Soweto slum: Living on the edge of Kampala city

Sunday July 8 2018

The sight: Some of the houses that are said to

The sight: Some of the houses that are said to be safe from floods in Soweto, a neighbourhood of Muyenga. PHOTO BY HENRY LUBEGA. 


Women in multicoloured clothes sit a few metres apart. In front of them are huge saucepans with thick domes of transparent polythene sheets to provide space for more contents than what the saucepan can contain. In the vicinity are young boys not more than 15 years old selling an assortment of liquor sachets. On the opposite side are men sitting on benches, each with a white one-litre plastic bottle of Chibuku (a local brew). Time check is 8.37am!
Welcome to Soweto slum, Kampala’s biggest slum in Makindye Division. Soweto is divided into seven zones: Industrial Area View, Go-Down, Kasanvu, Namuwongo B, Namuwongo A, Masengere and Yoka. But for many, the area is simply known as Namuwongo.
Less than 10 metres from the railway line to Port Bell is a labyrinth of structures of mud and wattle, unbaked bricks and in some cases well-structured houses. Most of them a block of single rooms. These structures are sandwiched between the railway line and the channel that takes Kampala’s sewerage to Lake Victoria. The channel border line torments the residents of Soweto not just with the stench during the dry season but also with floods whenever it rains.
Like many slums, the houses there are not planned and access is through a maze of footpaths between buildings less than a metre apart. Some of the paths also double as trenches and dumping areas. Unfortunately they are also a children’s play area.

Despite its seemingly sorry state, to some it is a big improvement from what it was back then. Coach Vialli Bainomugisha has been a resident of Namuwongo since 1990 when he was still a student at Kibuli Secondary School and is now a landlord with a number of rentals. “Some years back this place was associated with all sorts of bad things, from thugs to drugs and all sorts of criminality. We were not comfortable being associated with the place for fear of being branded criminals. But now all that is history,” says Bainomugisha.
However despite the “improved” conditions of living it is hard to imagine what it was back then. Garbage is almost everywhere. Water marks higher than the window level are visible on the walls, telling the story of past floods.
“Our biggest challenge is hygiene and disposal of garbage. The Shs3,000 charged per month for garbage collection is too much for most people. Flooding is seasonal but a big problem and it spoils property. After the rains, all the storm water in Kampala is collected into the channel (stagnant), that is when it gets into people’s houses,” Bainomugisha explains.

Haven for all
Being a landlord, Bainomugisha says because of the cheap housing, the area accommodates a big number of Kampala’s low earners. “Most residents are casual labourers in Industrial Area, security guards, and women who sell fruits in the city traffic jam. We also have people who formerly had well-paying jobs but lost them. They come here find a room and start planning their life afresh.”
A small room not close to the channel without electricity connection goes for Shs70, 000 a month, while one close to the channel calls for negotiations which determines the rent one pays, but will not go below Shs35,000 a month.

Being a slum, crime would be expected to be rife in the area but it is not the case. John Kungu, the chairman LC1 Namuwongo B, says despite the numbers in the area, crime is low and petty.
“In a week I may have to deal with one case or none at all. Most of the cases here are of people fighting, quarreling and petty thieves such as those that steal shoes and clothes. The more serious crimes such as rape, defilement are reported to the police, but such a case might happen once in a year,” explains Kungu.
In Namuwongo B, people do not sleep. As early as 3am people walk to St Balikuddembe, Owino Market and other markets to either pick up their produce or other merchandise. Bars here operate 24 hours to cater for different people. And this is where our security comes from. Criminals are kept away,” he adds.

Almost everything comes cheap in the slum and at almost every turn, there is a bar with Chibuku being the most common type of booze. For as little as Shs300 one gets Anyoya (mixture of steamed beans and maize grain) for a meal though this is common in the morning and late evening. In the open air evening eating places commonly known as Toninyila mukange (don’t mix my beef with any food) is the most expensive a plate going for Shs 2,000.
No pit latrines?
Every space in Soweto is so precious that having a private pit latrine is luxurious and a waste of land. Plots of land are measured and sold in a few feet. A 10x10ft piece of land costs between Shs200,000 and Shs400,000 near the channel or on the upper side that does not flood, respectively. Landlords do not have pit latrines not only for themselves but also for their tenants. “The issue of toilets has been there for a long time but about 10 years ago we got some people who helped. As for the landlords providing toilets, that’s out of the question because our houses are very cheap,” says Bainomugisha. All pit latrines in the area are public.
One has to part with Shs200 per visit. Julius Musinguzi, a guard at one of the private security companies, says: “Landlords give us only the shower shades which also double as urinals. Some of us have to make use of the toilets where we work.” A house wife in Kasanvu zone says, “For children we improvise and when the adult is going to the facility, they take the bucket to empty it of its contents, otherwise it would be very costly for me. I have four children and I cannot afford to keep paying for every trip to the latrine.”
However, Kungu attributes the absence of private toilets to lack of space and the water levels. “People here have very small pieces of land measured in feet and the lucky ones have a few metres, they cannot have space for latrines,” he says, adding that besides space there is a water problem.
“The water table is very high, you dig a few metres and you have it running. Areas where the water table is not high are part of the railway reserve. Many, if not all the public latrines, are on the railway land.”
The few available are donations from the Church of Uganda and Hope for Children, a non-governmental organisation according to the chairman. They are managed by the community leaders who make sure the money collected is used to empty them and also pay the workers.

Economic activity
Most of the youth in the area are unemployed, a few that try to be innovative to have a genuine income are being chased off the land by landlords.
If not chased, they are forced to pay rent under the table. Esau Tumukunde has been making bricks in the slum for the past six years.
But due to soil pollution with many impurities such as plastics and glass, Soweto soil is not ideal for brickmaking. “We buy soil from different places at Shs10,000 per trip of an Isuzu Forward truck. Even then, the owners of the space we work from keep chasing us every now and again. When we go to plead, we have to go with a brown envelope, says Tumukunde”
The unbaked bricks in Soweto cost Shs150 while the baked ones cost Shs250 each. “Our customers are mainly from the slum, and they are available but the cost of getting the soil, firewood, and the unofficial ground rent to railway officials makes the cost of doing business here very costly.
We tried registering our association so as to access a loan but KCCA denied us registration on grounds that we are operating on illegal land.”
Isma Katende says he started making bricks in Soweto in 2004. However, the ever increasing cost of materials and the harsh treatment of the Uganda Railways, KCCA harassment and competition for wood with the Chinese are pushing them out of business. “Chinese are buying the timer rejects that we have been using as firewood their pricing does no favour us, explains Katende.


Flea market woes
HENRY LUBEGA. The vendors mainly deal in fresh foodstuffs such as fruits and vegetables which they sell from makeshift stalls that varnish at the end of the market day. They lay their wares on the only available non-built up place which is the breadth of the railway line.
“We try to eke a living here but still KCCA comes and collects money from us but they have done nothing here.
Sometimes the train comes and if it finds your merchandise along the rail, it shreds it and that is your loss. On a good market day, we are more than 2,000 people along this railway line, with each paying Shs500,” says Katende.