Mbarara’s Kisenyi slum undergoes gentrification

Some of the new accommodation facilities that have been constructed in Kisenyi. PHOTOs/Rajab Mukombozi.

What you need to know:

The area had such a bad reputation that even when the municipality offered free plots, no one took up the offer.  It took them more than 15 years to restore sanity in the area and build people’s confidence to want to live there.

Gentrification is a concept that is often used with negative connotations. But it is a process that often happens as cities undergo rapid economic development and the old is replaced with the new.

 Mbarara is one of the cities currently undergoing a lot of transformation as neighbourhoods are rebuilt to support new economic activities and provide accommodation for the growing population with higher incomes and discerning tastes.

In the late 1980s and 1990’s, according to residents and authorities of Mbarara City, Kisenyi was the place where dead bodies were often dumped. The area was ridden by criminals and drug addicts that always engaged security agencies in running battles that resulted in gunfire and bloodshed.

Criminal den

Rwamwojo Kasigaire, 70, remembers the neighbourhood as one of the most feared places in Mbarara City. 

“This was a den of criminals who gave the area a bad reputation. I remember a time when you could not say you came from Kisenyi because that automatically meant you had criminal associations,” Kasigaire recounts.

The area had such a bad reputation that even when the municipality offered free plots, no one took up the offer.  Abdallah Katwire, 76, says even when people could identify the Kisenyi gangsters, they were too scared to report them to police because those who dared to do so ended up dead.

“There was a notorious group led by a one Maje Maje which would attack, rob and torment people during the day around this place. They did not even dare to hide their identities but they would disappear into that slum and elude the police only to resurface and murder the people they thought had called the police on them,” he explains.

With time, a few shabby structures came up to accommodate businesses such as video halls and makeshift bars selling drugs and alcohol that were ran under the protection of the gangs.

Operation Wembly

All this changed with Operation Wembley a campaign mounted by security agencies which put most of the gangsters out of action. Katwire says with the security returning to the neighbourhood, tentative developments began to appear.

 “People started showing interest in the area and were even willing to buy land. Back then a 50X100ft plot cost about Shs8m.  Right now the same plot goes for about Shs150m depending on the location,” says Katwire.

Yusuf Kakembo, the former Defence Secretary for Kakoba Division, is now the area Local Defense Commander (LDU) says it took them more than 15 years to restore sanity in the area and build people’s confidence to want to live there.

Visiting the area now, one struggles to relate that dangerous neighbourhood to the current one teeming with businesses and posh residences. Gone are the gangsters and now have been replaced by the young and hip residents who run businesses and live there.

Rashid Mukasa, the former Kakoba Division chairperson says the security enjoyed by the new residents did not come easy nor was it achieved overnight.

Kisenyi in Kakoba ward,Mbarara City North division,Mbarara City.PHOTO BY RAJAB MUKOMBOZI

  “We had to recruit local defense security personnel (LDUs) that were coordinated by LCs and police. We would carry out joint operations to disperse any gangs that tried to move back in. That is how we managed to improve security of neighbourhood,” notes Mukasa.

Mukasa says another security strategy was demarcating the neighbourhood under zones.

“With the increasing number of population, we demarcated security zones where a group of 10-15 households had its own security committee, we then beefed up that team with their own security,” says Mukasa adding  that infrastructural developments such as extension of electricity, opening up of new roads and upgrading the existing ones also helped very much in attracting people into the area.

A new era

Abdul Kibondo, a boda boda cyclist at Tataitwe stage says unlike in the past, he is able to work beyond 8pm because the area has a very active nightlife.

“This was unheard of in the 1990s. No one could dare take a passenger to or from Kisenyi beyond 8pm,” he says.

The slum that was once known as mayumba kumi, because according Muhammad Byansi, a city councilor there were only 10 homesteads, is home to several accommodation facilities, retail businesses, bars, hotels and restaurants.

Byansi, however, is concerned by the haphazard development of the area.

 “Many people are rushing to buy land in the neighbourhood because of its proximity to the city. Unfortunately they are putting up unplanned structures and you can see the effects in the rampant poor drainage and sanitation challenges,”Byansi says.

Jomo Mugabi, Mbarara City North division mayor notes that the area is now one of the fastest growing areas in Mbarara City and he is aware of the physical planning challenge it is grappling with.

He puts the blame on the city’s past leaders who he accuses of failing to priotise physical planning for the area.

“The city’s past leaders ignored some crucial urban planning guidelines and let uncontrolled development mushroom all over the place. It now get in our way when we want to build roads and construct drainage channels. But all that is in the past, we have stopped that course by enforcing building policies and guidelines,” says Mugabe. 

Mbarara City Clerk, Assy Abireebe also notes that the city is strict with developers and cannot allow unplanned structures.

“There are structures that might have been there before but as of now we cannot allow any unplanned structure here, if we find such structures we demolish them,’’ says Abireebe.

About Kisenyi

Kisenyi is located in Kakoba ward, Mbarara City South division town around two kilometres from the city centre. The once feared slum as a hub for criminals has now turned out to be a middle class residential and business hub. It got its name from business people who equated it with Kampala’s Kisenyi that was also a criminal hub. It is believed to be among the fastest growing areas in Mbarara City with a population of more than 7,000 people.