On a scorching Friday afternoon while running an errand in downtown Kampala, I witnessed a dramatic scene as two roadside vendors fought for space in front of an electronics shop on Market Street.
An old woman, seemingly in her late 50s, selling an assortment of second-class fruits and sukuma wiki (collard greens), had occupied a space slightly smaller than the base of sink since morning. On the side, a young man had grown impatient at the ‘selfish, inconsiderate’ woman. He wanted her to leave the space so that he could lay his stuff, including plastic bottles cups and containers, for the evening lot of shoppers.
The bitter exchange of swear words ended in oranges, tangerines and beetroot rolling down the street, through stagnant water and in between people’s legs after the man kicked the older woman’s box of merchandise in sheer fury.
Meanwhile, he had rested his stuff on a boot of a parked saloon car blaring announcements for dental medication. With almost the same measure of anger, the old woman responded by spreading the man’s merchandise on the busy road.
Like the fruits, the bottles and cups rolled down the street and the moving taxis did the inevitable—breaking some.
It was the intervention of the shop operator who threatened to chase them away that brought the two street vendors back to their senses. Ironically, while passers-by looked perturbed, other vendors were unmoved. This is because here ‘fighting for space is a common occurrence.’ But one thing was evident: downtown Kampala, more than ever before, had become a goldmine for illegal roadside vendors just when no one is threatening to run down at them.
You have to be extra alert as you maze through the narrow, yet congested lanes of downtown Kampala. Otherwise, you can be bruised by a careless boda-boda rider, knocked down by a taxi, or find your feet breaking someone’s tomatoes either on a pavement or in the middle of the road.
Almost, all of Kampala’s streets and roads are packed with these opportunistic hustlers. But it gets worse on the plot near the Mini Price junction where Ben Kiwanuka dissects Luwum Street. Here, vendors dealing mostly in second-hand clothes and shoes, occupy more than half of the road, leaving very little space for pedestrians and vehicles mostly taxis and boda-bodas.
The deafening staccato rap meant to attract potential customers passing by, collides with the louder noise from the speakers on the upper floors on the neighbouring Park Enkadde Mall, trying to lure them to vacate the streets and hire affordable space on the mall.
Kikuubo is another impassable area as vendors and buyers compete for the little space between the shops on either side. It is the common occurrence on every street downtown. Towards sundown, some vendors are so audacious they even bring charcoal stoves on the streets of Nabugabo, Namirembe Road, William Street, Wilson Road, Bombo Road, to warm the food, mostly pilau, katogo as they target customers.
At Kafumbe Mukasa Road bordering Owino Market, vendors say KCCA only allows them do business on the verandas after 3pm. But at midday, verandas and half of the narrow road is occupied. All you see is a legion of boda-boda riders and heaps of fruits, bananas, yams, potatoes, sugarcane and vegetables, among others.
No vacating the goldmine
Hussein Ssekalegga sells apples in the Old Taxi Park. He mounts a box of green and maroon apples on a tall stool. He sprinkles his fruits with ice-cold water in a polythene bag to keep them fresh. He is happy about how business is going. When I bought three apples, I asked him how it is like working without being bothered by “those KCCA guys”.
“I have never seen them since this year began; I wish we could stay like this for some more months; business makes sense nowadays,” he says with a smile.
He has sold from different places: near Nakivubo Stadium, the New Taxi Park, Kikuubo, but the Old Park is the best because of fewer competitors and more buyers.
“What will you do when they return to hunt you down?” I asked him.
“Man, don’t even talk about those mean guys…well I know now that elections are done, they are going to come back with all the rage. But we won’t go, we have to survive our own way,” he says.
According to Ssekalega, he has a stall at Usafi Market.
“But for the few weeks I tried to work there, I realised I was simply fooling myself…there’s no business,” he adds.
Marvin Barigye who sells music and movie DVDs and CDs on the veranda of Mutaasa Kafeero Plaza says he has a problem with pedestrians who sometimes walk over his merchandise.
“They piss me off…they break my stuff. I feel like fighting them but I can’t. I don’t want to go back to prison any soon,” he said.
He is trying to pick up his pieces. Last year, he was jailed at Luzira Prison for three months for assaulting a woman who broke his “expensive” DVD player. The woman had just alighted from a taxi, she slipped and landed right into Barigye’s stuff.
“I beat her to pulp, I had just bought the gadget and by the time I realised I had over reacted, KCCA guys had arrested me and taken me to Central Police Station,” he adds.
When I reminded him he was doing business at the wrong place, he retorted that he knew better.
“But where do you want me to go? How shall I pay my daughter’s school fees? Unless I get huge capital to rent space in a shop, I must forge life here. Come what may,” he said.
Both sides of Dastur Street harbour a creeping line of vendors, as if an extension of the crowded Nakasero Market. Vendors litter the terraces with all sorts of vegetable business, a stark mismatch with the stock in the shops which deal mostly in home appliances and garments.
Along Burton Street, that stretches up to where Mapeera House overlooks Pioneer Mall, you find passers-by and car drivers stopping to buy peeled sugarcane from the many vendors hawking them on wooden wheelbarrows. That is how easy shopping in Kampala has become.