Shaken by Kampala

I remain jarred and shocked by the bombings in Kampala, Uganda last week which took the lives of more than 70 people in the midst of enjoying the World Cup games.  The region has certainly experienced terrorist attacks – the 2002 attack on a hotel and Israeli plane in Mombasa, Kenya and the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. While Uganda itself has dealt with a great deal of violence in the past and the rebel conflict in the north continues, Kampala is a relatively safe place.

I spent a week in Kampala in June 2008.  People are awake and moving at all hours.  I felt comfortable going out for Chinese food in town and having drinks late night at a bar.  While at the Hotel Serena to attend a few conference sessions, I remember coming out onto the long driveway of the hotel to wait for friends to pick me up.  I eventually walked to the busy street, and the guard asked me kindly if I would like a taxi.  I felt as safe as I could have felt at home in Atlanta.  As the daytime heat gave way to a cool evening, I stood wrapped in a shawl, exhilarated.  I never worried about coming and leaving my hotel, Kabira Country Club, at any time I pleased.  I even gave directions to Mulago Hospital to our driver for a planned site visit on one of the days, where we spoke to a number of nurses and doctors about their HIV programs.  I am chilled to read about the scene at the main hospital the night of the bombings.

Kampala is a city of two million people with narrow roads, horrendous traffic, and heavy air pollution.  I rarely experienced any power cuts – Ugandan colleagues told me proudly that this has to do with the fact that the hydroelectric grid based there provides electricity to its neighboring countries of the Great Lakes region. Juxtaposed against that is the terrible state of the roads.  No one appears to have repaved them since the British left.  Cars bump along ever-present potholes which allow water to stagnate in what is a rainy country, and which in turn causes malarial mosquitoes.

Kampala is a city of hills and valleys.  It is a city of disparities.  You can see the shacks and tin houses on the edges of the roads, with tiny plots of maize and maybe a few plantain trees and you can see gorgeous orange-tiled houses on the hills.  It is a place I came to love in the very short time I was there.

Previous attacks appear to have focused on specific targets for political reasons – so has this one.  Al Shabaab, the Islamist extremist group from Somalia, charged with the bombings, struck an Ethiopian restaurant as well as Kyadondo Rugby club, frequented by expats and locals.  The difference seems to be the number of local people affected.  Between this and the pirate attacks, should the global community regret not having done more to stabilize Somalia in the early 1990s?  As a failed and violent state, it presents danger to its own people and to its neighbors. Al-Qaeda itself appears to have become a brand name that can be adopted by a host of disparate extremists.

I was living in London during the June 2005 bombings, which shook me as well; however, the very next day, I got on the Tube, defiant and resilient – and that is the best way to fight terrorism, isn’t it – to not be scared.  I know that the residents of Uganda have that spirit even as they question what happened and why. I hope to be able to visit this wonderful city again sometime soon.

*Photograph courtesy of


4 thoughts on “Shaken by Kampala

  1. Between this and the pirate attacks, should the global community regret not
    having done more to stabilize Somalia in the early 1990s?

    Audrey Hepburn did her UNICEF work in Somalia in the early 90s. Would the broadcast and communications technology of today have been able to galvanize more effort for political change?

    This just breaks my heart.

    This is from 1988 regarding her trip to Ethiopia. Just look at those eyes.

    It seems people are always able to send in nurturers, but not enough protectors. And if NATO is supposed to be both, how effective are they?

    1. Actually, my understanding of the Somalia situation is that the real-time media and communication loops of even back in the early 90s (CNN mainly to be fair) were what discouraged US continuation of involvement there. Clinton pulled the US out of the war after the events of Black Hawk Down and repeated images being played on the 24-hour cycle of news of bodies of American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. Without US military presence, NATO and UN efforts were slowly undermined as well.

      Sometimes broadcast technology and communications technology works negatively in these incidences because people jump to conclusions. Popular opinion turns quickly. Yet at the same time, it is important to get news out to people so that they can galvanize to do something, as you state. It’s a tricky balance.

      Thanks for sharing the clips – we need more celebrity advocates like her. Everything about her is so real and selfless, without one ounce of pretension, ego, or self serving.

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