Traffic

Clea and I have recently bought a new car. We couldn’t continue without one because we found ourselves increasingly using boda bodas to get around. A boda boda is the name in Uganda for small motorbike taxis. Kampala has thousands of them, mostly chinese made Boxers. They’re cheap, easy to use and convenient, but they’re also dangerous. No helmets are provided. Using a boda boda to get around is in the same category as using petrol to light a BBQ or a hand grenade as a paperweight. The kind of thing your mother would be firmly against. While growing up my mother worried if I left the house wearing slightly damp clothes, she worried that I might fatally stab myself if I moved too fast while holding scissors. Compared to running with scissors riding a boda boda is like brandishing a loaded hand gun while running down a steep hill, over rough ground, in the dark, drunk. It’s dangerous and we are well aware of that, we work in a hospital, we’ve seen the bodies.

Boda carrying charcoal

So that’s the main drawback of boda bodas, but they also have benefits. A boda boda driver is happy to take two passengers and will even squeeze on three (four people, one motorbike); if you have a small child you can prop them on the handle bars. Luggage is also no problem. Recently  I have seen a boda carrying a large lorry tyre plus passenger, a boda carrying a BBQ made from half an oil drum and a boda carrying a large stack of white plastic garden chairs. Possibly the most ludicrous thing I have seen transported by a single Boda is a sofa. When not hindered by a sofa a Boda will always find a way through the traffic, even if this involves riding on the wrong side of the road, the wrong way around a round-about, on the pavement (in the few places that pavements exist), or down a long muddy track for around 500 yards through the middle of a slum and over a railway track. I know all of the above from first hand experience.

 

The other option for the car-less traveler is the Matatu. Matatus are taxi minibuses, Toyota Hiace vans converted to seat 14 passengers. The conversion involves sticking banners across the top of the front and rear windscreen bearing slogans in support of either: Jesus, Allah, Man-United, or Arsenal, infusing the interior with a powerful body odor scent, tuning the engine to blow clouds of black smoke from the exhaust pipe and welding four rows of three seats in the back. The seat at the end of the front three rows folds to allow access to the seats further back. This combined with minimal leg room means that passengers are constantly being shuffled around to allow passengers on and off which may result in fellow passengers, or more likely the conductor, sitting on your lap. The legal capacity of a Matatu is 14 passengers and in Kampala they stay close to this quota, but don’t count the conductor despite the fact that he needs somewhere to sit while handing out change and hollering out of the window.

Matatus

Matatus operate into and out of a central hub called the bus park. There are two bus parks located right next to each other in central Kampala. One is called the new bus park and the other, the old bus park. They are both equally chaotic. Bustling does not do them justice, perhaps scrambling. From an outsiders perspective it is madness, but from this chaos a functioning mass-transit system grows. I have a cousin who has a degree in transport studies. If he is ever looking for a Phd subject I will strongly advocate the bus park. Five years should be just long enough to make sense of it.

 

Matatus are driven with a reckless disregard for human life but they are still safer than Bodas they are also cheaper, their main drawback is speed, they are slow, they cannot avoid jams (they are the jams), plus they stop constantly to pick up passengers which involves either shuffling, if there are lots of passengers, or just waiting for as long as it takes for sufficient passengers to show up if there are few.

 

Traffic Jams are a big problem in Kampala. Kampala has traffic jams for the same reason as all of the world’s capitals, too many cars. Where Kampala may be unique is that most of Kampala’s traffic jams also involve a man in a white boiler suit and black wellington boots standing at the front blowing a whistle. This is the uniform of the traffic police. Most of the stories you will hear about the traffic police involve bribes, but in addition to their penchant for petty corruption they also have a remarkable ability to create traffic mayhem simply through standing at the front of a traffic jam waving their arms and blowing a whistle.

