Author: Melinda Ozongwu

Concrete jungle: Kampala is obsessed with malls

Month by month, Kampala is becoming more and more characterised by shopping malls than its hilly, green and scenic landscape. Malls unpacked with containers from China and India, small malls, large malls, finished malls, unfinished malls, malls next to malls, and somehow when you step into one you will notice that we can’t quite fill them up or keep product moving off the shelves.  Why the need for all this shelter in a tropical climate? What are we running away from?

(Pic: Melinda Ozongwu)
(Pic: Melinda Ozongwu)

In the past, visitors to Uganda used to be charmed by street-side shopping, bargaining for inexpensive arts and crafts, while residents would prefer to seek foreign goods at extortionate prices. It made sense then, we weren’t spoilt for choice as we are now. Going to a shop that would sell pulverised Walkers crisps from England at four times the price was something I was guilty of. The increase of local manufacturing doesn’t seem to compete with products from South Africa and Kenya and lately even they are losing out to the competition of Chinese products.  Mall after mall is stocked with anything and everything that they think might sell. It may read ‘electrical goods’ on the signage but stay in the store long enough and the sales assistant just might show you a suitcase filled with edible panties, I kid you not.  Then she will tell you they are from America –  to which you will jump in delight and fork over your money, to the business, or her pocket, it’s hard to tell.

The recent launch of the first KFC, in Village Mall in Bugolobi, probably attracted more attention than the government announcing its HIV/Aids control programme through distribution of free anti-retroviral drugs. It adds value to a mall like no local business could ever draw in. I’ve never seen KFC as any sort of luxury brand, but the novelty and foreignness of it in Uganda makes it date-worthy, special and even fancy.

When I think of mall culture, America comes to mind, where there are more shopping malls than schools. My first teenage US mall crawl left me completely dwarfed in the magnitude of the experience. Stopping to gasp at every single in-store demonstration, I was perfect bait for promotions, sample testing and ‘free promotions’ that only cost me surrendering all my personal data of course. The ‘mall rats’ that hung around after school looking for dates, the compulsive shoppers, the power walkers and the food court buzz – every time I want to feel frustrated rushing through a mall in Kampala because I can’t get past the family taking pictures in front of a shop or blocking my way as they walk at snail’s pace to take it all in, I am reminded of my awe.

Acacia Mall in Kampala. (Pic: Kampala Night Life / Facebook)
Acacia Mall in Kampala. (Pic: Kampala Night Life / Facebook)

Ugandan mall politics are a bit different from your typical American mall. The customer is always right only if they are white, or black and rich. Everyone else will most likely be followed around in suspicion or flat out ignored. Shopping arcades were conceived as a solution to shelter the wealthier from the rain. We have no rain but like the olden days, the malls are still for the wealthy. I’ve always loved cities like London that have maintained high-street shopping versus malls, utilising the strengths of the city and making solutions for the weaknesses, while still allowing for aesthetically pleasing commercialism. Creating an illusion that we are all the same, as we brush shoulders in the sale, regardless of how far it may be from the truth, is an art yet to be mastered here. Walk into a mall in Uganda and the illusion is placed in exclusion. Poorer people dress up in their Sunday best to experience a supermarket, even if just to buy a bottle of water, yet foreigners think everything is so cheap. Working-class Ugandans know better than to pay four times the cost so they only buy the essentials and shops end up with a lot of dusty and unbought stuff.

As I write this, I can hear yet another construction site, another mall being born. No surprise there.

Melinda Ozongwu is a writer based in Kampala, Uganda. She writes television scripts and regular opinion pieces on the subtext of urban culture in African countries. Her blog SmartGirl Living is a cocktail of thoughts, recipes and advice for the modern African woman. Connect with her on Twitter

I wanna hold your hand: Bro-love in Uganda

A friend visiting my hometown recently was quite shocked at the male-on-male affection he had received and witnessed since being in Uganda. As a heterosexual and somewhat macho male, he was uncomfortable with the hand-holding attempts made towards him by his Ugandan male hosts, coupled with the fact that he was completely caught off guard since he’d pegged Uganda as an ultra-masculine country as a result of all the anti-gay media reports. While the affection he was referring to has nothing to do with homosexuality or masculinity, it did make sense to me that an African-American 30-year-old male from New York would feel confused by a guy trying to hold his hand. I suppose I overlooked bringing up this cultural custom in my tourist guidelines for him, but I can see that it is noteworthy to mention, most especially to those with a more Western approach to same-gender PDA.

