I sat in the back of a "special hire" the other night--our form of a taxi--beside the curious mélange of sights and lights that clamber together on a Kampala street on any given night. I was airport-bound, off to a priceless, once-in-a-lifetime surprise for my dad's (also surprise) 60th birthday party. My heart felt full of emotion as I'd just kissed my children and husband goodbye for two weeks with two of them sobbing (thankfully, neither one was my husband).
But also leaving me relatively mute was my driver-friend Robert, navigating the clotted Kampala streets in fits and starts. I inquired of his family, but I knew what was really on his mind. I asked halting questions about his newly-closed shop, and how he was faring. But I didn't probe much deeper after I sensed dark embers of anger--another man providing for his family, brought to his knees in the impotence of poverty.
Two weeks ago via newspaper and likely radio, Kampala Capital City Authority--the maintenance and beautification arm of city government--notified all vendors that they must have a permanent structure (e.g. concrete) and a license for their building, or it would be torn down. Legal? Yes. Beautifying? Yes, physically speaking.
Yet Kampala residents realize the vast scope and repercussions of this measure. Nearly every single street is lined on both sides with temporary structures of haphazard planks, solid shipping containers, and odd conglomerations of tarps and materials. For people who've obtained precious little formal education, this is their available livelihood, allowing them to provide for their families feasibly and honestly. Robert's wife worked in the small corner shop he'd scraped to set up, saving money for their daughter's education. Now, a heavy padlock glints on its metal doors.
This is relatively mild compared to the tilting heaps of wood that lay dismantled up and down our street, some of them smoking. Some of our produce vendors have simply vanished. Certain goods no one can find because the sellers have scattered. Vacant slabs of concrete stare blankly, once having sold chapatti and samosas from a crooked, productive little window, Africans gathering to chat and grab inexpensive food. On the day our street was vertically flattened, friends reported that the vendors they knew stood with blank stares, directionless and, like Robert, perhaps flattened themselves.
Via word of mouth, I've been told by Ugandans that the government has expressed its desire to push the poor from the capital city of this developing nation. Really? Only those above a certain income rate are welcome, when Uganda's GDP is $248 lesser per year than Haiti?
Yes, our streets are looking more and more like Nairobi's, I'm told. Clean; less eyesores. But now, eyes turn to the crime rates, reflecting what some view as their remaining option. Will those look like Nairobi's, too?
The powerlessness I feel, looking at my friends from my relatively untouched perch of Western citizenship, boasts few adequate words. Since we arrived three years ago, the streets have grown smoother, the imports sparkle in their variation, and my grocery store started taking Visa! But to tell the truth, more rights have been taken away from average Ugandans than have at all been awarded or expanded--at least in my limited view. For someone on a justice-related mission, to say I find this disturbing is an understatement. And even more vacant is my understanding of what to do preventatively, rather than simply extend additional relief. What do I do for the Roberts of this city?
And Lord, how long?