A night on the town

The visit of an old friend from the UK provides occasion for a Friday evening pub crawl to test Kampala’s reputation as a city that really knows how to party.

We enlist Peter, a boda boda (motorbike taxi) man whose number I once took because I was impressed by the absence of lunacy in his motoring style, and he sub-contracts another driver to help because we are a bit heavy both to sit aback just one 125cc machine. Peter had taken Tim (my friend) around town a few times the week before and has now become confused about our identities, is no longer able to tell us apart. Embarrassing for him but not surprising, really: two big, affluent (little does he know) middle aged white men who talk oddly; the commonalities must be more striking than the differences. Tim rides ahead with dependable Peter while I follow with the other guy who doesn’t seem too bad but blows it in the closing stages when, by the roundabout near the golf club, he attempts to overtake Peter—why bother?—and gets stuck behind a truck.

Thus are we delivered to Mateo’s, a smart bar in the tiny downtown area, where they frisk you on the door. At nine o’clock it is already packed with a fashionable, well-heeled crowd shouting at each other above the Afro-beat music and the sports channel video. No other white faces. Only standing room inside but we manage to find an outside table that is occupied by just one customer, who we join.

He—let’s call him George—looks to be in his late 20s, is dressed in an immaculate white shirt and possessed, at this early stage in the evening, of a somewhat starched, formal manner. He tells us that he is a high school English teacher and is looking for a publisher for a grammar textbook he has written. He then spends some minutes expounding on how he deplores American English and how England’s is the only true model. This is probably designed to please us but it falls on rather stony ground since both Tim and I, I think, like Americans, enjoy language as a living stream and are several decades past believing that it should be made to stagnate in anyone’s ‘proper’ rules. (Perhaps Tim never did believe that; but I did have a pompous spell while still at grammar school myself doing ‘box analysis’ of sentences. Nowadays the only thing that annoys me is the way that Microsoft Word keeps defaulting to US English spelling, no matter how many times you re-set it. I prefer UK spelling not for its propriety but for the way it retains kinship with other European languages, like French; gramme instead of gram. No language is an island.)

Tim turns the conversation to teaching methodologies and George, who has by now bought us another beer, does brief obeisance to fashionable pedagogy but then reveals that he has an average of 98 students in his classes, which must make pedagogical fashion pretty irrelevant. Tim taught science to similar sized classes in southern Sudan more years ago, I dare say, than he cares to remember, so there is some exchanging of notes about that.

An East Asian couple—Chinese?—make their way past the security check on the pavement, disappear inside for a few minutes and then leave.

George tells us that his father was a Muslim who, although not devout, sent George to a Muslim school and university because that was the best value for money. He goes on to say that he can’t stand Muslims (variously put at between 12% and 30% of Uganda’s population), that you just can’t trust them and that ‘it will all blow up one day.’ It is hard to know what, if anything, this is all about; perhaps it’s just what strikes George as the most impressive thing to say. Or maybe his dad used to beat him. I veer toward the latter interpretation when he uses an unnecessarily threatening gesture to shoo away a boy beggar who is trying to attract our attention from the street.

It is beginning to feel like time to move on. Earlier, we had discussed the evening’s programme with my sons who have done their own research. Enrique, 19, recommended Ange Noir, a multi-layered disco with bars and dance floors to suit every pocket. Jack, 17, vigorously opposed this idea saying that Ange Noir was ‘horrible’ and that we should instead head for a strip of bars in the exquisitely named district of Kabalagala (emphasis on the final ‘a’). This, according to Jack, is roughly comparable to Beijing’s ‘bar street’ (Sanlitun Lu.) Enrique countered that ‘horribleness’ is beside the point; we would find Ange Noir more interesting. We now consult George and he insists that Club Cascades, a short walk away, is where the best action is and not to be missed. He extracts from his spotless shirt pocket a free pass to the club for the evening and insists on giving it to us. He advises against Kabalagala which, he says, is best on Saturday nights not Fridays; but we decide to head up there and have a look anyway, it being still too early for clubbing; maybe catch him later.

We take a cab, battered but serviceable. The Friday traffic has thinned out and we are able to cruise the two or three miles without delay, past parades of shops and slums and better appointed dwellings with no legibility about the boundaries between zones. I quiz the driver about his business. The car belongs to someone else; he drives it and pays for the fuel and they divide the takings equally, each making about 100,000 shillings a month (USD 50). Tim is inclined to doubt it could be so little and maybe he’s right, this could be a pitch for a generous tip; or perhaps the driver’s life is just tougher than we would like to think. I’m wondering how George manages to drink all night in smart bars and clubs on a state schoolteacher’s salary which, I have heard, starts at about 500,000 shillings (USD 250) a month. He must come from a well-off family or have another source of income. Maybe he runs a taxi.

