The sights, smells and sounds that begin each day

Posted: January 15, 2008 in Blog

The sounds that I fell asleep to (buzzing of mosquitoes I missed on my nightly hunt, chirping of crickets outside and scurrying of the odd cockroach that slipped under my door) have long disappeared by the time I wake up in the morning.

Instead, I awake to the sounds of a hundred birds and a smattering of chickens outside my bedroom window. The number of birds here still astounds me. All of the guidebooks say Uganda is a mecca of sorts for bird-watchers and one of my roommates in August was in heaven over the variety of species here.

Some are cute, like the tiny white bird that I often pass on my way out of the house. Others have a nice song, like the dark black ones with a white neck. Others still are comical, like the maribou stork. There are at least 30 storks that nest in the immediate vicinity of my house. These birds are nearly as tall as humans, with baggy necks that nearly touch the ground. They are, without a doubt, the ugliest bird I have ever laid eyes on.

But regardless of song and appearances, they all play a role in waking me up each morning. Sometimes the mosque, with its calls to prayer, or the born-again church, with the sounds of hundreds of people singing beautiful songs, beat them to it. Needless to say, alarm clocks are of little use here.

I leave my room to get ready for the day, and hear the two women who work here at the house, Edith and Debra, speaking in Luganda over their morning tea. I stop in to say hi to them on my way out the door. The path to our gate is crowded by flowers on both sides that attract several kinds of butterflies. Amidst a shining sun, this walk through nice flowers, with skittish butterflies and the songs of birds flying overhead, is the best possible way to start a day.

Outside the gate, I walk down to the road below where the boda-boda drivers wait for customers. Joseph waits for me there, along with four or five boda drivers who also work there. I greet them all, especially the youngest one, Godfrey, who cannot speak English and as a result is shy with Westerners. He laughs every morning when, after greeting the others in English, I say good morning (“Wasuze otya”) to him in Luganda.

This area is a gathering point of sorts for people on campus. Some gather around the newspaper vendor to read that day’s headlines. Others are buying mobile phone airtime from the kiosks. Often, several maribou storks are interspersed with the people, gathering sticks and grasses for their nests.

I hop on Joseph’s motorcycle and we head off, with him telling me his thoughts on that morning’s headlines. One lesson I learned from an experienced reporter at an earlier newspaper job was that the best way to get a feel for a new place is to go get your hair cut at a barber shop. For a reporter landing in an unfamiliar place and having to put a story together on a tight deadline, a barber, as well as a taxi driver, can be an invaluable source of local knowledge and insight. My boda driver has been that for me throughout my time here. I bounce ideas off him, I ask him about things that confuse me. Likewise, he vents to me about things he feels should be done differently. These conversations occupy most of our trips to and from work each day.

We pass by women bent at the waist sweeping the streets and sidewalks with their straw brooms. Just off the road, men swing pangas (a type of machete), cutting the grass with swings that require a ferocious effort.

Here, the poorer workers base their work on their possessions. Someone owns a panga, so they cut grass for a small fee. Someone else owns a broom, so they get work from the city to sweep the streets. Others own a pickaxe or a hoe so they do street works and gardening. Those with a wooden wheelbarrow transport goods to and from the market. Boda drivers, too, are like this. They have a motorcycle, so they drive people around the city for a fee. This environment partly explains why thieves, if they are caught, are beaten to a bloody pulp by mobs. Take a man’s panga and you’ve taken his ability to eat. Take a woman’s broom or plastic tub and you may very well have taken away her ability to feed her children.

Leaving campus, despite its bustle of students and abundant bird life, is like leaving a cone of silence. When we turn onto the main road into town we enter a world of traffic jams, careening motorcycles and dashing pedestrians who participate in a daily blood sport on the roads of Kampala.

The atmosphere is chaotic, and our motorcycle winds its way between cars with inches to spare and weaves around newspaper vendors who run between the cars looking for customers.

