Uganda: Walking to Work - a Journalist's Journey

opinion

If we should at one point, write about times that humbled mankind, 2020 will be one of them. Just the other day, we ushered in the New Year and as you read this, the year is not even 100 days.

Yet from one tragedy to the next, it feels like we have been here forever.

Covid-19, also known to many as the coronavirus has humbled many countries in the West. At one point, we thought it was going to stay in China, then it came to our door steps.

Hell broke loose, events and gatherings suspended, markets followed suit and on Wednesday 25, public transport followed.

My wife was worried of how I would get to work. But I wasn't, I knew walking isn't as impossible as avoiding touching my nose, eyes and mouth. After all, I walked during Primary and Secondary school.

Thursday morning, I chose light attire. A dark blue kaftan and black cotton trousers. I left my seven pairs of Timberland boots, one Cavelino, one Zara, and wore my wife's plastic sandals commonly known as nigina.

I left Busega-Lungujja at 7.37am. On radio I had heard that Police was at it, caning both boda-boda and taxi drivers carrying passengers.

But in Lungujja, the passed orders had nothing on those residing in the area; people still jumped on boda-bodas, some could even risk more than a passenger. I walked.

A walk partner..

Towards Albert Cook Road, I find a group of five young men heading to town. They were going on with their coronavirus conversation. For some minutes I was ears dropping until I chipped in. I had chemistry with one of them, he abandoned the pact and kept pace with me. We were a perfect duo. Same size. Same height. Same speed. And the conversation seamless, like we knew each other before.

"The economy isn't in his hands." he said.

He argued that the President has for 30 years led a hand to mouth economy.

Such conversations were common among the different groups and duos we met on the way. It seemed like everyone was in one way or the other trying to understand the state of affairs.

Some took advantage of the situation to make a killing, I can not forget the boda boda rider I met, he was negotiating with some people that needed a ride.

He seemed like he had just gotten out of his bed, yet was assuring his would be clients how bullets were blazing in town.

"Blaza, it's either Shs10,000 or I leave you here," he said.

I don't know how they concluded, we left the desparate trekker bargaining.

I parted ways with my walk partner at 8.30am, he entered the grain milling section of Kisenyi. I continued to Ham Shopping Mall.

Kampala was a ghost city; empty streets and taxi parks, some people had persisted and were present to sell fruits or face masks, but there were no serious buyers.

But they were not very safe, for much of Thursday, they were in a cat and mouse game with the Local Defence Unit (LDU) personnel that were trying to enforce the President's orders.

The absence of public transport means had affected me but I had my way around it, but they were those stranded. Take the example of the old man around Diamond Trust bank, with his daughter-in-law, they had come from Arua, heading to Kiyindi, Lugazi.

"She went to Arua to meet her ill mother, now she's going back to her children in Kiyindi but I don't know how we shall reach home."

The old man thought the Covid-19 pandemic is purely God's punishment.

"Allah sent us gonorrhea, we failed to learn. He sent Aids, still we failed to recognise his divine command. Now He has sent this disease. Eventually, we shall surrender and change our ways."

I learnt the old man had left Arua Park after one of the drivers had demanded they pay Shs200,000.

Harder on return

Part of the tricks of a successful trek is not the distance but the rhythm; when you have a walking partner, one of you will set the pace, coupled with a conversation that flow, you may not even feel the distance.

In the evening, I left office at 6.30pm. After a relatively long day, I wasn't enthusiastic about my second trek like I was in the morning. I had to leave office earlier for many reasons, I was going to walk and I did not want to be out on the road late.

I usually commute home with a mini-bus that occasionally goes through Mengo Social Centre in Kisenyi to dodge jam on Lubaga Road or Namirembe Road.

It is an easier route, though, even when I use it regulary, the last time I used it on foot was in 1997, then I was living with an auntie. More than 20 years later, here I was recollecting the routes, but this time, to my place.

It was getting darker. My body oozed sweat. The young crescent moon in the sky was visible. I couldn't help but wonder about Ramathan which is almost a month away; "Shall I manage to walk while fasting? How shall I keep my throats wet against the virus? Will I still have a job?"

The pacesetter

Between Bya Allah, one of the sprawling shopping malls changing the face of Kisenyi, and Covenant Junior School in Mengo, a diminutive middle-aged man paced by. His choice of attire wasn't fit for walking. Black pants, a long sleeved cotton shirt with red and black strips, and leather boots with a bulky sole. But he moved like he was on spikes, like his body was made for this.

He understood the terrain, minimised time and space. He wasn't doing it for the first time. He stretched my strides.

When I trailed him, my left foot hit a rock but I didn't give up. Another man followed us through Shell Lubaga Road. His female colleagues, with luggage on their heads teased him "Ogenda kunywa mafuta?" (Are you going to refuel?) He joked back: "Yeah."

My pacesetter crossed Lubaga Road, past Sojovalo Hotel. I religiously followed. I nearly caught up with him, but unlike me with a two litre water bottle and a bag, he carried nothing.

We parted ways as he continued past Bulange towards Namirembe Road.

My wife had been calling, we had last talked at 5pm when she begged I return soon. "Goons could attack you on the way," she said. "Are you worried of becoming a young widow?" I joked.