As a woman, observing male behavior from mannerisms to ego makes for interesting viewing – just as men enjoy peering, prowling and poking fun at our occasional feline cattiness and the mysticism surrounding us going to the bathroom in pairs. When you walk on Kampala’s streets, it isn’t uncommon to see two male friends walking hand in hand, peacefully and jubilantly swinging their hands in the basking sun or grown men greeting each other with a handshake that lingers into a hand interlock that lasts for a substantial part of the conversation. It is a very effortless and comfortable display of friendship, respect and affection. When I was younger I was embarrassed by my male family members holding hands with other males when greeting, most especially when they would do so with men of a different race, culture and background who were obviously uncomfortable and trying their level best to free themselves from the situation.

(Graphic: Kenny Leung)
(Graphic: Kenny Leung)

Western culture regards adult hand-holding as effeminate, romantic, something that generally takes place between a man and woman, a romantically involved couple, not between two heterosexual, non-feminine, virile African men. Once one gets rid of these preconceived and often fear-induced interpretations, it becomes obvious that these displays of affection are actually actions of good nature, solidarity and hospitality, not romantic fondness. In a debate with said African-American friend, I defended the affections he received from Ugandan males as no different to his regular greetings with his American friends. The only difference is that their actions have been adjusted and have conformed to fears and preconceptions of straight vs gay behaviour. I argued that their masculinity is increasingly being defined by rules and definitions of appropriate male behaviour in fear of seeming gay and ultimately fear of being gay, especially among black males. Same-gender affection is a normal part of life; our children do it naturally until they too become molded by ‘acceptable’ behavior, stereotypes and fear.

“I guess it’s an African thing,” he said.

I wasn’t going to let him get away with a conclusion that easily, most especially because I know many other cultures are less inhibited with expressions of bro-love. And I was right. Parts of Asia, the United Arab Emirates and other African countries tend to be more comfortable with male-on-male PDA, but just because it is uncommon in America now doesn’t mean it has always been that way.

I came across some 19th century American photography that proved my point. At the time it was quite common for men to go to a studio with their best friends and pose in seemingly affectionate and loving poses. They held hands, sat on each other’s laps, intertwined their hands and legs … I rest my case.  This was before homosexuality was termed such so perhaps the boundaries for homosexual behavior were less narrow and prejudiced. Men could hold hands because they liked each other, because they felt like it, because it wasn’t wrong to do so. This is all quite similar to 21st century Africa, where we aren’t yet as hung up with creating boundaries between heterosexual and homosexual behavior, although perhaps we are at the early stages of doing so.

When my African-American friend’s favourite basketball team celebrates a win or do whatever it is they do that drives them into a chest-bumping, ass slapping, hugging situation – that behavior isn’t equivocal to homosexuality, because it has been deemed appropriate by the powers that be, because it’s sports, adrenalin, basketball players or any other reason one could concoct, then it is acceptable? I guess so.

My friend felt assured and I suppose relieved that people weren’t making constant passes at him, but he wasn’t sure if he could return the love, and I get that. We can respect the cultural practices of others without having to conform to them. One needn’t feel forced to kiss another man on the cheeks because he is in Rome or walk the streets hand in hand with their buddy in Uganda but, as I said to my friend, if he does he’ll still be a ‘real’ man afterwards – I promise.

Melinda Ozongwu is a writer based in Kampala, Uganda. She writes television scripts and regular opinion pieces on the subtext of urban culture in African countries. Her blog SmartGirl Living is a cocktail of thoughts, recipes and advice for the modern African woman. Connect with her on Twitter



What the hookah is socially acceptable anymore?

