The biggest K of them all

As a new group of volunteers fly in to kick off VU’s busy summer programme we take a look at what they can expect from Uganda’s bustling capital city, Kampala.

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Ugandans like places beginning with K. Kambuga, Kihihi, Kazuru, Kinkiizi (not to be confused with Kisiizi) Kabale and, of course, Kanungu are all places volunteers could find themselves exploring.

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But the first K they encounter is by far the biggest and best known. Kampala is a sprawling city of 1.5 million people. Like Rome, it was originally spread over seven hills but now settlements stretch as far as the eye can see.

It is the administrative hub of Uganda, housing government, religious and NGO infrastructures which, to one extent or another, spread out to less urban areas. It is also the heartbeat of Uganda, a rhythm set by the backfires of the city’s 300,000 boda bodas, the hum of haggling emanating from its many markets, and the ear-piercing shriek of vuvuzelas whenever the Uganda Cranes play at Mandela National Stadium.

It is a chaotic swirl of a city that has been largely repaired from the bullet hole ridden ruin which was left after the civil war of the 1980s and, like all cities, has its good and its bad areas.

Volunteers stay at the backpackers hostel in Mengo, a largely Islamic area of the city which is close to the National Mosque, renamed only recently from the Gaddafi National Mosque as it was funded by the former Libyan dictator.

The rooms are like any backpackers hostel in the world, basic but comfortable. There is internet and a pool near by to relax. But to experience Kampala you have to brave the roads into the city centre – a journey that, on a good day, takes 30 minutes by car.

There are craft markets which, it has to be said, sell a lot of Kenyan imports rather than locally made souvenirs, the National Museum which houses one of Idi Amin’s old Mercedes-Benz 600 (a common car among dictators it seems, Tito, Pol Pot and Kim Jong-Il all owned one) and the Kasubi Tombs where members of the Buganda Royal Family are buried.

It also has an increasing number of good bars and restaurants of which Prunes on Wampewo Avenue and Mish Mash in Kololo (another K) are my current favourites,

Although volunteers do not spend much time in Kampala, perhaps only four days over six weeks, their time there does offer a worthwhile contrast to the rural and far more sedate setting of the Volunteer Uganda lodge in Kazuru.

Of all the Ks the volunteers visit, Kampala is certainly worth it.

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