We are dropped at a place called Cheri’s which Jack recommended, though it is hard to see why: it is a scruffy dive with uncomfortable seats, few customers and overpriced drinks. We have a couple anyway, grumbling about the music which, at least, is quiet enough here to allow for conversation without shouting. Tim was an aficionado of Congolese rhythms of the 1980s, plangent guitars and sweet voices that went on for ever. You can still hear this on some songs but now it is overlaid with thudding techno beats and much of the stuff they play is trashy Western pop.

A text message comes in from George, whose commitment to the Queen’s English has evaporated in alcohol and SMS technology: ‘Nick en Tim, thanks 4 the campany. Still here enjoyin it. Want to feel ur party at club cascades. Man the teacher’s has just begun. Waitin 4 ya b4 midnite. MAKE IT HAPPEN.’ I reply with a holding acknowledgement and we decamp to another bar a few doors down, the ‘Capital’ something.

Here they both frisk you on the door and charge you a couple of thousand shillings admission. It hardly seems worth it as the interior looks small and poky. But once across the threshold you find yourself connected to a series of large, dim, receding spaces joined up ad hoc across illegible building boundaries and with, as I recall, an open-air patio somewhere along the way. The spaces are given over to several bars moderately populated by a mostly young and dressy (the women at least) clientele; pool tables; pumping music that makes conversation impossible; flickering videos.

We select stools at the furthermost bar and are still taking in our surroundings when young women begin to flutter close by, something that doesn’t happen to chaps like us anymore unless the flutterers have an economic transaction in mind. The first few just hang around a few feet away and can be seen off with a display of cool detachment but they are soon pushed aside by more determined hands who would mount our laps if the stools were not so high as to make this a unilateral impossibility. One is shouting in my ear ‘I am called an African queen; do you know why?’ It doesn’t seem like a point much worth pursuing (although I do momentarily wonder if she is a man in drag—but surely that can’t be possible yet in Uganda?) I interrupt her narrative, which is promising to be as lengthy as it is in the circumstances inaudible, to ask if she knows the two other white men, well into their sixties to judge from their gait, who have just appeared at the other side of the bar, the first expatriates we have seen all night. Are they regulars? It appears so for she is able, from what I can make out, promptly to divulge their names, nationality, employment history and several other particulars they wouldn’t like me to know.

We drink up, disengage and go. At the door several more white men are paying to get in. But, as Tim observed, there had been plenty of local trade going on too. It was not clear whether the girls are hired by the bar or are working freelance but my guess is the latter, with the bar making its cut from the access fees and the beer.

Outside, a final survey of the strip casts light on Jack’s lousy recommendation. The first, crappy bar we went in here is in fact called ‘Cheri Royal,’ and is just a few doors away from the real ‘Cheri’ whose oval pub sign the Royal crew have faithfully copied. (‘Royal’ appears in small print at the bottom, like the ‘conditions apply’ rubric tucked away in the corner of idiotic billboard advertising.)

So we decide to give the real ‘Cheri’ a shot; and it is rather nice. Only two connected bars here, very busy, tables packed with animated groups, the music loud but almost overwhelmed by the roar of conversation and peals of laughter. Ultraviolet lighting makes purplish incandescence of the white shirts that at least half the men are wearing.

We have bought beer and are wondering where to put ourselves when a small woman about our age, maybe older, with big-framed glasses, detaches herself from the group she is with and comes over to us smiling broadly. This causes me some initial alarm lest she is someone I am supposed to know and am about to offend by not recognizing; but it turns out that she is the perfect stranger, or, rather, the perfect local, come to greet and welcome us. ‘Where are you from?’ she shouts up at our inclined ears, and then proceeds to inform us that she is from High Barnet, the last stop on the London underground’s northern line, a fully inscribed UK citizen. Not quite local, then. I picture a narrow council flat and think of standing in twilight rain waiting for a London bus. ‘But your family’s here?’ I ask. ‘Surely if you could choose between being in High Barnet and being here you would choose here?’ High Barnet is a great place, she replies. We banter a bit and then she excuses herself and goes off to the toilet. On her unhurried way back she stops again and tells me, with surprising passion, that she was not joking about High Barnet. London is safe, predictable, you can make a life there; here it can seem okay for a while but ‘you never know what might happen tomorrow.’ She is clutching my arm to emphasise the point and then she hugs us both before squeezing back in beside her friends and family, leaving me ashamed of having been patronising and insensitive.

