Welcome to Kampala, the ‘potholegenic capital of the world’

Mr Charles Onyango-Obbo

What you need to know:

  • The only problem is Ugandans, we are hopeless. We don’t see visionary leaders when they are staring us in the face. Okello had this great vision three years ago. 

Ugandans owe State Minister for Foreign Affairs Henry Oryem Okello a collective apology. On January 14, 2020, while appearing before a committee of Parliament, Oryem rebuffed the idea that the poor state of Ugandan roads was to blame for its relatively lower tourism figures compared to its East African neighbours.

On the contrary, he said, bad roads could be a tourist attraction.

“For us, a bad road is cause for complaining. But for people in affluent societies who have never experienced getting stuck on a bad road, pushing a car from a ditch can be part of the tourism experience,” Okello said. Scorn and ridicule followed, and Okello was presented as an ignorant clown. But here is the thing; what if he was right? Kampala takes the biscuit as the most potholed East African city, and recent rains have only made a bad situation worse.

An inspired shame campaign on social media, #KampalaPotholeExhibition, which attracted worldwide media attention has failed to change things for the better.

Last week, Daily Monitor reported that the Special Forces Command (SFC) construction regiment has started maintenance works in Kampala Central District, focusing on just the routes President Yoweri Museveni travels along regularly.

Like the pragmatic chief, Museveni has chosen to patch the holes in his trousers, not those of the whole village. He has given up on Kampala’s pothole problem.

And this must be seen as a Kampala problem because in most of the country, especially the highways, are quite impressive. It’s another matter if you go off these roads, and into some of the suburbs. You return to the Kampala nightmare.  

The reason for this picture is complicated and even divisive, so we shall leave it here for now, and return to Okello.

What did Okello know then, that some of us have just found out? He knew that extreme tourism, or adventure tourism was a rich niche.

The global adventure tourism industry is expected to blow up from $322 billion in 2022 to more than $1 trillion in 2023. Extreme tourism is a high-risk thrill; mountain climbing, skydiving, bungee jumping, cage diving with great white sharks, war zones and so forth.

In 2021 I visited Kanyandahi, in Tooro, the native land of my friend, journalist, commentator, and troublemaker Andrew Mwenda. That area forms part of the crater lakes expanse of western Uganda, a beauty to behold. Mwenda took me, Prof Mahmood Mamdani and other comrades around to show off the crater lakes.

At some of the crater lakes there are exclusive resorts that will set you back several hundred US dollars a night. The roads around the area, though, are backbreaking. When we quizzed Andrew about why the roads were so rough, he said the owners of the tourism resorts are opposed to smooth ones.

The rough roads “give the authentic safari experience”, he said, and command a premium. If smooth roads were built, it would be like driving on the Entebbe Expressway; nothing edgy to it, and very familiar to tourists from rich countries, as minister Okello acutely observed.

All that is left, is to do this extreme tourism right in Kampala. The first order of business falls on President Yoweri Museveni’s desk. He should rename the line ministry appropriately to Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife, Antiquities and Potholes (TWAP). We should create either a new, or a twin capital to Kampala, and give businesses a tax waiver to build their big buildings there.

A while back I thought it would be good to move the capital to Karuma; the weather is perfect and humidity isn’t as bad as in Entebbe or Kampala.

And the flow of the River Nile there is gorgeous. I’ve changed my view since because allowing Ugandans to live in large numbers close to the River Nile would be environmental suicide.

Anyway, we would let grass and other vegetation overgrow the abandoned buildings and create an urban green jungle. Hoteliers would then be given licences to build bamboo and grass-thatched resorts in the main business area of Kampala.

By that time the undisturbed potholes would have grown big enough to swallow an elephant. We’d make significant investments, advertising Kampala to the world as the “Potholegenic Capital of the World”, and wooing visitors with campaigns like “You don’t have to go to the Moon, come to Uganda to tour prime lunar surfaces. The ultimate bucket list experience.”

The Pothole Constabulary would manage traffic strictly. You can’t have too much traffic on potholes. You ruin the view and experience and devalue the market. If we get it right, Uganda could become among the world leaders in extreme tourism, raking in up to $200 billion a year.

The only problem is Ugandans, we are hopeless. We don’t see visionary leaders when they are staring us in the face. Okello had this great vision three years ago. Okello oyee! Okello for president!

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. 
Twitter: @cobbo3