Controlling traffic for the police involves two separate stances. One is standing blowing your whistle and waving traffic onwards. The other is stopping the flow of traffic to allow another column of cars to move. The second stance is much more difficult to achieve than the first. Especially in Kampala. Cars don’t stop, they don’t stop for anything, if they can help it. Now if you’re a policeman this is not only dangerous, but it also undermines your authority, bear in mind these police can be bribed with an apple (true story), they already have precious little authority. Whatever the reason most of Kampala’s traffic police opt to spend the vast majority of their time in stance one, blowing a whistle and waving at cars. Option one equals the path of least resistance.

The result is that you can sit at a junction in Kampala and not move for ten minutes or more while the police whistle enthusiastically. During this time a huge queue will build up. So huge that further down the line it starts to block up other junctions, cars give up waiting and perform risky and dangerous U-turns and then impatient drivers pull out and drive against the oncoming traffic forming new lanes with new queues and eventually totally blocking oncoming traffic. This chaos usually spreads just about far enough from the junction for it to overlap with the zone of mayhem from the next traffic cop doing exactly the same thing at another junction. Through this mechanism the traffic police manage to create a web of traffic disaster. You have to feel sorry for the traffic police. If there is one rule about driving in Uganda it is that there are no rules (though broadly speaking most cars stick to the left). This is not an easy environment in which to impose order with a whistle.

A Kampala bumper

Traffic without rules is an interesting experience. It feels a lot more organic than the rigid rules of British driving. Congested traffic behaves more like a crowd of people. If you’ve ever been on the London underground at rush hour you’ll have experienced something similar. There are no road markings on the roads so lanes form and dissolve naturally depending on the number of vehicles the road can accommodate. No car automatically has priority over another car, priority is decided on a case by case basis and comes down to size, speed and aggression. You will never experience more efficient filtering. Every gap is exploited. Jams are literally bumper to bumper.

Remarkably there is very little road rage in Kampala. Clea did once see a man get out of his car and wave a handgun at a pedestrian that had caused him to break sharply, but apart from that this madness seemingly goes on without tempers fraying. This might seem remarkable, but when I think it through, it is kind of logical. In the UK road rage is usually fueled by the righteous indignation of certain drivers who get all hot and bothered about some other road users’ transgression perceived or otherwise. When reckless insanity is the norm and there are no rules to break what is there to get upset about?

No rules no rage, it’s the idealized rhetoric of an anarchists manifesto, but there are drawbacks to anarchy. In 2007 there were over 2,000 reported road traffic fatalities in Uganda [1], a similar number of deaths to the UK’s 2,222 fatalities in 2009[2]. Uganda and the UK may have a similar number of fatalities, but the UK has twice the population of Uganda and a great many more cars and unfortunately many deaths go unreported in Uganda. Per capita the reported death rate is about 70% higher in Uganda and this statistic is compounded by the fact that Uganda has fewer roads. Uganda has only 70,000 sq km of road compared to the UK’s 394,000 (and 77% of Uganda’s roads are unpaved). On a death per km of road basis the rate of fatalities in Uganda is 5 times that of the UK and I’d expect any comparison of death per mile travelled to be even more damming.

Traffic control is clearly badly needed and one form of traffic control that has proliferated to a ridiculous degree in Uganda is the speedbump. They are in places almost as numerous as the potholes, or the inverse speedbump, which Kampala is famous for. In fact the two often go together which makes for some interesting topography. Potholes before and after speed bumps amplify the effect while speedbumps with potholes on top of them will eventually wear away, though before that occurs the bump will pass through a longitudinal volcano phase with the pothole creating an oval caldera, which is particularly interesting to negotiate when perched on the back of a Boda. So far I am yet to encounter a speedbump within a pothole, but surely it is just a matter of time. As a traffic calming measure the only thing that differentiates a pothole from a speedbump are the road markings; conveniently Ugandan speedbumps do not come with road markings, so there they are effectively the same thing and they can be just as dangerous and inconveniently placed. There is one speedbump near our house which has been positioned on a fairly fast bend, but only covering half the road. Rather than slow cars down this bump simply pushes them into oncoming traffic.