We are out of there, back on the street, minding the gap, as they tell you on the northern line; minding the puddles, the mud, the lumps of pavement and kerbstone that have risen from the road to provide seating for people clustered round barbecues. We locate a cab and I instruct the driver to take us to ‘an interesting bar in another part of the city;’ he can choose.

In the quiet of the taxi I find more text messages from George who is now in a capital frame of mind: ‘IT’S A PARTY GUYS. LET’S HAVE FUN.’ Followed shortly by: ‘RESERVED V.I.P. PASS 4 YA. BP M [‘Beep me?’] WHEN HERE. THIS IS WHERE THE PARTY IS AT.’ But we decide to leave our fate in the driver’s hands for now.

He heads back downtown and leaves us on Nile Avenue outside the ‘Rock Bar’ which, it transpires, is part of the luxury, ‘colonial ambience’ Speke Hotel, built in the 1920s and named after John Hannington Speke (1827-1864). That energetic gentleman served in the British Indian army during its war against the Sikh kingdom of Punjab, then in the Crimean war, and then teamed up with Richard Francis Burton to explore East Africa. They ‘discovered’ Lake Tanganyika which Speke, according to Wikipedia, could not actually see at the time, having been rendered temporarily blind by some tropical ailment; but then he recovered, whereas Burton got too sick to go on, leaving Speke to discover and name Lake Victoria all by himself (barring, of course, the various porters and guides whose names and thoughts are lost to the history books.) So maybe our driver thought the Speke Hotel the most fitting place for a pair of latter day British explorers to refresh themselves. Or maybe he just assumed that we were after bar girls.

For here the sex workers are less like fluttering moths than swarming bees, grabbing at our sleeves before we have even reached the bar. It would be impossible to stop so we continue walking; through a procession of bars and courtyards with a thinning population of girls to shake off. ‘Who owns this place?’ we ask a uniformed hotel worker who is loitering outside the last, closed-up restaurant in the complex. Sudhir Ruparelia, she tells us: a Ugandan Indian magnate whose family, I later find, also owns the Crane Bank, Meera Investments (the largest property developer in the country) and a series of luxury resorts. Oh, the long shadows and strange twists of empire. What would John Hannington say if he could speak from the grave?

Round the corner we find the hotel’s ‘piano bar’ which contains only a barman, a pianist and two women apparently engrossed in conversation at one end of the bar. We occupy the far end and pass a pleasant hour or so discussing old times, empire, religion and the trials and compensations of ageing. It is now well past midnight and we can muster no enthusiasm for the likely mayhem of Ange Noir or Cascade so decide to head home, stopping en route at my local, Fat Boyz, for a nightcap and to see if my sons are gadding about there. Tim goes for a pee and I notice that the two women opposite have migrated round the bar in our direction (when did that happen?) and are now engrossed in trying to catch my eye. One of them asks—politely enough, as befits a piano bar, I guess—where we are going next and whether they may accompany us. Good grief. We leave the pianist a tip although, truth to tell, he was dreadful; but I appreciated the restrained volume, anyway.

Fat Boyz is booming: almost two hundred customers, I would say, spilling out over its terrace and into the Kisementi car park; a good humoured, bantering crowd and no-one bothers us as we force down one more beer. Whisky would be more welcome at this hour but I think they only sell it by the quarter pint. No sign of Enrique or Jack who are, presumably, eking out their smaller allowances and greater stamina some place where the beer is cheaper. I can’t finish my bottle of Nile. More people are coming into the square as we negotiate with boda boda drivers to take us home.

Tim flies off at 5.35 a.m. on Sunday morning, so we have to get up in the middle of Saturday night to take him to the airport at Entebbe. On the way back I drive by Kisementi at 4.50 a.m. to see if it is true that the revellers carry on until dawn. Sure enough, the competing music and conversational roar from Fat Boyz can be heard at a distance of 200 yards; the car park is still packed with vehicles and clusters of people drinking and dancing between them. So, yes, it seems that Kamapala is seriously committed to partying.

Nick Young
December 4 2008, Kampala