I am sitting in a lovely room in our friend Kinglsey’s house in Kampala contemplating my day, and still reeling a little. I am covered in dust, my lungs are smarting from six months-worth of petrol fumes inhaled in the course of one hour. I have my passport open beside me and I keep looking at the beautiful embossed red sticker that is the visa, confirming that I have a right to live and work here for a year. I feel absolutely triumphant!
I applied for my visa online from the UK. Uganda has a new and pretty efficient online visa processing portal. But I still had to go to Kampala for in person to present my documents and for ‘biometric capture,’ and until it was stamped in my passport, I wasn’t counting on visa success. I have five ‘off-days’ every month in order to make up for working a six day week, so we decided that it would be good if I made use of them to go to the capital to do the deed. Brian and the girls need dependents’ visas which can’t be applied for until mine is granted, so we chose for them to stay behind in Buhoma to avoid the long journey and the fuss.
It is no mean feat coming to Kampala. It’s 10 hours of road, the first three of which are lurching, bumpy and un-tarred, and the last two of which are an assault on the senses. On sight – the bustle of bodies and boda-bodas, on smell – the stench of rotting meat and swampy effluent at the market under the flyover, on hearing as the horns hoot and the sirens blare, and on touch and taste as the dust pours in at the window.
I had a super-easy ride. Kingsley had to go to Kampala to service his vehicle as failing to sort it in time, and towing a broken truck from Buhoma to Kampala, is enough to break the bank too. He offered me a lift and a place to stay in central Kampala, and fantastic company for the whole journey. The last few miles of the long journey are crazy. It is worth noting that in Uganda you don’t need to have passed a driving test to drive a car. It is possible, I understand, to get a fake licence for a few thousand shillings. The only rule of the road that seems to apply is that generally cars drive on the left. I say generally because we did meet one going the wrong way down a dual carriageway (a new dual carriageway, to give the driver his due.) The other rule is perhaps that size matters. Big trucks squeeze out littler vehicles and the boda-bodas (motor cycle taxis) weave in and out and get squeezed most of all. The most reckless of drivers seem to be those of the long-distance buses that carry people from up-coutnry areas such as ours into the cities. Like so many things here, in the domain of travel, there is high risk to life associated with having few resources. If you have to go by bus, you have to take your life in your hands. It’s as if the drivers are in some sort of competition with each other to get to town the fastest. And if that means overtaking the four vehicles in front on an uphill blind bend, well so be it, and everything else on the road should just get out of the way and make space.
Bodas are another source of traffic chaos and high risk. They are cheap, and in the gridlock that clogs Kampala’s road network, they can weave in and out and get places fast. A few market themselves as ‘’Safer Boda’s’’ – that generally means wearing a helmet. We saw families of four astride a single motorbike, helmetless and squeezed between cars and lorries as they negotiated the potholes and cattle other hazards that add an extra frisson to the journey. And just to complete the mixture there are matatus; – small minibuses which bring people from the suburbs to the city, with one guy (or sometimes a girl) leaning out of the window shouting the destination and opening the doors whilst another hurtles the vehicle at full speed into the traffic or veers off onto the edge of the road to drop passengers, usually with no working indicators and sometimes without brake lights.
I know I have a thing about road safety but this takes the biscuit.
We made it to Kingsley and Maha’s haven of serenity, and I had a quiet evening of good food, good company and good play with their two year old son, and even…. a swim!
And then it was visa morning. So, to avoid the challenge of the road network and for a bit of exercise, I decided to walk to the Directorate of Citizenship, Department of Internal Affairs. It was a good enough walk. Crossing the roads was hair-raising. At one place I made the mistake of supposing that a pedestrian green/ red crossing signal might help me to find a time to get across the road. I was mistaken. It seems that green means that bodas can still hurtle out of nowhere and mow you down. I decided that my best strategy was to lurk near a traffic police officer at the junctions, so at least if I did get hit, there might be someone there who could help.