Dude where's my road!

Potholes are the other major cause of congestion in Kampala. It is difficult to describe just how many of them there are and just how huge some of them have become. It is as if Kampala has recently endured a prolonged artillery bombardment or the roads have a terminal case of a degenerative wasting disease. In Kampala there is a saying: ‘if you’re driving in a straight line you must be drunk’. The roads have been left to rot. The worst roads in the country are in Kampala the country’s economic hub. I don’t know if it is indifference, incompetence, short-sightedness or the result of corruption. What I do know is when driving up a steep hill don’t stay too close behind a big lorry. The lorries can’t easily manoeuvre themselves around the worst potholes so hit them head on. When they hit a big one they loose momentum and can start to roll backwards.

Lorries roll backwards down hills not just because of the state of the road surface, but because the lorries are badly maintained. Clea and I once saw three lorries that had been involved in a pile up on the road from Kampala to Jinja. Two of them were upside down in a ditch at the side of the road, you could easily see that most of the 24 or so tyres on view were completely bald. They had been driving through a patch of rainforest.

The lack of any kind of vehicle safety certificate does have advantages. In the UK most cars are scrapped when they fail an MOT, when it is more economical to scrap a car than pay to make it safe. Ever wondered how long you can drive an unsafe car for before it stops working. It turns out it is a very long time indeed. Even on Kampala roads. Combine no road safety certificates with cheap labour and innovative mechanics and the life span of a car can be extended to an unfeasibly long time. The upshot of this is that cars devalue slower in Uganda than they would in the UK, which is remarkable considering the wear and tear a car sustains driving on Kampala’s roads. Having said that there is a limit, you’re not going to see a vintage car lovingly restored in Kampala. If you love your car you will get it out!

The below is a little video, hastily stuck together, of some of our driving in Kampala experiences.

 

[1] Ugandan road fatalities 2007.

http://www.transaid.org/projects/working-to-develop-national-road-safety-strategy,-uganda,-december-2008

[2] UK Road fatalities 2009

http://www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/statistics/datatablespublications/accidents/casualtiesmr/rrcgbmainresults2009

24 Hour Hospital Makeover

Kampala Bombing

As you’ve probably heard by now Kampala was rocked by multiple bomb blasts on Sunday taking over 70 innocent lives and counting. This meant an extremely busy night at International Hospital Kampala (IHK) the hospital where Clea and I both work (though as administrators not medics). One of the bombs was detonated in a local restaurant called the Ethiopian Village in a district called Kabalagala, less than ten minutes drive from the hospital. Kabalagala is concentrated around a strip of seedy bars. It is a popular place to watch football, drink beer and eat BBQ. There is also ample opportunity for gambling and prostitution. All in all not the type of place that hard-line Islamic extremists tend to approve of. It was probably a combination of fanatical intolerance and Al-Shabab’s animosity towards Ethiopia following the 2006 invasion of Somalia that prompted the terrorists to select this innocuous restaurant as a location for their callous demonstration of inhumanity.

To give you an idea of just how barbaric this act was, most of the injuries that were seen in the hospital were head wounds inflicted by small steel pellets or pieces of brass shrapnel. I’m no munitions engineer, so I wouldn’t even like to speculate as to what type of device inflicts wounds like that, but you don’t have to have a qualification in murder to understand that whatever it was it was designed for slaughter. I think the anodyne military term is an anti-personnel device, which sounds rather like something that belongs in HR. If you see the pictures of the bomb site there seems to be minimal damage to the building, no broken walls, no scorch marks. In the pictures from the Rugby club rows of white plastic chairs sit relatively undisturbed, unremarkable except for the occasional corpse slumped where a man was once sat enjoying a football match.

