A visit to Kiyseni was a harsh reality and a confronting encounter – but one I am glad I faced.
Uganda is known as the ‘Pearl of Africa’ for its stunning topography, its people and its’ majestic wildlife that roams across it. Something that does not fit into this romantic description is the poor living conditions that many Ugandans face. This is the unfortunate reality for many Ugandans living below the poverty line and in slum conditions across the country, most notably in its’ capital, Kampala.
Kisenyi – Kampala’s largest slum
Kampala’s largest slum Kisenyi is a sight to behold. It is a city jungle of sorts but not one you would feel enticed to explore. Over half the population (67%) live in detached dwellings and a further 12% in semi-detached according to Uganda’s National Population Housing and Consensus (NPHC) 2014. The houses themselves are made up of a combination of materials – unburnt bricks, mud, poles and cement blocks. The roofs are either mostly iron sheets or thatched paired with floors that are a mixture of stone, cement, tiles and earth. These structures have a short lifespan and are subject to brutal weather conditions.
Overcrowding, cracked walls, dirty floors, faded paint and rusted materials are common features amongst the clustered and unstable structures many Ugandans call home. On top of the unplanned commune, slums often lack the necessities including clean water and proper sanitation. The lack of hygiene has to lead to poor health and the mutation of diseases to spread quickly within local communities. Life in the slums is far from living to what many of us would deem a ‘comfortable life’ but not all hope is lost in Kisenyi.
A tour around Kisenyi
I was taken around the Kisenyi slums by local guide Luke, a man who also used to call the Kisenyi slums home and acts as a representative for the non-for-profit Slum Aid Project. The slum itself fringes on the outskirts of Kampala. It was a world away from the comfort of my five-star hotel bed in the city centre which really troubled me that day. I knew that I would be going back to my hotel, filling up my plate at the buffet, taking off my robe to have a shower with an array of soaps and go to sleep on a bed that could certainly fit a family of five. The contrast of what happened in that one day in Kisenyi could not be greater.
Exploring the slums was hard-hitting and being face to face with poverty amongst our, the western world’s creature comforts reinforced how we all need to help those in need.
Being called Mozingo
I kept hearing this word being shouted out to me by young, enthusiastic kids – it means white person. At first, I felt discomfort with being called this, however, I know it wasn’t said with bad intent. After all, here I was this pasty white outsider walking around the close-knit slum community; of course, I would stand out. Could I be the locals’ excitement for the day or this pest that is roaming around? Never did I fear for my safety while walking around with Luke either – far from it. I was greeted with wide smiles.
I was even asked by a group of teenagers to play a game of pool with them. Standing around the outdoor table, we laughed as we played and I felt encouraged despite my lack of skill for the game. (I can assure you I did not make a vast improvement on the game since!) It was a such a fun, carefree interaction but one that would have long-lasting effects and still does to this day. I decided to ask the locals about how they would like outsiders to help instead of being sent money. I will never forget when a young mother, children in tow, told me what they want more than anything was books.
Education is paramount
Many of these children are forced into work or to sell sweets from a young age. During my three-week stay in Uganda, I had lost count on how many children were trying to sell me something to make that quick buck to get them from one day to the next. Receiving an education would not even be on the radar for those kids.
I entered the slums with a bag full of books that I had purchased from the local markets in Kampala – my only regret is that I did not bring more. The books ranged from beginner maths, language books and children stories. Luke had told it amounts to just USD $30 to send one child to school for a semester which left me stunned. It seems crazy, absurd to think that the same price for a meal and drink back home is the same amount it would send a child to receive an education – now there is some food for thought.
Both parents and children were happy to receive the books, and I certainly hope that they are still being passed around the community. It made me feel like Santa in some way – minus the red robe the sack of must-have toys. It was also bizarre and surreal to see children getting excited about receiving bars of soap and teenagers thrilled with being given bottles of shampoo and conditioner that I brought with me from the hotel. I cannot fathom people jumping for joy about being treated to a basic shaver or toothbrush. It was then that it really hit me – these items that you and I give no second thought to mean the world for some to receive.
Street Voice – a musical initiative in the slums
It isn’t just education that is important to the slums but forms of creative expression.
The surprise of the day being introduced to a funkily decked out communal area for youths wanting to surround themselves with music. A few seats and a series of colourful montages of music posters on its walls brought this part of the slums to life. This small open-air like patio was a haven for young members of the Kisenyi slums to learn arts and music with donated instruments through the local initiative Street Voice.
Street Voice was a place that encouraged those to develop their talents creatively in an environment that on face value, is poverty stricken but on the community spirit side of things, was wealthy. The members of the organisation shared their dreams and visions as I sat among them at Street Voice. They then treated to an intimate group performance with enthusiastic members chiming local songs to a donated acoustic guitar. I felt that the togetherness of the community was not a place of thinking in terms of ‘I’, but in terms of ‘we’ and how they would all come together through song.
This interaction changed my perception of the slums completely. It may be a hard-to-swallow place to come face to face with on the whole but it is human relationships and interactions born from it that are worth their weight in gold. How heartwarming it was to witness positivity and optimism in a place that is so seemingly bleak. But with warmness and optimism of the locals, now that was easy to swallow.