February 2, 2012

I Have Seen the Future: It is Kampala

In my first 10 days in Uganda I have been taken to the capital city, Kampala, three times. All roads lead to the capital, it’s just that all those roads are in terrible condition. The freakish traffic can create jams of three hours or more. The mutade (small vans used as shared taxis) crowd the scene, sharing space with the bota-bota (motorcycle taxis) that are all jockeying for position. It makes for a scene out of Road Warrior.

When you finally arrive in Kampala the movie changes to Blade Runner. An incredible jumble of shanty towns, commercial buildings, restricted government spaces, and more traffic create a chaotic whole that is staggering. You see shards of civilization (medical facilities, police outposts, billboards, a single traffic light) wrapped in a cacophony of breakdown.

The government continues to consolidate industry and governance in the city without a comparable plan for infrastructure and development. As a result the city gets denser, tenser, crazier.

It does have a certain buzz. I took the 21-year-old son of my host family into town to buy some cellphones. When traffic came to an absolute standstill we abandoned our mutake and set out on foot. The scene was intense and captivating. With the road full, the motorcycles took to the sidewalks and zigged and zagged among the pedestrians. People on foot packed an arsenal of material goods, carrying chickens, piping, sacks of charcoal, bundles of sticks, small household items, and many small children as they moved to and from the makeshift street markets.

Finally we arrive at the ShopRite, a store that looks like something you would find in suburban Seattle. But just outside the store the street life thrives with vendors, shoppers, hawkers, taxi conductors, and the ever pressing sea of city people.

Kampala could be the world’s future and is most likely this nation’s. Without a central vision and shared direction, with a government deeply in debt and indebted to special interests, with limited resources and burgeoning population, the press toward tomorrow is violent and relentless. With 32 million people, half under 16 years old, up from 24 million seven years ago, a wave of new Ugandans is coming, ready or not. They will carve out routes in the dust and drain drops of water from the sand if necessary to survive. If only someone had a clue how to move this nation toward a positive future. But I fear I have seen the future and it is Kampala.