Just knowing that there are people in this world capable of such a thing is enough to cause me to despair. Were it not for the incredible compassion I have seen demonstrated by the staff at IHK this episode would have left me feeling very bleak indeed. These dedicated professionals have worked flat out over the last couple of days to save peoples lives and by doing so have inadvertently saved my faith in humanity too. The below extract from an open letter written by the Chairman of IHK, Dr Ian Clarke, to the staff sums it up for me:

I am very saddened by what happened – for the American’s family, the Ugandans and the Ethiopians who have died needlessly. But it is also gratifying to go round the ward this morning and see patients who were covered in blood last night and for whom I might not have given much of a chance, sitting up in bed and smiling and at least those with serious head injuries are getting the best possible chance and some will pull through. This is what we are all about folks, and I mean all of us . . .

On the night of July 11th 48 of the injured were brought to IHK. Last night we had six patients in the intensive care unit, three critical, three stable and 19 still on the wards. Sadly eight of the patients admitted died.

If you would also like to help those affected you can do so by donating towards the cost of their care. Uganda is a poor country and many of the victims cannot afford to contribute anything towards their medical bills. Where this is the case the cost of care is paid for by the hospital’s charity. If you want to help contribute, you can do so here:

http://blog.suubitrust.org.uk/giving/

You can also read personal stories about some of the victims and more about the charitable work the hospital does here: http://blog.suubitrust.org.uk. The hospital’s website is here: http://www.img.co.ug.

African Summer Time

No time for an original photo this week I'm afraid.

Clea and I were missing the UK this weekend; I tend to keep up with the papers back home and noted that they were all crowing about the heat wave weekend with all the accompanying images of Brighton Beach or Hyde Park. Throw an England v Germany World Cup match, Glastonbury weekend and Wimbeldon into the mix and it should be enough to trigger the emergency repatriation clause in any good Englishman’s travel insurance.

It’s strange that a heat wave should have any attraction to a couple who live in a state of perpetual summer. The weather on any given day in Kampala is sunny and pleasant enough that it would prompt nationwide news coverage if it were replicated in Bournemouth on a weekend in June, but in Kampala, with the weather being as predictable as night follows day, pleasant weather is no cause for celebration. In this regard living in Kampala is a bit like ground hog day, if ground hog day were to fall on a nice sunny day with perhaps the chance of a thunder storm in the evening. Imagine waking up every morning to a perfect summer’s day, it won’t be long before the novelty of cooking outdoors wears off and all the grass under the paddling pool dies.

As it is currently mid summer in Europe it is almost the closest thing we get to winter here. The sun is as far from the equator as it is going to get until, in six months time, it is mid summer in the southern hemisphere. I say almost as the southern hemisphere ‘winter’ is the nearest the sun ever gets to abandoning us as we are about 20 miles north of the equator. For Kampala of course this is all rather academic, you really can’t tell whether the sun is any closer or further away than any other day or month and the change in day length is imperceptible. The only seasons there are in Kampala are wet and dry. We have experienced what is known as a wet season, it does rain a bit more, but the sun is still very much present. A more accurate description would be wetter and dryer season. Not a patch on February in Swansea when the entire city is permanently wrapped with drizzling cloud and you’re lucky to even see the sun before April.

I was wondering about how this lack of seasons effects you when I came across a lecture by Standford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo in which he says:

“The closer you are to the equator the more present orientated you are. The more you are in an environment where climate doesn’t change. It gives you a set of matching sameness rather than change.”

Professor Zimbardo’s theory is that the lack of seasons makes people present orientated. He categorises present orientated people as either fatalistic or hedonistic, living for the present rather than the future or the past. Categorising whole countries, races and cultures based on their latitude is, I admit, a sweeping generalisation, but for me it has at least the ring of truth. The lack of seasons does seem to have an impact on your concept of time.

Back home I used the seasons as markers, before the summer I’ll do this, we want to have moved house by Spring, or more often than not just, I can’t wait for summer. None of this applies here; though Clea has recently started telling me that we need to use all of our life savings to buy a car before the impending ‘wet’ season. I’m taking a more economically minded view of the future and considering an umbrella.

