After an exciting first month and a half in Uganda, landmarks are looking familiar. I can finally feel comfortable navigating my way through many of the busy streets of Kampala. As an intern for a jewelry non-profit, Musana Jewelry, I can’t direct you to the local hotspots, like the beautiful Baha’i temple or Bubbles, the go-to expat bar, but I can tell you which wholesale hardware store on which back alley sells the best quality exacto knives.
Most mzungus (“foreigners”) in Kampala aren’t hoping to learn the difference between the stationary district, the electronics district and the fabric district, but this has been one of my most rewarding experiences in Uganda. My urban treasure hunts introduce me to new people, interesting vocabulary and corners of the city not frequently seen by visitors. Initially, the city was overwhelmingly large; bustling with vendors and hawkers. Now, we now see faces of friends and guides we recognize throughout downtown Kampala.
These trips into Kampala are the combined efforts of myself and the organization’s in-country director, Melissa, and sometimes our Ugandan manager, Luta. When it is just me and Melissa, as it often is, we have lost all shame in asking question after question until we understand where we are being directed or what kind of tool we are being told we need to purchase. We quickly learned that Ugandans do not like to disappoint you, so even if they do not know the location of the street you are looking for, they will still try to point you in some direction. After asking three people for directions to the same place that is supposedly right around the corner and each one points you in a different direction, you know that kindness got in the way of their ability to be truly helpful.
We wander through Nakasero, the neighborhood in the center of the city, asking for directions and sharing printed photos of the items we’re searching for, crossing our fingers that what we need can be found. Most of our hunt takes place in the general vicinity of the old taxi park, a vast sea of white and blue vans slowly creeping in and out of the park as they drop off passengers and fill up with new ones. The taxi park is a hubbub of idling taxi drivers shooting the breeze or playing checkers, women selling mangoes and the day’s tabloids, and young men pushing everything from watches to Fanta. We have come affectionately to call this area the “Enkwaawa” (or “armpit”) of Kampala: just take a deep breath and enter the fray.
Encircling the taxi park are decrepit-looking old buildings that house electronics and clothing stores, fast food restaurants, and most important to us, bead supply shops. On the southern end of the park is a maze of markets selling shoes, fabric, jeans, and other clothes, and on the northeastern end you find Kiembe Lane, one of our frequent destinations. What looks like an alley is actually a street whose first half is lined with fabric and sewing shops which eventually morphs into stores selling electronics and bathroom and kitchen tiles. In this little corner of Nakasero we find needles, embroidery thread, fabric, snap clasps, and the soft-spoken woman who puts the snap clasps on our new leather bracelets. We could easily spend hours wandering through the fabric and sewing shops looking at the colorful patterns and imagining how we could use all of the craft supplies for sale.
Most days it isn’t an option to wander aimlessly, so we’ve slowly made local friends who are happy to provide some guidance. Margaret, the woman in charge of the cords at our favorite sewing shop, refers us elsewhere if she doesn’t have what we’re looking for, and she has even taken special orders for when her daughter travels to Dubai to pick up supplies. I’m pretty sure that wearing our Uganda Cranes jersey on the first day we met Margaret have endeared us to her for life.
Just across from Margaret is the shop of our friend Edward who sells curtains. As it seems many Ugandans are more than happy to do, Edward takes the time to chaperone us around the neighborhood and translate for shop owners even when he doesn’t know where to find what we are searching for. I wish we weren’t so impressed by this generous use of time, but I remain pleasantly surprised each time someone offers to show us the way. I have a hard time imagining New Yorkers deviating from their commutes to accompany visitors to their destination.
Of course, some of the help we receive isn’t completely selfless, but we’ve concluded that what we don’t know can’t hurt us. While I don’t like getting ripped off by a boda-boda driver who wants to charge me four times what a local would pay, if we are still getting a good deal on our bulk order of hole punchers and our guide is receiving a cut of the deal for having brought us to a store, that’s fine by me. He saved us hours in time spent searching and led us to places we never would have found on our own. We still argue for the best price possible, but padding that price just a tad is worthwhile for the time we save by having a market tour guide.
The most important guide we’ve had in Kampala yet is Henry, a young man who lives in Entebbe, studied business in school, and now works at his aunt’s hardware store in Nakasaero. We arrived at his shop one day looking for a hole punching tool, and now he’s the first person we call on our hour long taxi ride to the big city. For most visits, we let him know what’s on our to-buy list, and by the time we’ve made it to the Enkwaawa of Kampala, he already has a list of two or three places to check out. We have a business card lady, a postcard guy, a rubber stamp guy, a whole punch lady, and an engraving man all thanks to Henry. Honestly, I’m not sure what we would have done without him – just how far behind schedule would we be?
If you are going to have a successful treasure hunt, you are going to need provisions, so we are very pleased to have discovered Peace Restaurant. Just around the corner from where we do the majority of our shopping, Peace serves traditional Ugandan food that tastes surprisingly delicious. Uganda isn’t known for its cuisine, so I have quickly tired of the carb-heavy staples. Matooke (cooked banana), potatoes, rice and pasta can only be prepared so many ways. Peace puts a little twist on many traditional dishes and makes tasty passion fruit juice, so we have become regular customers. Their groundnut sauce, a peanut based sauce usually served at Ugandan meals, is green instead of purple because they include spinach, and Melissa and I can’t get enough.
A trip to Peace often also includes a visit to Steven, a leather artisan whose workshop is right next door. Steven makes beautiful bags, belts, holsters, and other leather products, all in the small space of many Americans’ walk-in closets. As complete newbies to leather work, we have learned more from Steven showing us around his shop than he probably realizes. He graciously puts up with our never-ending questions about what kind of tools he uses, where he finds them, how they work, and would he mind showing us? Far too often we discover that his know-how and tools were learned and special ordered in Eastern Europe, but we have been lucky enough to run across more items than we expected in our journeys through Kampala.
One constant throughout all of our searching is haggling prices down from the mzungu price to what we hope is the African price. Shop owners often insist they aren’t giving you the mzungu price, but after learning a few times how inflated a price we paid for a product, I am a highly skeptical shopper. While haggling is fun, it can also be exhausting. Errands take twice as long as you think they should, and you feel like you are constantly battling to receive a fair price. A non-negotiable price tag is appreciated these days.
I have learned multiple tactics, including telling stories, pretending to walk away, avoiding eye contact, singing songs, feigning disinterest, and most importantly: never giving up. Haggling is often about which side can hold out the longest. Once you argue for long enough and want to get on your boda already, our new trick is singing. With a children’s song about school fees memorized in Luganda, everyone from boda drivers to roasted peanut sellers can’t resist our performance and eventually agree to our price.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, every once in a while someone is interested in supporting Musana’s goal of local women’s empowerment, and they give us a great deal or something free of cost. With such an interactive shopping experience, it’s worth telling our story and creating connections with suppliers, because you never know who will be sympathetic or just interested in laughing about the differences between Americans and Ugandans. Most recently, the owner of a tile store was more than happy to give us tiles for free and enthusiastically took our business cards with the promise to spread the word to all of her friends. Now there’s another friendly face in the hardware district for the exchange of a wave and a hello when we pass through the neighborhood.
With time and familiarity, “Enkwaawa of Kampala” is said with increasing love and affection. Lost less frequently and asking fewer questions, we look forward to our urban treasure hunts and the hours spent discovering new corners of the city and the people that inhabit it. If this is something you’d like to investigate on your upcoming trip to the Pearl of Africa, then be sure to get in touch. And who knows: as we get to know Kampala better, maybe we’ll even have a moment to check out that new hotspot and act like real mzungus for a change.