Walking on the verandas of most city buildings in late evening hours is a daunting task. Pedestrians and vendors are jostling for space with street residents, clearing space to lay their cardboards to retire for the night.
While others are rushing to get home at the end of the day, there are people who call the street home.
They are not street children; they are adults. Some are parents others grandparents. These are Kampala’s street residents.
Zaidi Engola is the chairman of those who have made Ben Kiwanuka Street opposite Shell Petrol Station home.
When he talks, they listen. His orders are militant. They are followed without question.
As he limps around with the aid of crutches, the former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)abductee, who is fluent in Swahili, narrates how he ended up on the streets of Kampala, after five years in captivity.
The 37-year-old, who hails from Owinyo Dware Village, Angeta Parish in Otuke District, was shot in the leg while in captivity.
His wound has never healed. “I was abducted in 2003 and escaped in 2008. In 2013, I came to Kampala in search of better treatment, something I was not getting back home. That’s how I ended up on the street,” explains Zaidi as he gestures to his fellow residents to keep quiet.
Life as a street beggar is tough for Zaidi considering his condition. He spends Shs6,500 every day on medication. This covers the cost of pain killers which he has to take three times a day, gauze and medicine for dressing his wound.
Robinah Okwango, 70, from Aliro village, Ocurukori Parish in Albetong District, found herself on the street to fend for her grandchildren.
“I have seven grandchildren, the oldest is 14 years and the youngest two. I have been on the street begging for two months, whatever I get I send it to them.”
Okwango says she was advised to try begging by one of her village mates, a beggar, who had returned to the village from Kampala.
“I have so far sent them (grandchildren) Shs100,000 using the chairman’s mobile phone,” she says.
Despite the hardship she has to endure on the streets day and night, Okwango would rather be on the street than exposing her grandchildren to the harsh conditions children face on city streets.
“I would have loved to be there with them but I have no alternative but to come and beg. They are my daughter’s children; their father was killed by the LRA,” she says. She declines to speak about their mother.
When the Karamojong raided villages in Albetong District, Onwo village in Omori Parish was one of those affected, forcing 65-year-old Jenti Aderi to migrate to Lira before finally being advised to try the streets of Kampala.
“It’s four years since I left my four children in the village under the care of my first born. In between I have been able to go and see them three times but life is still hard for them as I can’t provide for them.”
Aderi survives on Shs500 worth of sweet banana a day until the night when she eats hot a meal.
The only skill Aderi has is making crafts but she is eager to go back to her children. Like many other women on Ben Kiwanuka Street, if she got some basic farm implements such as hand hoes, pangas, axes and seeds, she is more than willing to go back and engage in farming instead of staying on the street.
“I have land to dig but I don’t have anything to start with. No tools, no seeds…,” she says.
Rebecca Anyingi, 65, lost her sight at the age of four. Her husband was killed by the LRA rebels and her only son abandoned her and became an alcoholic in Patongo, Agago District.
Her situation was worsened when the religious mission, which had given her a plot of land to stay on evicted her to pave way for its expansion.
It is five months since Anyingi left her village of Dog Mission ward in Patongo, Agago District. She was advised by a village mate to try her luck on the streets of Kampala for her survival.
“Here I get some little money to buy food and soap. I’m also lucky to have someone wash for me and I have people around me.”
Every Friday, Anyingi is helped to walk from shop to shop asking for handouts. “I have been able to buy [clothes], I get some money which I [give] to the person looking after me to wash for me, take me [to bath] and get me food.”
Forty-year-old Mary Akot, also from Agago took it upon herself to look after Anyingi when she arrived. Despite living on the street, she says she cannot go out on the street begging but she renders some service to those with physical disabilities and other street residents in return for a small fee.
Akot was forced on the street after being abandoned by her husband. “I survive by washing for the [people with disabilities] and very old people. I wash from Nakivubo channel; I wait for the clothes to dry before I pack them and later distribute them to the owners.”
Akot is able to save Shs2,000 a day after getting her daily meal.
Besides offering laundry services to the physically challenged street residents, Akot is also the caregiver to the blind Anyingi. After a long day of begging she brings her day’s collection to Akot who uses the money to buy food and soap for Anyingi.
“I have taken it upon myself to look after her. She is blind and cannot manage to manoeuvre around without any help. I wash her clothes, makes sure she has something to eat, and take her down the channel to have a shower.” Akot says during her time on the street, doctors from Mulago hospital have visited them to provide free services.
Away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Kampala, sandwiched between the fence of Sheraton Kampala Hotel along Speke Road and a street light pole, sits 58-year-old Vincent.
He is silently rolling tobacco in a piece of paper, oblivious of the traffic about him.
Vincent is reluctant to reveal his background, only saying that he comes from Buikwe. He blames his wife and her children for his plight.
“Everything I had was taken by my wife and her children. I don’t have my own children. I was blinded by love, only to regret later when they had taken and sold everything I had. I could not remain homeless in my village to be laughed at by the people who advised me not to marry the woman who took my property.”
He lifts one of the rolled pieces of tobacco and says: “This is what comforts me and takes me through.”
Street residents have not been spared the brunt of Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) law enforcement when they try to earn a living away from begging.
Zaidi says “there are good people who help some of us by giving things like tomatoes, onions, cucumber, lemons and other things. But we can only sell them at night when KCCA is off the street, otherwise, they confiscate whatever we are selling.”
Feeding is one of the biggest challenges street residents face. At Shs2,000 they can buy a hot meal of beans mixed with silver fish, served with matooke, posho, and sweet potatoes. A mobile food vendor brings food to them at night when KCCA law enforcement officers are off the streets.
In the past six years, Zaidi has spent on the street, he has lost three colleagues, all victims of accidents. Two of them from Lira and one from Alebtong District. He, however, says that they have been lucky not to have lost anyone to sickness.
“Our biggest health concern is malaria and HIV. People from Taso [The AIDS Support Organisation] come once in a while and carry out tests. Some people have been found to be sick and they are given medicines. Taso regularly pays us a visit and brings the tablets for those infected.”
In cases where they need to see a medical personnel, they go to the public hospitals mostly Kisenyi Health Centre IV or Mulago hospital.
However, an official at the centre in Kinsenyi who preferred not to be quoted said when patients come they will never admit to be staying on the street. They always come up with a name of the place of residence.
Aderi is one of those who have fallen victims to malaria. “I have been sick three times, and I have always gone to Nsambya police barracks with either malaria or stomach problems; I have always got free treatment there.” A private security guard at one of the shops who preferred not to be named says the street residents are organised people.
“They know who owns what, which place to sleep and they are a happy community. They are more than 40 here and they are happy.”
By 11:47pm the ‘home’ is left to the residents. Some of the residents are snoring away, while to others it is like the day is just beginning, enjoying crude waragi in small plastic bottles, puffing away on small white rolled pieces of papers as they listen to music on a small radio. Their chairman Zaidi is listening in on his small techno handset.
As most of the street residents are sleeping, two to three women are washing their under garments in small plastic containers. For those sleeping, their small possessions are either used as a pillows or wedged between the owner and their neighbour.
Most of them use polythenes sheets to cover themselves. Some have blankets which they wrap around themselves before putting on the water proof polythenes to protect them in case it rains.
Those with wheelchairs park them next to their sleeping places. Even the night street vagabonds have some respect for the street residents. They don’t tamper with them as they sleep.
On the downside, there seems to be a high rate of substance abuse among the street residents mostly by the male members of the ‘village’.