The matatus (taxi vans) add to the chaos. They break every rule in the book to get through traffic, cut off cars and nearly run over pedestrians to get customers. The men who operate the side doors leans out the window soliciting passengers. “Wandegeya, Wandegeya!” screams one, as others (“Kampala Road, Kampala Road!” “Nakawa, Nakawa!”) hope to get the attention of someone looking for a ride.

Further along, we often pass by burning garbage. The landscape here is peppered with black stains—the leftovers of the local form of garbage disposal. There is no government system of garbage removal here and the 5,000 shillings that private companies charge to take it away can be the equivalent of two or three-days’ income for the city’s poorer residents. So the only option left is to burn it. The smell, even now, makes you turn away and cringe as you pass it by. And that says something, given that I have almost no sense of smell. But the stinging smell of burning garbage is not one I have been able to escape.

We then turn onto another, usually less busy road, that passes by the city’s golf course. Here, Joseph usually opens up the motorcycle and we fly along. I lean out a little further to enjoy the breeze, feeling like a dog who just had the window opened for him in a moving car. It is these rides that I will miss when it comes time to move somewhere else.

We eventually stop at the traffic light—one of only four or five in this whole city of nearly two million. Unlike the other lights, these ones are usually working. (The traffic lights near my house are rarely working, making for a dangerous guessing game as cars take turns darting through the intersection amidst the constant flow of motorcycles). The motorcycles all filter to the front of the traffic line and the boda drivers chat to each other waiting for the light to turn green. Inevitably, one or two cars turning from the other direction will dart through the intersection after their light turns red. Joseph usually yells and scolds these drivers, as he does with most vehicles we pass that don’t obey traffic laws (which means nearly every car during the trip).

Later on in the ride, we get to a roundabout that is usually backed up with traffic. We, along with the other bodas, hop the sidewalk and pass by the stopped cars, crossing the railway and taking a sharp left for the last leg of my trip to work. Here, men on bicycles and women carrying fruits and vegetables on their heads are walking to a nearby market where they sell goods throughout the day. Others sit in the shade, waiting for work of some kind.

After climbing the last hill, I get off the bike, pay Joseph and let him know when I’ll expect to need a ride later in the day.

“Have good day, Joseph.”

“Same to you, see you tonight.”

  1. Albert says:

    This is honestly one of the best things I’ve read in a while. Glad to hear you’re doing well. Whenever you’re back province-side we’ll have to try and meet up for drinks.

  2. cmason2 says:

    Thanks Albert, glad to hear you’re enjoying it. You better believe our paths will be crossing when I’m back in that neck of the woods. The local wings joints won’t know what hit them.

  3. Emma says:


    Joseph is the knight of all Bodas! Is he still wearing his Furry Jacket? A you totally had me at the part when u are riding pass the golf course. That is the most pleasurable and wonderful road to ride a boda! The speed, the wind in your hair, the thick jacket of the driver pressing against your body. All is so joyfull.

    In Sweden its no snow, constantly +5 degrees and cloudy. At times we have icecold winds that cuts through all your clothes and give you horrible colds that lasts for months. A week ago something magical happend and snow actually fell and layd on the pittoresque 1700th century-pavements of our fair little capital. Then it froze and every street became an icing rink. This was on a saturday night and as we left the bar the street outside was just packed with drunken people who already had, or was just about to, fall over. So many of them just laying around in the middle of the road screaming from laughter, not beeing able to get up. It was hilarious. I was wearing very hookerlike shoes with an ten centimeter heel and preformed dangerous stunts running in them to catch speed to slide downhills to the next club.

    As you can read, Stockholm can be full of nice times. Im writing my thesis, finishing in the beginning of march then starting a course in emergency health care. Meanwhile applying for jobs..(AHHH forced to grow up AAAAAA) and trying to teach some open minded friends the beauty of the shuffle…Pew this was a long comment, maybe should have written an email or something, ah what the heck! Hope to see you soon! love/E

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