Remember in my post about the old taxi park I said there were so many taxis I don’t know how anyone would find the taxi going to their destination? Well, Eden and I had to do just that. Since Fulbright is sponsored by the State Department, we all had to have a security briefing at the Embassy, so we were trying to get a taxi to Gaba Road which would pass the Embassy. We just started asking people, “Where’s the taxi for Gaba Road?” and they would point. Eventually, one nice man walked us to the right matatu—we were so relieved!
The US Embassy in Kampala is a huge fortress (sorry there are no photos, but no photography is allowed of the Embassy). After we showed our passports, left all our electronics behind, and passed security, we were admitted through the gate. Inside there was actually grass, Land Cruisers and other large government vehicles, Americans walking around in suits, and a large building that looked like a modern US office building. I felt strange and out of place after being immersed in Ugandan life. It was my first time in air conditioning since I’ve been in Uganda. The cafeteria had all kinds of American food: pizzas, tacos, bagels, mac & cheese, salads, even brownies! At first, I stood paralyzed and overwhelmed by the number of choices. If I had that much reverse culture shock after one week in Uganda, what am I going to be like after 9 months? After we finished our meetings, I stayed in the library to use their computers and free wifi (got to take advantage of the free wifi in Uganda wherever you can find it!).
The State Department Foreign Service personnel we met were extremely friendly and knowledgeable, but it’s difficult for them to integrate into Ugandan life and foster friendships with everyday Ugandans. The US Embassy personnel are highly protected behind walled offices and homes, and because they’re not allowed to take public transportation, they travel in large cars with drivers. Some Foreign Service employees volunteer with local organizations on weekends to meet Ugandans, but since assignments only last 2-3 years, the personnel are constantly leaving their local contacts and moving to new countries. While I understand the need for protection, security, and commitment to US interests, the Embassy is also supposed to foster understanding and diplomacy toward the local people. However, many Ugandans are terrified to approach the Embassy. It seems like more could be done to promote good relations and cultural exchange with more than just the Ugandan political elite.
When I left the embassy, it was raining, so I hopped in a matatu. We soon hit a jam. Kampala is notorious for its traffic, especially during rush hour. We sat in the road for 10 minutes, inched forward 30 feet, sat for another 5 minutes. All the drivers turned off their engines. Occasionally there would be a small break in the gridlock, and our aggressive taxi driver would accelerate as fast as he could through the opening. For a few moments, a cool, refreshing breeze would fill our hot matatu until we hit the wall of traffic again. I took out my book and read three chapters. At one point, a police truck with sirens and flashing blue lights tried to get through the jam. At first, none of the cars could move and the police were stuck. Eventually, they made an opening, and a line of police trucks and black cars zoomed past. Our matatu driver pushed his way into the fast lane behind the police escort, and we finally made it to Ntinda (the section of Kampala where I’m staying). It took 3 hours to travel 4.9 miles. Kampala rush hour was quite the adventure.