In my last job the seasons marked the year out quite literally because the financial quarter days were a significant part of what I did, paying rents on the buildings that our client’s occupied. It’s no coincidence that the financial quarter days fall almost exactly on the summer and winter solstice and the spring and autumn equinox, spring, summer, autumn, winter. Time is money, in this case in the form of rent. I was explaining to my friend Mike recently why I couldn’t be bothered wasting time haggling in markets because invariably the amounts we end up haggling over were small. Below a certain threshold it’s not worth my time arguing over it, time is money. He laughed and said this is not a concept that exists in Africa. Tell an African that time is money and they will just look at you confused – ‘but there’s plenty of time and hardly any money’.

There is a phrase here ‘African Time’ which is used fairly frequently to explain why everything is late, or more accurately not running to a schedule at all. Writers talk about the African’s unbreakable willingness to wait. You can see an example of this on the buses that run around Kampala. They are privately owned minibuses known as Matatus, they’re cheap, they go most places and are an OK way to get around if you don’t mind waiting in traffic inhaling stale body odour, but they don’t run to a schedule. Generally they’re frequent so it’s not a problem, but if you’re unlucky enough to be on an empty one, don’t be surprised if you just have to just sit and wait until it fills up with passengers. The time for the bus to leave is when the bus is full of passengers. This is a concept that can be a little annoying for a European but is quite natural for an African.

The Polish author Ryszard Kapuscinski who spent most of his life living in and writing about Africa and who considered the African the Olympic Champions of waiting wrote the following about Africa’s relationship to time while waiting for four hours for a bus in a similar scenario:

“Africans apprehend time differently. For them, it is a much looser concept, more open, elastic, subjective. It is man who influences time, its shape, course, and rhythm (man acting, of course, with the consent of gods and ancestors). Time is even something that man can create outright, for time is made manifest through events, and whether an event takes place or not depends, after all, on man alone. If two armies do not engage in a battle, then that battle will not occur (in other words, time will not have revealed its presence, will not have come into being).”

I’ve embedded the Philip Zimbardo’s ten minute lecture on how we perceive time here: It’s animated!

You can read the introduction to Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book of collected writings on Africa, The Shadow of the Sun, here:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/reader/0679779078/ref=sib_dp_pt#reader-page

You can also buy it, which I’d recommend because it is excellent.

Phil Does Development Studies

For the last four months I have been waking up everyday in a developing country. As someone born and raised in the West who has previously had little experience of countries like Uganda this has been a bit of an eye opener. Before I arrived I’d seen all sorts of horrific things about Africa on TV shows usually presented by celebrities holding back the tears telling us that ‘through all the misery the thing that shines through is the incredible strength human spirit in the face of adversity’ etc etc. So I was prepared for hunger and poverty, but so far it has not been the poverty that has struck me, or the strength of human spirit for that matter. What has struck me is the bits of society that are missing in Kampala that I had previously taken for granted at home.

For example in the UK we have electricity that stays on all the time; that an electrical grid is permanently maintained over such a vast area now seems remarkable, were as before it was just normal. You can accuse me of ignorance but have you ever stopped and thought what the world would be like without MOTs? I hadn’t until I started getting enveloped in thick black exhaust smoke with death-defying regularity.

I now appreciate better the meaning of developing country. Developing because the institutions that provide much of what is taken for granted in the developed world have yet to develop. There is an entire academic discipline, Development Studies, that attempts to describe how to create an environment that will cultivate these institutions. I’ve only been here four months. I have no idea how to put the development puzzle together, but living in Uganda you can’t help but learn what some of the pieces of the development puzzle are. I wrote the following slightly embellished description of getting up and walking to work to try and illustrate a few of them:

