The slum dogs’ life in bwaise

What is it like to live in the belly of Bwaise? How do the people cope with the poverty, floods and poor sanitation? Our reporter spent a week living there. He got a one-roomed house at Shs60,000 in the area adjacent to Kimombasa and tells his story.

Monday April 8 2013


By Ian Ortega

I had never been in Bwaise for a night. So while getting out of my bed before 6am and boarding a taxi at the Naalya Northern Bypass stage to Bwaise sounded daunting, there was an element of excitement in being able to see the area where the adage “water is life” does not apply.

It was at my new abode for the next seven days where I came across a group of marijuana smokers, leaning by the rugged walls of this one-roomed house with rusty corrugated iron sheets. Being the good neighbour I was, I decided to make myself known to them, introducing myself as a student doing research work for Daily Monitor. With suspicious looks, they finally opened up to me, and after a few greetings, the friendship was cemented.

Just as everything seemed to be progressing well, one of them noticed my African craft sandals with leather straps. When he asked to have a look, I stood there frozen thinking I was being robbed in broad-day light. He talked of how he could make better sandals and then, when he returned them, my still motionless body came back to life. They beckoned me to follow them to their living quarters.

The four red-eyed youths were actually my neighbours. I was offered a seat, and they went on to orient me in the ways about life in Bwaise, refuting some of the allegations I had. Allegations, that everyone smoking marijuana is a criminal, murderers and fore-runners of kabadiya implementers. Akabadiya is a strangulation method where a robber flicks his arm by your throat as his partner goes ahead to empty your pockets of all your belongings. They told about their youth projects that are cash-strapped of start-up capital.

Kimombasa—where sex is sold 24-7
Ziiwa, one of my new friends took me on a tour of Kimombasa. First, we began off with the section of emaciated sex workers. They used and still use all the vulgar words at their disposal and not even the presence of their children deters them. These emaciated ones, I understand, make up the faction of HIV positive sex workers. Devoid of hope, they offer sex at any amount, at any hour with or without protection. Some of their teenage children have already been initiated into the practice.

At night, I was taken on a tour of the older prostitutes. These ones offer their services in a “professional” way. Most are between 35-40 years, some with wrinkled faces. Unlike their younger counterparts, these ones don’t rob their clients. They offer longer hours for shorter pay and aim at the client’s satisfaction.

Kimombasa is also home to Uganda’s remaining juke boxes. These are found in make-shift mud houses that act as lodges during the day, bars in the evening and rental sleeping facilities in the night. It is here that I find, Master Blaster, once famous for his lewd song – Emboko. He is said to have ran crazy due to over indulgence in drugs. He is a shadow of his former self.

Night tour of Bwaise slums
Just below the Northern Bypass in Zone 2 of Bwaise, lies the most feared slum at night. But it also floods the most to the extent that most of the houses here have been abandoned. I am still with Ziiwa and he talks of how it pays to befriend these vampires of the night – the gangs that ply by Bugalaabi – a place called “Mu Buganda e Bwaise.” They are all busy masticating away on mairungi leaves, while others are smoking marijuana.

After touring, I retreat to my one-roomed house. Lying on my mattress on the floor, I can’t believe I am in Bwaise. I keep thinking about the mayumba kumi robbers who break into houses in the wee hours of the morning. Surprisingly, since it is already 11pm, sleep quickly takes over and when I next wake up, it is to the sounds of crowing cockerels and the humming of the early morning birds.

The only time Bwaise wakes up late is Sunday. At 6am, I am already up. I do a quick survey of my belongings, check my phone, and check my mattress (yes who knows I may have been overpowered by virtue of being a passive smoker to marijuana). I pick up my rags, get my water bottle and wash my face. It is a mineral water bottle because I have no basin, no jerry can and I don’t contemplate using the bathroom anytime soon.

In Bwaise, the churches are not so enthusiastic about the Sunday. Perhaps because we are in Kawempe, most residents here are Muslim and others are “atheists” of sorts. But after the sunlight begins to hover around the area, Bwaise gets in motion with the same vigour that makes its mornings. Bwaise is home to grid-locked traffic jams. Though I don’t want to convince myself that I hate Bwaise I hate the living conditions. It is a triad of nerve-wrecking poverty, dirty and dusty streets and open air drug abuse. It is home to soggy corridors, fly infested lavatories and the trenches are blocked with litter, and flying toilets.

I am hoping I will not need the toilet but there is nothing I can do when nature calls. I am not looking forward to this experience. As I anticipate the place is filthy, stinking and wet. There are latrines - hole in the ground type, and look like they have not been cleaned for years. I hold my breath and proceed to use it as painlessly as possible.

For the rest of my stay, I resolve to use the pay-as-you use toilet service in Bwaise. I had already used it to take my baths. At least, they are cleaned first thing in the morning, so programming my nature calls for the morning worked just better. It costs nothing to part with Shs300 for the call of nature and another Shs500 for a shower. I head to the bibanda (mini video halls), watch a few movies before winding off at Eden Pub to watch some soccer matches. But even Eden Pub is home to prostitutes in disguise. You can identify them by making eye contact; they will approach you, smile clownishly or roll their eyes daring you to make a move. In fact, all over Bwaise, there are prostitutes termed as “tour ladies”.

Monday is a busy day. Men, some in patched attires, women in their ragged blouses and dresses all walk through the narrow corridors. Some head to the market, some to the city centre. The boda boda cyclists are already at the workplace. I prepare myself to keep rejecting their request to offer me transport. By now, I have realised, the best rejection for them is to turn a deaf ear.

By the dirty lanes which are termed Ku Bala in Bwaise, people are packed in tightly like spectators. I squeeze my way through, sometimes being missed by sacks of matooke being offloaded from the lorries. Backs are straight, trousers and sleeves rolled up, exposing mottled yet able limbs. The slumdogs crash discarded wrappers of quick-fry breakfasts under their feet, corn and oil dripping from mouths. Banana, maize skins and cobs are ground to dust by thousands of feet. Most of the homes here are buried half way into the ground where many awake in the morning as they go scavenging for opportunities that present themselves in the day.

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