Ugandans love a good party, every day of the week, till all hours of the morning. We weren’t crowned number 8 in the World’s 10 top drinking nations for our conservative ways. Here in Kampala we tend to embrace a novelty or fad with extreme enthusiasm until we are bored stiff of it. Dance floor smoke machines were once the in thing – we’d literally be choking as we danced at different venues, each trying to outdo the other, until we eventually tired of it, or suffocated. The latest fad is smoke of a different kind: shisha.

The first time I saw a hookah pipe in Kampala, I was warned that it was drugs. Many people probably had the same perception, and believed it served religious and cultural purposes that weren’t our own. It took a while for the trend to take off last year but once it did, it was big.From restaurants to cocktail bars, private parties to clubs, pipes are almost always on standby. It’s good business for the night spots, and the ‘shisha guys’ earn a decent livelihood from it. At a standard and affordable price of $6 per hookah, establishments are less interested in capitalising on shisha profits than they are in buying patrons’ time. Keeping us there for hours equals more spend at the bar. Ka-ching!

At first I was allured by the novelty, especially because it was available at home and not just abroad, but the excitement has since burnt out for me. All anyone seems to care about is shisha. Well, that and how an hour-long shisha session is as harmful as smoking a hundred cigarettes.

(Pic: Flickr/Ian Lloyd)
(Pic: Flickr/Ian Lloyd)

Smoking shisha in public goes against what’s accepted in our social culture, especially for women. Despite the stigma associated with women smoking cigarettes in Uganda, shisha is a firm favorite with the ladies. It’s obvious to me why it’s socially acceptable, or at least somewhat socially acceptable. Smoking shisha serves as an extension of the modern African woman’s liberation – freedom of choice combined with a dose of rebellion while still fitting within the boundaries of the acceptable. Women are not smoking locally made Rex cigarettes while cheering on the Gunners; they are peacefully and calmly smoking the fruits of mother nature. Mint, berries, grapes and apples; so very demure, acceptable, pretty and fragrant: the definition of an acceptably perfect East African woman.

Other than shaking it on the dance floor, I don’t know another way women and men can acceptably be so socially intimate with each other. Shoot me now for going against anti-smoking campaigns but isn’t there something sexy about smoking? Not the lung cancer, addiction and bad breath of course, but as she inhales deeply with her well-groomed painted red nails, the smoke screen against her pretty face, a woman has a certain je ne sais quoi about her. If there wasn’t a ban on tobacco advertising in many countries I’m sure we would be seeing this kind of imagery more than we do now because it is alluring. Kampala’s upscale bars and clubs are filled with corporate women, drink in one hand and pipe in another, sitting among their male colleagues, passing the pipe from person to person. Not so long ago I learnt that in Kampala-shisha-slang lingo, the plastic mouthpiece is called a condom. I rest my case.

With hookah pipes starring in every other Facebook picture of a Ugandan nightclub or social event, I don’t see the fad going anywhere anytime soon. This 400- year-old trend has modernised itself within popular culture, not just in Kampala but throughout the world.

While there’s a need to highlight the dangers and effects of shisha, it doesn’t help that our local journalists and health care professionals are a bit over the top with their attempts.

“Uganda will fall into an abyss because of evils like shisha, homosexuality and other emerging moral upheavals…” Dan Kimosho, public relations officer at National Medical Stores, recently wrote.

Okay, then.

They may be coming from a good place but hookah is not a gateway drug to crack and prostitution. The most recent media hysteria is that smoking shisha will cause failure to conceive in Ugandan women. Is now a good time to bring up our over-population crisis and extraordinarily high fertility rate? Probably not. What health care professionals, media and government should focus on is providing accurate information and adjusting regulations so that they tally with general smoking legislation on health, safety, licensing and age limits. Then us big girls and boys can choose to fall into the abyss of evil armed with facts and figures. What is socially acceptable anymore? Looking around Kampala’s nightlife scene, I see a lot more to be concerned about than hookahs – and the starting price is apparently the same as a round of shisha.

Melinda Ozongwu is a writer based in Kampala, Uganda. She writes television scripts and regular opinion pieces on the subtext of urban culture in African countries. Her blog SmartGirl Living is a cocktail of thoughts, recipes and advice for the modern African woman. Connect with her on Twitter