I am woken by the sound of stray dogs barking due to the total absence of any organisation private, public or charity willing to tackle the problem of packs of stray dogs roaming the streets. I go back to sleep, it’s only 12.30. I am once again awoken, this time by the sound of the neighbour’s cockerel, admittedly quaint, but also very annoying especially on Saturdays. I now understand those by-laws against keeping farm yard animals in urban settings. Another day dawns; due to this country’s 13% p.a. rate of inflation [1] every 10,000 Ugandan Shillings I own is only worth 9,996 schillings in yesterday’s money. I get up and flick the light switch, but there is no light, power cuts are common; maybe one of the unplanned unregulated construction projects that are noisily going on in the neighbourhood has hit a cable. I hope not too many of the casual labourers were badly hurt due to the absence of anything like health and safety legislation. I use my asthma inhaler for the first time that day (thank you NHS). They were burning rubbish again in the night, three quarters of the city’s waste goes uncollected [2]. (Most of what is collected is burned in poorly managed incinerators anyway). I take a piss in the dark then flush. 90% of Kampala’s sewage goes straight into Lake Victoria, untreated [3] (Lake Victoria is freshwater so the bugs will get on just fine in there). I jump in the shower, the water is from Lake Victoria and I’m told it has some treatment. I do my best not to swallow any. I eat my delicious breakfast of locally grown fresh fruit, no complaints there. I put on my walking boots. The roads are poorly designed and badly constructed, they are not maintained by any agency whatsoever except the occasional public spirited fly tipper who takes the opportunity to dump debris into the gigantic holes between the patches of tarmac. It rained overnight; the roads have turned into treacherous rivers of mud. I set off. Before I leave I hand the key to my apartment to the 26 year old man that cleans it. He tells us that one day he hopes to be able to afford to finish school. There is no state funded education beyond primary level. He’s grateful for the job (there are no up to date unemployment statistics because there is no unemployment benefit, but the 2002 census had unemployment in Kampala at 49%). On my walk to work I’m overtaken by worn minibuses and motorbike riders without helmets carrying multiple passengers (public transport). All the vehicles trail clouds of acrid black smoke. It appears there is no such thing as a certificate of road worthiness; also there is no effective control over fuel quality. I’m told many of the petrol stations mix their fuel with cheaper Kerosene; another pump on the asthma inhaler. I pass numerous houses guarded by armed men. For better or worse the government has liberal attitudes towards gun control. The wealthy live in guarded compounds surrounded by walls topped by broken glass and razor wire, a product of ineffective policing, judiciary or  inequality? I take a short cut through the slum making sure to hold my breath as I pass the pit latrine and avert my eyes  from the lady showering outside behind a low wall under a bucket. I arrive at work and settle down to deal with my post. It doesn’t take long; there is no functional postal system.

I’d hate for anyone to interpret the above as whinging. I am very fortunate to have running water, a flushing toilet, security, someone that cleans my house, an asthma inhaler, breakfast and a job to walk to. A great many people do not have such luxuries. This is just an attempt to illustrate the remarkable number of civil functions that I no longer take for granted.

1. Ugandan Inflation Rate CIA World Fact Book

2. The New Vision, Kampala: A Mountain of Garbage

3. The New Vision: Multi-billion project to clean up polluted Nakivubo channel underway

The Twitchers Part 2

In this week’s episode the Twitchers go in search of a rare species of stalk with a habit for putting it’s foot in it’s mouth.

A Guide to Ugandan Beer Part 1.

Ugandan’s love their beer as much as the next country despite the fact that neither barley (as we know it) nor hops grow here. Barley will only grow at high or low latitudes because it requires seasonal rainfall patterns. More recently barley hybrids have been developed that will grow at or close to the equator and SAB Miller has been pioneering equatorial barley agriculture in Kapchorwa in Eastern Uganda.

