Thursday July 31 2014

We must document the rich oral history of our great city

By Karoli Ssemogerere

It’s Friday morning. The city is eerily silent. I am sharing my morning commute with my parents whose history in the city started in the 1950s. My mother lived in Kampala at the time when electricity in homes was becoming a reality in what is today Makerere Kivulu. Kampala Park stretched from Grand Imperial to Shimoni Demonstration School. By the time I pick them from their residence, I already have nearly 10km on the tyres. Commutes in urban life have become longer.

Greater Kampala now stretches nearly 20km in most directions and in the case of Entebbe, the entire stretch of the road is now a nearly unbroken suburb whose stories of blight, prosperity and deprivation all intermingle up to Entebbe. The number one commuter in the country, the President, sometimes cross-commutes from Kampala to Entebbe in the morning and on other days, he reverse-commutes from State House to Kampala. On the map, it is easy to see why the pleasures of what should be seamless transition from Kampala’s green neighbourhoods are part eye-sore and part constant headache for motorists and the boda boda nation.

Greater Kampala used to be circled by wetlands; the Nakivubo River was an important drainage feature as is the River Mayanja drainage system. Kampala is not alone in this regard. Washington DC’s growth for years was inhibited by the fact that it was located in a wetland doubling the expense of construction. Washington DC building convention still limits the number of stories – a stark contrast from Manhattan anchored on ancient rock.

As we drove from Rubaga to important business at Uganda Coffee Development Authority’s Quality Centre, we debated the driver’s point of approach to Kampala East. My parents still drive so they are familiar with the major traffic bottlenecks. I realised they continuously were taking advantage of new road developments while I, the more conservative driver, still stuck to a more traditional routes that spanned hamlets from my childhood: Namirembe, Nakulabye, Makerere Hill and Wandegeya.

They favoured a riskier but shorter approach that took advantage of recently paved roads in lower Namirembe, Bukesa Road and east of Old Kampala. Sometimes, if I feel like it, I will drive past the Law Development Centre. It reminds me of a small nursery school I attended around 1980 and my first accommodations as a graduate law student at LDC sharing Spartan lodgings with two roommates who became top flight lawyers – Sim Katende and Ezekiel Tuma now in Kuwait.

That hill also reminds me of another classmate with whom we shared a table in kindergarten who literally never left the one square mile around his home until he graduated from Law School. His mother was a physician at Makerere University Hospital. He lived in staff housing, attended Buganda Road Primary School, Makerere College and Makerere University before going to London to read Law at the London School of Economics. He always had a reliable municipal view of things that at its extreme, regarded Masaka as a foreign country!

As we had shared a cup of coffee in Kisementi, memories returned again of this part of town that was dominated by a large children’s park now overwhelmed with concrete structures and a gas station. The old KCC flats were first-rate. A close friend of my family, a teacher called Auntie Tereza, lived here. She was paralysed from waist down. She made memorable treats literally mixing the dough from her wheelchair and laying cookies.

I work one street away from one of my childhood friend’s home, one of the few left in yet another transformation of Kampala. When and where will the city’s godfathers meet to offer an official tour of Kampala city? Our 150 years oral history is going to waste!

Mr Ssemogerere is an Attorney-at-Law and an Advocate.