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.
Most of these houses are in no way different from chicken sheds. The furniture in most of the Bwaise houses is non-existent. Many have very little bedding for the night. I saw people sleeping directly on the mud plastered floor. They lived in houses lying in bent positions, houses whose beam level could be said to be arms akimbo with the foundation. Most houses barely measure over a metre in height. The door into the houses is three feet by two feet.
You don’t have to go out of Kampala to write off the millennium development goals. It is all clear in Bwaise, under the nose of the capital city. Tens of blocked shallow, trench-like canals dug haphazardly are what meets one’s eyes. They carry all sorts of products, dirty water, used condoms, alcohol sachets, plastic bottles and bags as they flow with dirty water. The combination gives that nauseating smell that no words can describe. These Bwaise children are obviously puppies. They are oblivious to the fact that they rank among the world’s forgotten children as they play, and shout boisterously.
Most of these have never tasted home cooked food. Cooking at home is a privilege here, most household chores are outsourced. Even the few, who choose to cook at home, cook and eat in despicable conditions. When you live in Bwaise, you realise that it is cheaper to eat out than cook at home.
Wednesday marked my fifth day as a slumdog. I could not wait for the week to end, not because I wanted to escape my one week torture but because I desired to tell the untold story of these slumdogs as seen with my human eyes.
It is now easy to predict the rhythm of the area. For example, I could predict that a prostitute would block my way as I passed through Kimombasa. I could predict that my marijuana smoking friends would smoke once again and chew their mairungi.
The same stories are retold, of children who loiter by the Bwaise streets, running off to purchase condoms and watch their mothers sell sex to multiple men, of gangs engaged in criminal activities, getting arrested and released by police for lack of implicating evidence. The short span of rain that ensued in the afternoon is what made me shiver. I knew of houses that always got submerged in the floods in the aftermath of a heavy downpour. Surprisingly, the rain did not last. The jokes I had always cracked about the Bwaise floods never came to haunt me and my mattress neatly lowered on the floor was spared.
I woke up, ready to swallow my pride and get the stories behind these prostitutes. It is Stella Nakimuli that hijacked me. I confidently surrendered while keeping guard of my wallet. I paid her and declared my intention to talk to her.
Nakimuli recounted the abusive relationships she suffered. She had escaped from home, dropped out of school and got married to a man who later abandoned her. “When the world pushes you to the wall, in a world where even degree graduates make up a good percentage of the unemployed, you do anything to survive,” she says. Nakimuli chose to walk the trade that most of her age mates were already walking.
You could tell that she wished not to be a sex worker, sleeping with an average of 10 men per day, bargaining to sell off her dignity day by day for an amount that never goes above Shs5,000. Her eyes still showed her innocence, her words so true, and her speech so emotional. She left me with one lesson – not to judge someone because they sin differently than I do.
I spent the morning with those prostitutes and they all had similar stories, the beat of poverty, an abusive relationship, dropping out of school, being born to a prostitute mother and other stories. I had my lunch with them and only got to leave in the evening to catch up with my friends. They might have smoked marijuana, but they always ensured that I was safe, happy and having a good time.
We spent the night at one of the salons where they hang out at. They told me of their association and their desire to have me as their media representative. They had tried such a project before but the youths in Bwaise found it to be rather manual. It was a brick-making project and it never survived to celebrate six months in existence. But this time round, they were working on a collaborative project. They had high hopes and dreams. They dreamed of sharing their skills once this project took off. Some can make craft sandals, others knit hats, others knit sweaters, make necklaces, do electrical works and others do construction work. They plan on sharing all these skills among each other and among interested slumdogs.
I got to my house and as I lay down on my bed, I was wondering how I could help. Where do I start off from? How do I rally support for these youths that are not criminals except for smoking marijuana? One of them, Sadat actually wakes up early, buys food and drops it at his grandmother’s place. He makes his small contribution but with a big heart. Ziiwa on the other hand has never seen his father; he says that his idleness led him to smoking as a way of passing time.
Friday happened to be my last day in Bwaise. I was saddened that my week had come to an end. Ziiwa had already taken my phone number and saved it. Another friend, decided to scribble it on the walls using a piece of charcoal. My landlady’s children had been helpful. One of them actually mopped my room on Saturday. Even when it rained for a short time on Friday, it was not comparable to the December rains that make many abandon their houses and pile their belongings on highly raised platforms in the house.
I tell my friends that on Saturday, I will be gone by 7am, the same time I arrived on the past Saturday. Again, they plead with me not to forget them once I am gone. “Next time, you come, you won’t even rent, you are now our friend and our brother,” one of them struggles to let me know in his skewed English.
At this point, I realise that I have a guide to life in the slum. Armed with jargon of slum slang, I can speak with anyone in any slum of Uganda. But as I leave, my heart cries because when it rains, houses get submerged in floods for days. I cry because for many in Bwaise, all hope is gone. They no longer live; they try to survive-by selling their bodies, by stealing from others or by smoking away their lungs.
As I board the taxi to Naalya, I noticed that the number of factories are slowly coming up in Bwaise and who knows, these slumdogs may be displaced and we may be able to get rid of them forgetting, that they like us, have a right to live on this planet like we do. Life in Bwaise is one of a morbid existence-at least in Jambula and Kimombasa where I spent seven days.