That doesn’t mean that Ugandans are recent beer converts, beer brewed using Millet or Sorghum has been a traditional part of African life for thousands of years, but you can’t buy this stuff in bars. The modern Ugandan beer market is dominated by a few multinational breweries selling bottled lager made to ‘European standards’ using mainly imported barley malt. (Where are CAMRA when you need them?) The two big breweries in Uganda are Uganda Breweries (a subsidiary of East Africa Breweries which is itself a Diageo subsidiary) and Nile Breweries (SAB Miller). Their flagship beers, both bottled lagers, are ‘Bell’ and ‘Nile Special’ respectively. Despite the inevitable fact that both breweries are owned by massive multinationals both beers are allegedly local brews dating back to the 50s.

Bell claims to have the largest market share (25%). It is a fairly good middle of the road lager. The kind of average beer you’d expect to be market leader. It’s refreshing and drinkable, but at the same time has just enough body and flavour to stop it tasting like it has been watered down. It’s a classic 4% lager. Bell markets itself as an aspirational beer for confident people. Perhaps as an attempt to make hay out of one of Bell’s biggest selling point over its arch rival Nile: that it is less likely to put you on your back like a tramp (Bell is 4% compared to Nile’s 5.6%), but maybe not, because all beer advertising in Uganda is weirdly aspirational.

This is the advert that Bell are currently running on Ugandan television. To me the ‘Confidently You’ slogan makes it sound like they are selling sanitary towels:

Nile is a fuller bodied more flavoursome beer, but if you’re not careful it will get you pissed (it is beer after all). I’ve not seen a television ad for Nile, but I’ve heard plenty of radio ads and seen the posters:

I'm a judge and my verdict is - your round builder.

Supposedly Nile is the drink of the hard working, successful piss-head. The tag line ‘You’ve Earned It’ is fairly innocuous in the context of a shiny adverting posters, but does have a darker subtext if you take into account that some of the people drinking the stuff probably have less frivolous things to spend their hard earned wages on, like basic nutrition for their numerous dependents. What you can’t see looking at the above poster is that it was on the corner of two mud roads in the middle of no-where next to a dilapidated shack. (Still I’ve seen a Mercedes advertised in Derby which seems equally pointless.)

By now I realise that in Uganda beer is not really the drink of the poor. That distinction goes to various types of gin-like spirits which are sold in plastic sachets. The bigger ones resemble the kind of thing you might find hooked up to a drip. A 50ml sachet of the popular Bekham Gin will set you back about 500 schillings or 16 pence, (the price of an avocado during avocado season), a 500ml bottle of Nile or Bell costs between 1,500 and 3,000 schillings depending on the clientele of the establishment. That averages out at about 70 pence per 500ml bottle (the cost of a good sized Tilapia (fish) at market).

Did you know: When you buy beer from a shop in Uganda as well as paying for the beer you also have to put down a deposit for the bottle. The deposit can be over a third of the total price, so there is a heavy incentive to return the bottle. The returned bottles are washed and re-used. Very environmentally friendly!

34% Less Beer and a New Bottle!

34% Less Free!

Both breweries are also pushing premium lagers, the imaginatively titled Nile Gold and Tusker Premium. These come in 330 ml bottles, smaller than the standard 500ml bottle, and cost more. This is a favorite trick of beer marketing departments across the world. It relies on the circular logic that because something costs more it must be worth more. This seems to work for some people, despite what I regard as the product’s blatant deficiency, there isn’t very much of it. The slogan for Tusker premium is “Take Time to Appreciate The New 330ml Bottle”. You’d better take your time that’s the size of a can of coke.

Tusker premium is an East African breweries lager, so it’s from the same stable as Bell. Tusker ‘Inferior’, the 500ml standard version, is a Kenyan beer which is sold almost as widely as Nile and Bell. In restaurants they often charge extra for it. The menu lists Local Beers at 2,500, meaning Nile and Bell, Foreign Beers – i.e. Kenyan, i.e Tusker at 3,000, and Premium Beers at 3,500. Though Tusker is a Kenyan beer I’m fairly certain it is made at Port Bell just outside Kampala like all the other Diagio products. I suppose this puts Tusker in the same category as those exotic continental lagers in the UK like Stella and Kronenberg which come all the way from Burton.

