A tale of two cities

It’s been a while since I wrote anything, so this next post is too long.

I’ve decided that suburban Uganda does not really float my boat but, on reflection, suburban Britain isn’t my natural habitat either. I moved to London seven years ago and made the capital my home by trying to make the most of what the city has to offer. With that in mind, I’ve spent more of my free time in Kampala these past couple of weeks, generally looking around to try and find equivalents to the things I love in London. Here are a few points for comparison.

Book-worming

Two of my years in London were spent as a student, and a sizeable portion of that time was spent in libraries. I’ve grown to love the British Library, and often spent time at the weekend doing life admin in its café or public galleries. I never bothered to register for a pass to use the various reading rooms, but the building is so large, light and airy that I enjoy just hanging around. I’ve also tried out a few of London’s university libraries and some are bigger and better than others. The National Library in Kampala, imprisoned behind a barbed wire fence and housed in a dilapidated building from the 1930s, is smaller than any of these. There seemed to be more to the building than the public reading room, but all I could see was about a dozen tables crammed into the space between four walls of shelves. The selection of books was quite out-of-date, although it did cover an impressive range of subjects. I wouldn’t choose to do my online banking here on a Saturday morning, but a handful of people clearly found it a useful place to do some studying. I’ve heard that Makarere University has a better library and I will try to pay it a visit in the coming weeks.

I was slightly distressed to learn that my favourite bookshop, Foyles on Charing Cross Road, closes its doors this month before re-opening in a neighbouring building. In search of a Ugandan equivalent, I wandered the streets in the centre and close to the library. The nearest thing I could find was a “book and media centre” staffed mainly by nuns, selling religious and philosophical texts with a side-line in quackery. After enlisting the help of a Ugandan friend, I located the pleasingly large Aristoc Booklex. Unfortunately, the fiction section was rather over-stocked with Jackie Collins and Jeffrey Archer. Perhaps I’ll stick to my Kindle for the duration of my stay.

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Cultural Capital

First fixture, British Museum vs Uganda Museum. Britain wins on size by a considerable margin, and Uganda’s offering felt more like an exhibition in a university department or local authority building. However, there was a pleasing and sometimes surprising mix of artefacts in the Uganda Museum and it was well worth the visit. The exhibits gave a good cultural and natural history of Uganda from as far back as anyone can go right up to the present day. There was a small selection of musical instruments that the public could (attempt to) play, a room dedicated to Olympic memorabilia (which reminded me that a Ugandan won the men’s marathon in London 2012, a race which I attended), a model T Ford, and an interesting selection of traditional tribal huts at the back, some of which you could look around. Disappointingly, there were no picture postcards in the gift shop to send home.

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I attend most exhibitions at the two Tate galleries in London, and Tate Modern is probably my favourite place to kill a weekend. When I asked Ugandan friends where I could find an art gallery, they replied that there is no such thing in Uganda. Thankfully, they were wrong.

Art galleries in Kampala don’t compare in terms of size, and they are generally showrooms for local artists rather than public or private collections, but I enjoyed looking around the couple that I could find. The afriart gallery is a charming little house with four rooms dedicated to a monthly exhibition and two upstairs rooms stacked high with various canvasses to leaf through. The art was affordable, too, with most pieces costing a few hundred dollars. A smaller gallery, UMOJA, had some interesting sculptures, and I was unable to locate MishMash, which sounds promising as a sort of arty-farty café space. I’ll look for it again, and wonder if it will be a South Bank pop-up or a Shoreditch grotto.

I’m not a prolific theatre-goer, and my one visit to Kampala’s National Theatre proved fruitless as the only thing on was a TV recording for a talk show. However, I wandered on to Hotel Africana where I inadvertently discovered a tribal dance demonstration. It was better than Morris Dancing. I wondered why there was so much armed security until my Ugandan companion noticed that the Prime Minister was in attendance. That reminds me that I must go for a look around the Parliament building and see how it compares to Westminster.

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Pub?

I’ve not found anything approaching a traditional British pub, with most suburban bars being small sheds with a fridge and a patio area, but there are certainly some attractive bars in Kampala. London is infamous for its dearth of decent beer gardens, and that is where Kampala has the upper hand. Hotel Serena has a wonderful oasis of greenery by the side of a swimming pool, and it serves proper cake! I was delighted to track down some fish & chips in an “Irish” bar called Bubbles O’Leary’s, which actually looks nothing like an Irish bar (except for the faux-Celtic font used in the signage) and has a nice decked area away from the main road.  A handful of others I’ve visited follow the same format of a small indoor bar area surrounded by outdoor tables and benches with exotic plants providing much necessary shade.

There also seems to be a sensible reluctance among Ugandans to stand in an uncomfortably packed bar to watch football. I watched the first half of the FA Cup final in Just Kicking, a bar popular with white sports fans that was absolutely heaving. My Ugandan friends took me next door to Fat Boyz to watch the second half, where I think I was the only white person in attendance, but everyone had a seat and the atmosphere was just as lively. I’d never thought about it before, but really it’s just a case of providing enough chairs, isn’t it?

A walk in the park

Kampala is lacking in green spaces, the only serious one I’ve found being the Centenary Gardens, which is full of bars. I also think that any decent city should really have a river, and the dusty highway that bisects Kampala’s city centre is no substitute. However, if you head out towards the airport then you arrive in the former capital city, Entebbe, which has beautiful Botanical Gardens. This brings to mind an interesting comparison: Regent’s Park has carefully tended gardens, a lovely boating lake, and you can see the camels of London Zoo from the footpaths; these Botanical Gardens are on the shores of Lake Victoria, contain a mix of green pasture and beaches with palm trees, and the monkeys jump down from the forest area to run across the footpaths. Both are lovely places to run, stroll or sit, depending on your inclination.

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This little exercise hasn’t told me how much I like living in Uganda, but it has confirmed how much I like capital cities.

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