Resident Travel Blog April 1, 2013

This blog documents the medical experiences of our residents as they travel abroad and experience healthcare in different parts of the world.

April 1, 2013 by Vijay Narendran


Kampala, a beginner's guide:

Kampala is a city of approximately 1.6 million people and is the capital of Uganda. It is located in the central/southern portion of the country on Lake Victoria, off the tribal kingdoms of Uganda. Kampala is the capital of the Buganda tribal kingdom, the kingdom that eventually orchestrated the union of the Ugandan Kingdoms and helped to achieve the freedom for Uganda from the British in 1962. The Buganda named the city after the British name for the hill on which the city started, calling it "the hill of the impala (antelope)" eventually the name was shortened to Kampala.

Since its inception, the city has grown to become a massive and growing metropolis, spreading far from the original 7 hills that are classically known as Kampala. It is probably one of the safest big cities on the African continent, with a laid back and warm atmosphere and terrific nightlife. Interestingly the city does not have its own airport. The airport, instead, sits at the previous capital of the British colony, Entebbe, about 20 miles to the south-west of the city.

Kampala has a wide range of restaurants and street vendors to satisfy pretty much any palate. Some delicious street food that I've had the pleasure of trying include: (1) the "rolex," a "chapatti" flatbread wrapped with onion, tomato and cabbage omelet; (2) "chi-commando" a plate of stewed beans mixed with a cut-up chapatti, onion, tomato, and cabbage; (3) grilled chicken/pork/lamb skewers. Kampala also boasts an array of great international cuisine including Italian, Persian, Indian, and Ethiopian, with a range of restaurants that rival the finest in American fine dining, and some with very local, more hole-in-the-wall feel. Mediterraneo had great pizza and Khanna Kazana is heralded to have "the best Indian food ever" by most Indian food enthusiasts.

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One of the most incredible eating experiences I've had anywhere was when a friend of mine took me to the end of the well-known "Ggaba road" The road courses through the legendary Kabalagala and down to the old kampala port, the shipping docks basically replaced with a large and intricate shantytown and market. We went to the fishmongers and bought two large tilapia for $2-3 each and took the food to a local grill cook on the doc who cleaned and grilled the fish for $2 for both. We sat at a local bar across the street until the fish were done when we picked them up and gave it to the cook at the bar, who dressed the fish with salt, french fries, avocado, tomatoes and onions. It was fresh and delicious.

Getting around:
Many people in Kampala walk to get around, which is incredible because usually its literally "up-hill both ways" on its hilly landscape. But, while the city is currently without a public transportation system because of poorly constructed buses (the local blame goes mostly to the Chinese), and the $7 cost of a gallon of diesel gas, the city has found novel ways to get around the noted lack of reliable, state-sponsored transport. First and probably most prevalent is the "boda-boda." These are moped/motorcycle riders who charge less then the equivalent of a U.S. dollar to take you 2-3 kilometers across the city. The boda-boda drivers are known to take poor care of their vehicles, sometimes having the headlights burn out during the ride, and it's widely known in the hospital emergency rooms that this is not the safest mode of transportation, I'll leave it at that.


Next is the "mutatu". This is the private hire version of a public street bus but in a smaller, more-compact package. They are virtually all second-hand toyota "hiace" mini-vans (purchased directly from Japan from a second-hand market in the United Arab Emirates) that have been converted with 4 rows of seating and licensed to take 14 passengers, but often fit up to 20 in rush hour settings, the aromas can be pungent on a hot evening. You can tell a mutatu by the blue checkered patterned lines that are painted on the side and the loud-mouthed "conductor" trying to entice you to come to HIS mutatu, bargaining on price, and apparently in South Africa, the type of music blaring from the speakers. Mutatus can offer transit inside of the city but are often also used to go to other cities throughout Uganda.

Lastly is the "private hire". These are standard taxis but they are largely unmarked and, therefore, I suspect it is a largely unrestricted market, so you should generally find people you trust. Throughout my time in Kampala I've picked up 2-3 reliable names and phone numbers of taxi drivers I can use when travelling with a larger group, or feeling too lazy to hike or jump on a mutatu. Private hires are the most expensive costing at minimum $2-3 to travel 1-2 kilometers, understandable once again with a $7/gallon cost of gasoline.

Medical Care:
If you get sick or injured in Kampala, you probably need to be flown out of the country to get really top notch medical care. The nearest U.S. style trauma center is probably in South Africa, and so it is a good idea to pick up international insurance (I got it from international SOS) with a medevac benefit if necessary. Otherwise there are a number of hospitals. The worst for a traveler would probably be the large public referral hospital known as "New Mulago" , however, there are a number of better, cleaner, private hospitals that can and will perform urgent surgery in the middle of the night for people who can afford it. Most expats go to a clinic known as "the surgery" on Acacia Boulevard for advice on what to do in times of medical emergency.

Kampala has tons of malls and shopping centers, some basically equivalent in size/quality to the normal American strip malls to which we're all probably accustomed. They have virtually everything for sale here that you can get in the United States when it comes to toiletries, shoes, and food. Lacking though are some elements of high fashion (if you're into that kinda thing), and i really would not trust tailors here.

The people come from all walks of life, especially because Makerere University and the large aid/development community. There is a large ex-pat population that work for several international organizations and investment firms. At the same time you have the poorest of the poor that live in shantytowns. In the middle are the educated locals that hold prominent jobs in Ugandan companies and the government, along with professionals that are self-employed. About 40% are Christian making up the largest contingent.

It seems like people in Kampala live to go out on the weekend, which they often do, until up to 8 a.m. in the morning. Many of the popular fast food places and eateries are open very late.  Uganda also recently obtained the honor of having the most alcohol consumption in the African continent. The city is full of open air bars and clubs that are crowded until the early hours of the morning almost any night of the week.

Overall, Kampala has been an amazing experience, and I could definitely see myself returning for further medical work or simply as a great place to spend a week, relaxing with good weather and food.