I made it to the Immigration office by 9 and was signalled towards the correct department. There was a wait whilst the immigration officers were in a meeting, and at half past nine I joined the crush to get to the appropriate window. I wasn’t quite sure where, so I showed my paperwork to an official looking lady who told me that in fact the paper was wrong. It said I had nothing to pay, but in fact I should pay $250 dollars, and I should first go to DTB bank to make a payment, get a receipt and then return. I wasn’t surprised. I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t been charged by the electronic system, so it seemed a reasonable request. This required Uber number 1 (I have never done Uber.) Uber driver number 1 was ingenious and took me to a branch of the bank in an industrial area where there was going to be less of a wait than in the central branch. He explained that the ‘whole problem’ with Uganda was that everything was corrupt. Starting with the top. His fare was 4500 shillings. Ironically, he also told me when he dropped me off that the technology meant he couldn’t accept a payment of less than 5000. That, I learned later, is incorrect.
As I entered the shiny, air conditioned quiet bank and was ushered to a seat, I felt my confidence start to ebb away. I might just be entering a vortex of bureaucracy which would be difficult to climb out of. But my despondency was misplaced. A helpful lady wrote an ‘assessment’ which explained what I needed to pay for and she sent me to the bank teller. For some reason, she converted the dollar amount into Ugandan Shillings. And I had carefully come prepared with exactly the right amount of dollars to pay, and far fewer Ugandan shillings. I anticipated another ‘’challenge’’ (the euphemism for ‘difficulty’ which is common round here.) But I didn’t need to worry. I paid a mixed bunch of notes, and got a stamped receipt and was ready to go to do immigration again. Thank you, Uber driver number 2.
Happily this time I met with Daniel and Rachel from the hospital guest house who are also in town for visa issues so I had company and reassurance that I was in the right huddle by the right doorway. So first I had to go and have the payment I had made verified. A few minutes standing in an office, some polite smiling and a big hefty stamp, then to the next door. At that door, the lady asked me for all my documents. She looked at my bundle and asked where the ‘’Recommendation Letter from an NGO Bureau’’ was. I don’t have a recommendation letter from an NGO bureau as I work in a hospital, not an NGO. This caused my second dip in confidence. But she took my documents and passport and suggested I wait till my name was called. At midday I took my place on the tin benches under the tin roof to baste gently in the 36 degree heat. It was so interesting to watch. People clutching passports from so many places, Eritrea, Sudan, Nigeria. Indian nuns and Asian businessmen, Chinese entrepreneurs. From time to time a tall confident man would emerge from the office with a sheaf of papers and passports and call out the names of those to go forward. This was exciting. This was going to be the stage of actually being granted a visa.
By 1 o’clock I had been called forward, had my fingerprints taken, my photo taken, my signature electronically scanned and I had my passport back in my hand and in it, a lovely red-orange visa entitling me to stay here for a year. What a wonderful feeling.
It was a long process but there was a system, and the system was friendly and orderly enough. There was no pushing and shoving, there were no raised voices, and lots of politeness and smiles. It felt quite moving to encounter the functioning of the state at close quarters like this. I thought about what a privilege it is to be granted leave by another country to be allowed to remain in it and work in it. I thought about how the immigration system in the UK is actively hostile towards outsiders, both explicitly in its policy, and implicitly in its practice, especially when people arrive whose skin is a different colour or whose name sounds strange. And here I was, receiving permission to consider this country home for the coming months without suspicion of my motives or confrontation or downright dismissal of my case and my information. What a fortunate position to be in.
I celebrated by going to Accacia Mall (thanks to Uber driver number 3 who supplements his Uber income by playing bass guitar in a jazz band.) Accacia Mall the place where the Mzungus and the richest Ugandans go to shop and to eat ice-cream and hang out. I bought myself a cheese sandwich and a coke (oh the delight after so many weeks without) and then felt a mixture of awkwardness and familiarity as I browsed in the bookshop and gawped at the groceries and the luxuries in glorious technicolour, well beyond the possible imaginings of those back in Buhoma.
Uber driver number 4 took me back to Kinglsey’s. We sat in the rush hour (slow hour) traffic whilst the boda-bodas bobbed in and out, drove on the pavements and the matatus stopped in front of us without warning. ‘‘Kampala… it is somehow hectic….’’ he commented.
And I will have to do it all over again in a couple of months with the rest of the family…Ah well. It’s an adventure.