The only beer that is widely available that is not from either of the two big breweries is Moonberg. It also comes in a 500ml bottle and sells for around 2,500 in a restaurant. I can’t gleam much information about it’s origins from the website, at least part of which has been hacked by Islamic hackers and now carriers slogans for Allah rather than lager, but I think it is produced by Parambot Breweries, Gayaza Road, Kampala. So it seems that Moonberg may be the only beer on sale that is owned locally. Parambot are better known for making the spirit pouches than they are for beer, the following is an extract from their website:

Parambot Breweries is known for producing the best spirits of Royal Vodka Africa No 1 and Royal Whisky(Peoples` Choice). We are the leading Company that produces products that cannot cause hungover, headeche. Our products have sweet aroma and are smooth and gentle on the throat.

Some bold claims. They also claim that Moonberg is made to German Standards, which is possible; it is one of the better beers available, but unlikely. Nothing in Uganda is made to German standards except perhaps their pop singers.

The one exception to the lager hegemony is Guinness Foreign Extra (Stout) – the super strength version of Guinness – which is widely available and popular. Guinness (Diageo) currently sponsors Uganda’s television coverage of the English premiership. This beer will be familiar to anyone who has been to the Nottinghill Carnival where you can buy it freshly imported from Nigeria. I was reminded of this recently when the Ugandan Irish Society imported numerous crates of Guinness Original from Dublin for its St. Patrick’s Day celebration.

The Ugandan Guinness and the Irish Guinness are certainly very different beers; the foreign extra available in Uganda is stronger and has a more burnt flavour to it. This beer, though brewed in various forms all over the world, does have a claim to be uniquely African. In 1985/1986 the Nigerian Government banned the import of Barley Malt. This forced Guinness/Diageo to substitute the barley malt in its Nigerian Guinness with sorghum malt, an ingredient of traditional African beer. Since sales did not suffer and profitability presumably improved as sorghum could be sourced locally, the sorghum stayed even after the ban was lifted. Guinness has long known that adverts with horses surfing counts for more than taste and tradition when it comes to beer drinkers. The last bottle of Guinness I bought in Kampala (either brewed locally at Port Bell or in Kenya) had ‘Contains Barley Malt’ on the label. ‘Contains’ is marketing speak for ‘Doesn’t Contain Very Much’; when you next see a soda with ‘Contains Real Fruit Juice’ on the label check the ingredients and you’ll see they are using Contains in the homeopathic sense. I’m fairly certain that it was brewed using primarily sorghum malt. I don’t know why Guinness shy away from the sorghum in their beer. It should be embraced as being African. Especially in today’s environment with so much emphasis placed on sustainability and locally sourced materials.

Ugandan’s drink enthusiastically, so it is a shame that the Ugandan brewing industry is dominated by foreign multinationals who have managed to shoehorn their brewing techniques (“Brewed to German Standards”) into an African environment. Africa’s biggest brewer is SAB Miller, the SAB stands for South African Breweries: prior to the development of equatorial barley the best place in Africa for growing barley was South Africa which has the necessary seasonal rainfall. Beer brewed using barley malt has been brewed in SA since Dutch settlers first harvested barley there in the 17thC, so it’s no surprise that they now dominate the market. The beer the multinationals produce in Uganda is good, if a little homogeneous. The problem is that the beer is made from relatively expensive imported materials so it’s more expensive than perhaps it could be; aspirational beer minus the spin is beer for rich people. Where I come from beer is an every-mans drink. To someone from the UK like me beer in Uganda seems cheap, but I think they can do better. I think they can do cheaper. I’d like to see cheaper beer, and who in the world would object to that sentiment.

Post Script: I have to admit to writing all of the above without even trying the local, traditional beer, which although not sold in bars is produced in places on a fairly large cottage industry scale. I shall rectify this situation and fully intend to write a future post on the subject. Will my aversion to bananas stretch to banana beer? All shall be revealed in Part 2.

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