M for Muzungu: The Curious Pursuits of an Illustrator in Uganda

Navigating kinky hair woes and crowded matatus in the African country.  
Illustration: Garima Gupta
Illustration: Garima Gupta

Uganda isn’t a conventional choice for a vacationing Indian. The former British colony is best known for its gorilla habitats, and the brutality of its former dictator Idi Amin. But thanks to an easy visa regime, cheap airfares, and the nudging invitation of a friend, that’s where I find myself.

One of the first things I notice in the capital Kampala, are the marabou storks. Just like Indian crows, they are scavengers. The difference is that these birds are up to five feet tall. They perch, unnervingly still, on street lights and fountains, oblivious to the traffic. I wonder what Idi Amin made of their dignified disdain.

One morning I stop at Owino, a massive used-clothes bazaar in Kampala. It is filled with shops selling all sorts of hypnotic prints. The market runs along the perimeter of a stadium. Everything on sale is large—from food portions to bra sizes. In cramped tin sheds, overzealous hawkers cajole me into buying used Banana Republic trousers, received from unsuspecting First World donors.

Owino is like a tidal creek. Each new surge of people throws you down a different lane. I walk through mountains of shoes and clothes, soaking in the energy of the cramped area. Even though there is very little light peeking through the flimsy roofs and the supply of air is limited, the young vendors are enthusiastic about selling their wares. “Hey pretty face, Armani for your lover boy?” a girl calls out.

Illustration: Garima Gupta

Illustration: Garima Gupta

Illustration: Garima Gupta

Illustration: Garima Gupta

A short walk away, the woman’s market is an explosion of bold prints and shiny fabrics. Shop fronts scream promises to straighten stubborn African hair. Some of the products on display come in quantities that are almost industrial. There are separate areas for wigs and hair extensions. The most expensive wigs, I am later told, come from Indian temples. I gaze at fabric prints that look like amoebae in water. Most of these shops are run by women who know when they see lust in another woman’s eyes. It’s pointless bargaining thereafter.

Kampala’s largest share-taxi stand is another spectacle. It is a glorious mess of hundreds of matatus or minivans with angry drivers honking mercilessly, and a smattering of adventurous tourists. Matatus are meant to seat 14, but end up carrying at least 20 people at a time. In a matatu, interesting conversations with friendly locals are inevitable. A better (albeit slightly more dangerous) way to get around Kampala is on a motorcycle taxi, known as a boda-boda. These bikes were once the best way to get to the eastern border—which is how they got their name (border-border becoming boda-boda).

Illustration: Garima Gupta

Illustration: Garima Gupta

I am going to Fort Portal, 320 km west of Kampala, so I make my way to the intercity bus stand. Fort Portal serves as a gateway for travellers going to the Rwenzori Mountains or Kibale National Park, famous for its chimpanzees. The snacks available along the four-hour route seemed oddly familiar. Hawkers sell fresh-off-the-pan chapats, a cross between a chapatti and a Kerala parotta. There are buckets of sambosas, samosas stuffed with beef, and a popular snack known as rolex. They are chapatti egg rolls with a twisted etymology—roll-eggs, rolex.

Fort Portal is a small town, the kind whose layout you can master in a day. On stepping down from the bus, I am greeted with a loud, “How are you?” It’s a common greeting in Uganda, and is used by everyone from children to adults. If asked, it is considered impolite not to ask back. A group of school children greet me: “Muzungu (foreigner)” they say sporting huge smiles.  “How are you?” “I’m fine”, I respond eagerly. “How are you?”

The children stare at me for a few seconds, and then reply with an even heartier greeting “Muzungu, how are you? How are you?”.

Illustration: Garima Gupta

Illustration: Garima Gupta

Illustration: Garima Gupta

Illustration: Garima Gupta

After a night in Fort Portal, I take an early boda-boda to the Bigodi swamplands. Being an avid birder, I am twittering with excitement at the thought of spotting some of the 140 bird species here, on trails run by the village community. The guides are locals trained at spotting birds, and they imitate the bird calls fluently.

After finding a pair of gumboots that fit me, we are off into the swampland. Among tall papyrus reeds, my guide points out superb sunbirds, Hadada ibises, snow-crowned robin chats, black and yellow weavers, Ruppel’s glossy starlings, fire finches, and so many more. My guide hears a cry, and we carefully trudge towards it. But before I can take a good look, the bird flies away, leaving me a feather that spends the rest of the trip pinned to my hair.

Illustration: Garima Gupta

Illustration: Garima Gupta

While travelling in Uganda, my bus is often late by hours, I am given maps that lead to roads without signs, I get lost and then a little more lost. But I enjoy the stillness of the road in the evening, when walking alongside a giraffe or two becomes a normal affair. After a while, I don’t pop my camera out anymore. I realise how much the ground is shrinking beneath my feet when a funny man on the matatu I’m travelling on calls out to me, “Hey, you no go to India, marry me…”

  • Garima Gupta is a Mumbai-based illustrator with a fascination for birds and other things in the sky. In 2012, she published her first graphic novel, "Where Crows Are White" with author Jerry Pinto.

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