When in Kampala for my last holiday, I rediscovered something. Foreign exchange is the

Busia, Uganda [iv]
devil. Never in my life have I had to do so much longwinded arithmetic since the day I lied to my dad that I hadn’t gotten back any balance for buying a kilo of meat at 300/- and yet I had been given four hundred shillings. Travelling across a border will always get you in a situation where you are forced to do some kind of calculation or comparison. I remember when crossing at Busia, after finishing the immigration process, I had to look for a money teller. No, not the automatic money sucking ones with convenient banking logos emblazoned on their touch-screen interfaces. No, I am talking about walking talking people wearing money-teller jackets, carrying around wads of notes with the dismissiveness of a drug cartel kingpin. They also carry miniature calculators where they “show” you the calculation and then surreptitiously press the “-“ button so as to increase their profits.


When I found a teller, I gave him Kes. 1800 which he was supposed to multiply by 33. The man tried to con me and because my mind was fully prepared for complex multiplication I outwitted him and got my money’s worth. By the time I was back on the bus, I could feel a headache coming on. Math is too damn hard sometimes.

The comparison streak was strong as I continued with my journey. Well for one, Uganda doesn’t have a traffic authority that finds the need to stop PSVs after every twelve meters and police presence on highways that would rival a state of emergency. Is it safer there? I don’t know. All I knew was that I was happy not to have my sleep interrupted every so often.

When I got to my destination, a swarm of enthusiastic bodaboda[i] drivers hovered around me. But after the shaking I had just endured there was no way I was riding a motorbike home. That and the fact that I absolutely can’t stand bodabodas. I looked around for a taxi but none were forthcoming. For a second, I missed Nairobi’s omniscient taxis. I walked around until I found a parking bay full of cars that didn’t appear to be abandoned or on sale. When I raised my hand, a wizened old man asked me where I was going in Luganda. I tried telling him in English but he still answered in Luganda. After insisting on English for a five minute conversation that wasn’t going anywhere, he finally started speaking the language of the Commonwealth. Like it had been so hard. Unfortunately, he caught on to the fact that I didn’t know exactly where I was headed. He tried to charge me double the price upon arrival and while I am capable of haggling for as long as a pilgrim’s journey, I allowed others to deal with the charlatan and went to sleep.

A few days later, I was on a market trip for my sister’s baptism party. I was prepared to suffer from heat stroke, ruined shoes, skin disease, salmonella, theft, rabies and whatever else you can expect from a market. In Kawangware, right before Christmas, I unwisely decided to cut through the market to avoid the chaos that I would encounter at the bus stage. Sadly, I had traded the frying pan for hell. The entrance of the market was innocuous enough. Stalls of clothes, smokie vendors and shoes salesmen manned the entrance. I walked in and suddenly, I was engulfed by a throng of people. They carried me forward with inescapable momentum, like a leaf caught in a crosswind. No option but to go where the greater forces are taking you. I am no leaf. I tried turning and twisting, releasing myself from their hold but I ended up in a line of unmoving human traffic. Trying to squeeze my enormous bulk through the bending derrieres of other enormous shoppers was like trying to squeeze dry ketchup through the nozzle. Pointless. A fellow walking ahead of me resorted to pinching protruding asses and thus a small pathway for walking was created. My sandal’s straps got ruined as I tried to navigate the swarm. I couldn’t help but sneer at the last minute holiday shoppers who were gathered to buy 250 bob merchandise that was on sale at 240 bob. Sheesh.

Shopping in Nakawa, however, was a different experience altogether. There is parking. As soon as your car is parked, a young man shows up with paper bags hanging out his back pocket. He walks around the market with shoppers and carries their luggage for them. The first time I saw this I was awed by the novelty. And the fact that they only do it for USh. 5000 (Kes. 150)… These boys that ferry shoppers’ shopping get as many as 15 clients on a market day. They are also available for personal errands. You could literally call one to make purchases for you and deliver them. Kenyan Uber drivers won’t even stop to let you buy a soda without turning it into a parliamentary proceeding and yet here are young men earning their keep by running market errands. Anybody getting a business idea? Because I would sign up to never make a trip to the market again.

Feast of Nakawa
Another feast of Nakawa

Nakawa reminds me of a biblical royal feast. Fruits and vegetables are laid out like concubines in a king’s harem, ripe for the picking in all their colourful splendour. Nakawa has a roof over it. Heat stroke wasn’t a worry.

Roofed market

There was literally everything under the sun -er- shade. From deep fried fish, fresh fish, fresh meat, chapo mwitu[ii], juakali[iii] artefacts, and clothes, plenty of food…

I know supermarkets brag about being one-stop shops but they have nothing on Nakawa. It has the friendliest vendors. Not the dishonest or stone faced ones of Nairobi. The only thing I couldn’t find was mustard seeds and mustard. But that’s a rant for another day. The shocking thing is its size. It stretches from Naguru Road to Jinja Road. And it’s not even the biggest one. That would be Owino. Also in Kampala. I can already hear my bank account crying- shopping spree anyone?


[i] Public Service Motorbikes and their operators

[ii] Chapati made on the road side

[iii] Informally (open air craftsmen) structured from wood and metal

[iv] Photo credit: http://www.trademarkea.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/busia.jpg

All photos of Nakawa market by Nairobi Pedestrian.


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