Social dis-what?

Remember, if one thing is defining this fight, it should be the face mask and social distancing, yet for the time me and my stranger friend earlier on were trekking, the recommended four-metre distance wasn't on our minds.

It was worse by night, the way people walked challenged the whole notion of suspending public transport; most people moved in pairs and some, groups of three or even seven and more.

We have to avoid shaking hands right? A couple strolled past, maintaining a zero social distance, hands locked while eating ice cream.

Then there were people in cars that passed by, instead of maintaining a distance by at least having one person sit at the back, they all used the front seats.

In places like Kisenyi and Mengo, there was minimal deployment, but still, some boda bodas were transporting people and some, more than a passenger.

On one of the days the neighbor had chosen to give me a lift to the main road. He was taking a sperate route and much as I wanted to object his offer, I took it up but I was on tension imagining what could happen.

I quickly jumped off his motorbike when we got to the Kafumbe Mukasa-Kabaka Anjagala Road.

But the boda bodas here made me feel like an angel among sinners, it was business as usual for them, not afraid of the police or the pedestrains they were violating at times.

One night, as I was rushing home, I decided to check for time on my phone, a motorbike almost ran into me and as you could imagine, he was never apologetic; "beeramu," the rider yelled as he sped off.

But even on other days, boda bodas in my area ferried people without fear, they barely cared about the security operatives that could arrest them.

Some signalled warnings but they could not heed. On Saturday, I followed some to see if they could be apprehended, but as you could imagine, none was arrested.

My wife called again at 8.03pm. I told her I was about 500 metres away. At 8.11pm I was inside the gate.

When the skies said no

When the President suspended public transport, social media had gone in the frenzy of a debate, a car or land, which of these is a wise buy. People with cars could not wait to mock those with land apparently; "can you swiftly drive your land cruisers to work tomorrow?"

A one sided debate that had car owners enjoy the banter, one of them couldn't help but wonder how his land owning friends without cars were going to leave home the day it decides to rain.

Luckily, it did not rain on Thursday, but on Friday, the gods too were social distancing.

I had intended to leave home earlier than I had the previous day, but by 6am, it started raining. I initially left home at 9:05am but the drizzles were upon me. I dashed back to pick a rain coat and a head gear. I started the journey again at 9:13am.

Being a Friday, I decided to wear my Islam tunic, even when I'm aware all places of worship have been closed for nearly two weeks.

Since I had not completely zipped my coat, my tunic got wet at the front.

I soldiered on but the tunic became a speed governor, I couldn't make the fast strides.

Around Sojovalo Hotel, my colleague Zaid Lwanga, a Monitor business executive sat, on a veranda, he had walked in the rain from Kyengera and his legs were giving up.

His colleague, a middle-aged woman, had pinned her phone radio keenly waiting for Covid-19 updates on Radio. "Government is banning all import of second-hand clothes," she said. Why? "Ugandans in China have been packing clothes left behind by those who died of coronavirus."

Zaid envied my fitness. "I've learnt my lesson. I will be doing walkable distances, going forward," he said. I went forward, I later learnt Zaid reached his destination at midday.

At Kafumbe Mukasa Road, near Owino Market, it was business as usual. Private cars and food vendors congesting the road.

Towards the Nsambya traffic junction, there is a big billboard: "We do Easter in Dubai. 3.700.000UGX, 9-13 April."

With the global Covid-19 crisis, this promotion is dead. Like Eddy Kenzo's festival which was tipped to sell out at Kololo Airstrip that day. Like several arrangements across the globe.

This marauding virus!

Along Mukwano Road, an amorphous young lady, packed in black leggings and a loose blue top, slid in the mad and nearly hit the barricades. Her colleague laughed silly. She too laughed along.

A tale of unfortunate events

Like all journies of a kind, they are puncuated with a series of unfortunate events.

For instance, I was on the streets one of the times vendors were flogged by authorities.

Some of these were Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) personnel, they wondered why people were refusing to stay home.

"Lwaki temusigala waka?"

One asked in Luganda, why these vendors were in town, adding, "Do you want to make us sick?"

They impounded a box of tomatoes, arrested a man and a woman, as cabbages and onions rolled on the terraces like golf balls on the course.

On the other day, I wasn't watching on the sidelines, I was part of the action.

On Saturday, as I was reaching our office on the Eigth Street in Namuwongo, I decide to take a random picture on the way.

Before I could take any more pictures, one of the LDUs around was trying to drag me.

Of course I explained that I was a journalist, but as you could imagine, they asked for my identification and unfortunately, I did not have it.

If it wasn't for a newspaper in my bag, I don't know how the story would have ended.

It was a Friday paper where I had a story, it was the by line that saved the day.

But this wasn't the first time, once, during a riot, I tried taking pictures with my phone and angered the security.

Then I was even thrown on one of their patrol vehicle; "Are you one of them," they asked.

I explained that I was a journalism student but unfortunately, my ID had been locked in the saloon moments earlier.

It was a mobiliser of one of the political parties that saved the day, asking them to leave me.

Disarmed, one ordered me to delete the photos. But I knew how to recover them. Amazing how history repeats itself.

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