One weekend I decided to go to Kampala, The Ugandan capital. Everyone goes to Kampala, mostly because if you want to buy anything besides a few articles of clothing or basic food supplies it is the only place you can find goods at a reasonable price. As it happens, there is only one main road in and out of the city (which is small for its massive population), so the roads are always clogged. Sometimes you can sit in traffic for hours. It’s not unlike Chicago traffic, with only a portion of the drivers following the rules of the road, and motorcycles weaving in and out of the stopped cars along with people who dart across the streets, heedless of the danger they are in.
We took a taxi, as almost everyone else does. Taxi fare to Kampala from Nkokonjeru is 5,000 Ugandan shillings, a little under 2 U.S. dollars, and sometimes there can be twenty people crammed into a small van. There are some taxis that run at appointed times, but my friend, Prossy, and I missed the first taxi by ten minutes, which meant we had to wait. The taxis only go once they are full, so if you arrive and the taxi is empty you can sit there for two or more hours, waiting for passengers to arrive. So we sat for over an hour, and when we finally left Nkokonjeru we had to wrap scarves around our faces to keep the dust out of our mouths and noses. The roads here are so bad that it takes at least two hours to reach Kampala, even though it is about 30 miles away, and if there is traffic it can take upwards of three hours.
So we rattled down bumpy dirt roads for two hours in a taxi overloaded with people, trying but failing to avoid the dust that is everywhere. Taxis are hot and uncomfortable, even at the best of times. When we reached our destination and stumbled out of the taxi, only seconds after my feet had touched the pavement, I almost tripped over a homeless man.
We rounded a corner and there he was, curled up on a dirty piece of cardboard with a filthy brown jacket wrapped around his shoulders. I stopped dead in my tracks until Prossy took my hand and led me away. Maybe thirty paces up the sidewalk we encountered another man, similar to the first, sleeping on the sidewalk. The only difference was that he didn’t have a piece of cardboard and was lying instead on the bare pavement.
Homelessness is rampant in Kampala, and as we entered some of the larger buildings, which in many ways resemble shopping malls, we encountered several more people hunched up in doorways, or wandering aimlessly. Drugs play a big role in the homelessness problem, also mental illness, and of course poverty. Adults are not the only victims.
In Kampala you often encounter street children—orphans, runaways, or just children of impoverished parents who send them out to beg. They stand on sidewalks, hands outstretched, and saying things like “Mpako kikumi” which means, “Give me one hundred.” One hundred shillings that is, equal to about four pennies. Other times they just sit quietly, holding out their hands for people to give them coins. But there are others that have developed a disturbing habit.
From up the street you can hear them, even before you can see them amongst the crowd of shoppers, crying for attention. Their faces are dry, no more tears left after hours of standing in the hot Ugandan sun, voices hoarse from crying. It’s the most awful wailing noise I have ever encountered, and sometimes they grab onto you as pass, catching hold of your hand or clothing, and staggering along beside you, screaming all the way.
I stockpile coins to give them when I pass. It doesn’t solve the problem, and it does very little good, but it’s better than nothing, at least for me. I can’t stand to walk past a child like that, without giving them something. I just wish I had something more to give than a few hundred shillings.
As we were walking we encountered another child, much like the others, but younger. He couldn’t have been any older than two or three, and he was sitting with his back to a pole, holding out his hand. He wasn’t screaming or crying, wasn’t saying anything, but was just sitting there, staring at his empty palm or glancing up at passersby. I stopped to give him a coin, and he just stared at me with big, solemn eyes.
Seeing these children makes me realize the importance of education, not only in making it possible for them to provide for themselves and their future children, but because it gives children hope and makes them see that the streets are not their only option.