Memories of Kampala’s Katanga Valley

Muniini K. Mulera

What you need to know:

  • Reflecting on Mutaaga’s question triggered mixed emotions, with happy memories of journeys between Northcote Hall at Makerere University Main Campus, and Makerere Medical School at Mulago Hospital, and sad reactions to the desecration that turned that once beautiful and historical piece of real estate into one of Kampala’s ugliest spectacles. 

Dear Tingasiga:
On an Old Budonians’ WhatsApp Forum, Daudi Mutaaga asked whether we knew why the area between Wandegeya and Mulago Hospital in Kampala was named Katanga.

Whereas I do not have an authoritative answer, I know that it was named so by Makerereans in the early 1960s. Perhaps the name was inspired by the secessionist Declaration of Independence by Katanga Province from Congo-Leopoldville.

The Republic of Katanga, led by Moise Kapenda Tshombe, came into being on July 11, 1960, less than two weeks after Congo, nominally led by Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, was granted flag independence by Belgium on June 30, 1960. 

For the next three years, Katanga was a contested territory, over which the central Congolese government had no authority.

It was probably during this period that the ever-witty Makerereans noted a similar situation pertaining in the barely occupied green valley immediately to the east of the university.

The western and southern fringes of the valley accommodated small business premises, including watering holes for the thirsty scholars, and residences of ladies that offered social companionship to Makerere University students during their brief respite from academic endeavours. 

The valley was independent from the two great national institutions that hugged it - Makerere University to the west, and Mulago Hospital to the east.

Once in that valley, a student was free from the rules that governed those two institutions.  So, Katanga was a perfect name for that independent enclave.  

Reflecting on Mutaaga’s question triggered mixed emotions, with happy memories of journeys between Northcote Hall at Makerere University Main Campus, and Makerere Medical School at Mulago Hospital, and sad reactions to the desecration that turned that once beautiful and historical piece of real estate into one of Kampala’s ugliest spectacles. 

Images of colleagues, some of them gone from us now, with whom we trekked along the Otuno Highway through Katanga, in pursuit of our chosen career, came flooding back.

Memories of the youthful exploits of fellow students, narrated to us as though they were accounts of returning war veterans, brought me smiles, and gratitude to God that He protected us from the treacherous passage through late adolescence and young adulthood.

It was not by my moral strength, but by God’s grace, that I never sought Katanga’s offerings.

However, I heard enough stories to fill volumes of journals chronicling the incredible adventures of colleagues who fell under Katanga’s spell.

My Zambian friend, a student of forestry, summarised the dangerous magic of Katanga with a declaration to me: “My brother, some people will die! Too much happiness!”  Mwamba Musonda (not his real name) had arrived in my room inebriated but jovial and had reported to me and my Zambian roommate that he had just confirmed that Uganda was the best place to live on Earth. 

Like all Zambian students at Makerere, Mwamba had piles of money, freely offered by the Zambian Government to the few university students that that copper-rich country had at the time.

He assured me that it was necessary to relieve himself of that money before he could concentrate on his studies. Alcohol did not blunt his trademark sense of humour. 

Mwamba was a regular guest at entertainment houses in Wandegeya and Katanga Valley, where he purchased social pleasures, and walked back to the university without fear of robbery, injury, or death. He probably knew more about Katanga than most native Ugandans at Makerere. He certainly carried memories of his exploits long after he had left Uganda.

Upon his return to Zambia, Mwamba enjoyed a successful climb up the professional ranks, before taking up a key job abroad in a major international organization.

When we reconnected in the mid-1990s, Mwamba had not forgotten the hospitality of Ugandans, including the warm receptions he had been accorded in Katanga.

Sadly, he died prematurely while serving his people as an honoured member of the Zambian parliament. 

Mwamba’s story is one that is familiar to many Makerereans who were loyal clients of the watering holes in Katanga and Wandegeya. A common theme in their recollections is how safe and pleasant the neighbourhood was in the 1960s and early 1970s. A relatively small population, light motorized traffic, regular city bus services, no bodabodas, and clear, uncluttered pavements, made Wandegeya a pleasure to walk around.

A popular gathering place for Makerereans in the 1960s and early 1970s was Capitol Bar in Wandegeya, on the university-side of Bombo Road.

Known as the Upper Lecture Theatre, Capitol Bar was a place where some of the country’s finest brains gathered often to indulge in intellectual debate, while consuming beverages whose adverse health effects were not as well appreciated as they are today. Unfortunately, that historical place has vanished, its stories probably lost to posterity, a fate common to so much that made Kampala one of the most vibrant cities in Africa at the time.

My first visit to Capitol Bar, in the company of a Makererean friend, was in 1970. As a high school student, my contribution to the dialogue was exactly zero.

The discussions were rather too complex for my uninitiated brain. People were dissecting political, social, and economic experiments that were all the rage in East Africa.

One walked out of there “feeling Makererean,” and highly motivated to gain admission to the great university. Truth be told, one also felt rather intimidated by the level of intellectual endowment the debaters displayed. 

I do not recall when Capitol Bar closed its doors. Did it fall victim to Gen. Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians and the economic war? Someone should fill in the gaps.

The full story of that place should be recorded for posterity. The same applies to another Wandegeya bar, near the Mulago Bus Stage, also popular with Makerere students, that was owned by Mr. Sekatawa? 

Memories of Wandegeya culminate in renewed reverence for Mr. Hajji Musa Kasule, perhaps the most prominent resident of that community, whose entrepreneurial abilities were matched by his philanthropic deeds. What was his story? What has happened to his business empire? Someone should write to me about it.

My visits to Wandegeya in recent years have been hurried affairs. Looking at Katanga, now a concrete jungle that exemplifies the anarchy of unplanned development, leaves me with a sick feeling.

What was once a beautiful greenbelt between Makerere and Mulago is now unbearable ugliness. It is chilling to imagine what happens in Katanga when Kampala’s torrential rains come down.

I doubt that being immediate neighbours of Mulago Hospital and the Ministry of Health Headquarters is comforting to the 30,000 residents of Katanga.

Muniini K. Mulera is Ugandan-Canadian social and political observer.     [email protected]