of disconnected and ultra-connected people at the same time. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s characterized by shrewd business men in fancy cars, bored housewives going from coffee shop to coffee shop and NGO employees changing the world one conversation at a time while sipping on their cappuccinos. But it seems that something deeper is evident here as well, and just as it would be easy to say “poor” for the other Kampala, this one is not just about money either.
It’s about honest people, who grew up here and are trying to improve the city from within. It has a lot to do with a vibrant night life that exhibits itself past dark in pubs and concerts around town. It might also have a lot to do with a huge expatriate community from an incredibly eclectic rainbow of origins that lives, works and is Kampala.
The two Kampalas aren’t alike at all, but they coexist in some sort of strange status-quo that enables a golf course to reside next to a slum, and a consulate opposite of an unofficial marketplace. There are small interactions between them in taxis and on Boda-Bodas (motorcycle taxis), in the local bars and in the different market places around town.
But the co-existence isn’t close to being perfect. Kampala prides itself in being the safest city in Africa and the most welcoming for westerners, but that’s not enough to make it any easier when you hear people recommending not to walk around at night, or the numerous stories about robberies. Nor does it make it any easier to see open sewage lines or an overwhelming amount of beggars in the streets. The neighborhoods are very clearly divided – these are okay, and these are not. These are slums, and these are not. These are below, and these are above.
The Kampala below and the Kampala above may be close to each other physically, but they are light years apart from each other practically. When I think about the proximity between the two, I can’t shake the familiar feeling I get of imaginary lines dividing a unified city into several parts, of a thin line signifying where you can and can’t go, of another place that’s both above and below, but in a completely different way.