Our first morning in Kampala, we’re woken up by the sound of someone hammering
at the walls of the hotel. It’s clearly people, rather than a machine, because the rhythm’s too erratic. Starts hard and fast and quickly weakens, wavers. Some guys with sledgehammers, working on a piece of the parking lot maybe, or tearing down a wall. We can’t figure out where it’s coming from, but it’s impossible to ignore. Because we can’t find the workers it seems like the Grand Imperial Hotel has got a splitting headache. If we don’t get out of the room soon, we will too.
By the time we’re up and dressed it’s about midday. The trip from New York was long and we finally crashed after a few hours of wandering the day before. Now we’re hungry and have been told that the Speke Hotel, only a few minutes walk down Nile Avenue, has some great Indian food. Emily and I exchange some money (fifties and hundreds in US currency preferred, as smaller bills have been subject to counterfeit problems in the past).
Speke Hotel, right on Nile Road, is a two story reddish building, quiet and elegant. It looks more like an elongated guest house than a hotel, which seems to be part of its charm. It also has three restaurants on the premises. One that serves pizza (there are many more pizza shops in Kampala than I would have guessed) and another that serves “continental” food. (When Emily asks what that means the waiter says, “Steaks and fish and whatever.”) We decide on the Indian food. The place is called Khyber Pass.
We take a table outside, near the sidewalk but not right next to it. Our waiter is a young Ugandan guy who tries to talk us out of our appetizer. We can’t figure if it’s because he knows it stinks or because he doesn’t think we’ll like it. He warns that it’s pretty spicy. We stay firm on the choice and he nods, returns with two bottles of soda and a cup of tall straws. When the appetizer finally arrives, it’s as good as we’d hoped. Kind of like a spicy samosa but cooked in the shape of an egg roll then chopped into five or six pieces. That and the main meal go down well.
The sidewalk has a lot of foot traffic. And without fail the passersby, women and men, give me and Emily good long stares as they go. Right now we seem to be the only mzungus on the street though we’ll see others here and there. (Mzungu means ‘white person’ and it’s used on me too; being half black here isn’t the same as being half black in the States; there it means I’m black, here it means I’m white. It’s a little disconcerting at first, but don’t worry, I won’t be shedding any mixed-race crocodile tears here.)
Toward the end of the meal this one guy passes on the sidewalk and really wins first prize for gawking at us. Most other people take note and keep moving, but this guy sees Emily and I (Emily is also mixed like me, but even lighter), sees us and practically trips over himself. He passes to our left, out of view but then, not fifteen seconds later, my man comes
back the other way, strolling now. Now he’s just shameless about giving us the eyes. Finally he passes out of our sight in the other direction.
Then, not another thirty seconds after that, the guy comes back again! Now I can’t help but pay attention. He’s small and thin. His eyes are yellow, maybe jaundiced. But most remarkable of all, he’s wearing about four jackets on his shoulders. What I mean is that he’s wearing four, maybe five, suit coats, one on top of the other, as if he’d woken up this working and dressed for work five times. But it’s only the top. On the bottom he seems to wear one pair of slacks. Maybe he thinks all these coats act like some kind of camouflage. Like we won’t be able to recognize him if, on the next pass, he’s switched to the pinstripe jacket instead of the solid blue. It’s ridiculous.
This time I stare back just as openly. So does Emily. I guess we figure we’re letting him know that we’ve seen him for sure. (How could we not?) That the guy wearing five coats hasn’t gone unnoticed. And this time, as we stare at him and he glares back, he actually rubs his chin as he walks. Rubs his chin like some villain out of a silent movie! If he had a mustache he’d have twirled one end of it. But for all that, this time, he passes out of our line of view and stays gone.
When he doesn’t return, the two of us share a little laugh and finish our meal. I come up with a nickname for the guy: Sheisty. As in, that dude was sheisty! I plan to keep an eye out for him.
We leave the Speke and go back toward our hotel. But rather than running inside our room or something we decide to wander down to Kampala Road, one the main arteries of this city. My cousin had told me that you could find everything off Kampala Road so we figure we’ll take a look.
As we cross down Teman Ave (at least I think it’s Teman Ave, the street names aren’t always clearly posted) we pass all the people out working on the street. There are the boda boda drivers, with their motorcycles parked right on the curb. As people pass they whistle or call out, offering rides. There are also half a dozen women who’ve laid out mats on the sidewalk, close to the road, in the shade of trees or building whenever possible. (There are another half dozen in the
same positions right across the road.) These women have the daily newspapers laid out for sale. Some of them also sell little items like bottle cap openers or sweets, bags of nuts or ballpoint pens. At many of the mats the newspapers are held down with large shards of glass so they won’t blow apart in the wind.
Between those women there are men who’ve laid out sets of shoes that they are selling. By this I mean you’ll pass a guy standing in front of ten or twelve pairs of shoes (sometimes just a single shoe from each pair to save against theft). If you need a pair of shoes you can stop and try them on, if they fit you can start to bargain. When those men aren’t actually selling any shoes, they’re polishing their product. If they have sneakers they’re scrubbing them back to
pristine condition. (The red dirt in the air can make any pair of shoes look faintly maroon in a short while.)
And besides those guys we find young men walking around selling belts, leather or plastic, seven or eight of them hanging from one forearm, swinging rhythmically like the brushes at a car wash. As we pass them, the young men whip out one belt or another, looking at me with a salesman’s eyes. When we pass they move on to the next person, whipping the belts out for them just as fast.
All these people are working on this one block, between Nile Avenue and Kampala Road. Multiply that by an entire city and you’ll understand why I started thinking of that Rick Ross song from a few years back. The chorus is simple: “Everyday I’m hustlin’/Everyday I’m hustlin’/Everyday I’m hustlin’/Everyday I’m hustlin'”
Well let me promise you this, every day Kampala is working its ass off.
And at the bottom of the road, on the corner of Kampala, I tap Emily’s shoulder and point to a small man standing on the corner across from us. He’s got on four or five coats, but they’re not suit jackets, they’re overcoats. He’s wearing a few and carrying one on the pointer finger of his outstretched right hand. He’s waving the overcoat at the cars passing by in the street. And he’s not alone. There are two or three other men standing with him, wearing layers of either sports coats or suit jackets or overcoats (no rain slickers). They’re like a guild: the Top Coat Society.
And among them is another small man, smaller than all the others; a man that we immediately recognize. He’s wearing five suit jackets and rubbing his chin as he sizes up the customers passing him by. A man just trying to make a little money selling something astoundingly inconvenient for such a warm day. So consider this my apology to the man I didn’t trust. Keep hustlin’, Sheisty!
All that being said, I didn’t buy a coat.