I first set foot in Kampala 50 years ago. An indelible image of early 1966 Kampala is that of what looked like a very tall tree atop a hill, with many red lights, rising towards heaven, with an ominous presence at night, at once frightening and attractive. It was the Uganda Television mast, rising out of Kololo Hill, its function a mystery to me until I joined King’s College, Budo one year later.
The Kampala that my father allowed me to see was a strikingly beautiful place. The Central Bus Park looked like endless rows of double-deck green and cream buses called Kabandole. The park was neat and free of chaos.
Over the next few years, I would discover that the city covered seven hills, with a very good public transport system, reliable water and sanitation services, and constant electricity supply. Its public parks invited residents and visitors to rest, exchange tender words with loved ones or simply soak in the glorious sunshine, without being afraid of gun-totting police or “crime preventers.”
There was something almost hallowed about places like the New Mulago Hospital, Parliament Buildings, Broadcasting House, Uganda Television Headquarters, Uganda Museum, the National Theatre, the Nommo (Art) Gallery, Mengo Lubiri and Bulange, Namirembe and Rubaga Cathedrals, All Saints and Christ the King Churches, Kibuli Mosque and the Baha’i House of Worship at Kikaya Hill.
Kampala’s Central Business District was neat, easily accessed and navigated, with very light traffic that allowed window-shopping and rendezvous with friends from Gayaza High School and Mount Saint Mary’s Namagunga.
Favourite meeting places included Slow Boat Restaurant, Cristos’, Wimpy, Odeon Cinema, Norman Cinema, Delite and Neeta Cinemas. A music-hungry student spent hours browsing through the record bins at Assanand & Sons on Kampala Road, and emerged with a couple of records that would bring shared joy to the lads at school.
Then there was Makerere University, where, rumour had it, clever people walked with furrowed faces, their heads bowed in deep thought, studiously avoiding greetings or any eye contact lest they lose their train of thought, forever solving problems and generally living in a world of their own. They did not comb their hair lest they disturb their precious brain cells at work. Or so we thought.
The university campus was immaculately clean, with buildings nestled in what was really a very large garden of beautiful flowers, trees and carpet-like lawns, and tarmacked boulevards that led to well appointed halls of residence and staff houses. The Main Hall, towering over The Hill, commanded respect and honour, the symbol of good and intellect and leadership.
Makerere Hill commanded a beautiful view of New Mulago Hospital, one’s gaze at the majestic buildings across Katanga Valley uninterrupted by slums and trash and corrugated iron fences that were 30 years in the future.
Hidden over the hill, though, was the Mulago slum, a sprawling mass of small houses with poor sanitation and other services. Like similar slums at Kisenyi, Namuwongo and Kivulu, these were unpleasant neighborhoods that public health experts hoped would diminish and give way to better and safer communities. They did not imagine that slums and chaos would become the future of larger swaths of the beautiful city and its surrounding greenbelt.
Although the city had been planned on an Apartheid basis, with very distinct areas reserved for Europeans, Asians and Europeanized Africans, there was a purposeful method to the madness. For the most part, Kampala of 50 years ago was easily livable, healthy and orderly.
This had not occurred by accident. It was a result of careful planning that dated back to the very early years of the colonial state. Kampala, established as a township in 1902, had its first formal planning in 1912 that laid out the central business district. Two more planning exercises – in 1919 and 1930 – cemented the layout that has hardly changed in the last 85 years.
The most profound plan was offered in 1930 by A. E. Mirams, a planning consultant and land valuer who had spent fifteen years working as a town planner in India. Mirams’ forward looking report assumed a steady population growth of Kampala, with services able to support a maximum of about 60,000 people.
However, Kampala grew quickly and by 1948, the population was 24,100, rising to 50,000 by independence in 1962. Without adding much to its basic infrastructure, Kampala continued to grow, with the population hitting 459,000 in 1980; 774,000 in 1991; 1.2 million in 2002 and 1.6 million in 2016.
These figures are deceptive, of course, for the city is sandwiched within the sprawling urban district of Wakiso, whose 2 million inhabitants either work in Kampala or seek health and other social services in the city. It is said that as many as 750,000 automobiles ply the streets of Kampala.
The beautiful city on seven planned hills that welcomed me in 1966 now covers dozens of unplanned hills, valleys and wetlands that have been converted into a concrete jungle that I find rather unbearable. For practical purposes, Kampala stretches from Nansana in the north, to Kyengera in the west, to Kajjansi in the south and Seeta in the east.
While visible improvements in the official Kampala have occurred since the creation of the Kampala Capital City Authority, the damage done by unplanned building, human settlement and expansion into the surrounding areas is probably irreversible. Kampala without Bat Valley? The Uganda Museum sharing space with an ugly gas station? Chaotic Katanga Valley that looks like a concrete graveyard? Commercial and office buildings next to the old mansions of Nakasero Hill? Landmarks like the bus stage at Hussein’s (ewa Buseini), Post Office, Home Garments, Norman Cinema gone?
Places that defined generations and gave our parents sleepless nights are gone? New Life Club, where Suzman and Kaumba held court for years, gone forever?
Change, development, progress and urban expansion are inevitable and necessary. However, the tragedy is not that Kampala has become an urban jungle, but that other towns seem not to have learnt the lessons of unplanned growth. Mbarara, for example, is in the advanced stages of Kampalitis. The disease is all over the country.
There is a very urgent need for an enforceable law that mandates serious, scientific planning of Uganda’s rural and urban communities, regardless of size and location.