Our bedroom window faces southwest across the Kampalan suburb of Mengo. It looks across rusted tin roofs and palms trees to the pylons on top of the Lubaga and Namirembe hills. Woods smoke and clotted humidity permanently cloud the air. Although we don’t open the curtains often, I retain a detailed and nuanced mental map of our neighbourhood assembled from the polyphonic soundscape that we live with: the generator from the waragi factory next door, wailing children in the shacks behind our apartment, the midnight cacophony of barking from local packs of dogs, a cement mixer from a building site where a three floor block has been thrown together in worryingly quick time. Every evening around nine-thirty someone switches on his television so loud that we can hear every word two hundred yards away. On Sundays neighbourhood Evangelical Churches make their presence known through all-day hymns, Christian African rock music, and the bellicose rapid-fire proselytising that push their speakers to distortion.
Often during a thunderstorm the power goes out, robbing Mengo of its usual din. No TV, no music, no street chatter, no factory noise. Just the crack and rumble of thunder and the pelting of fat rain on our windows and the corrugated roofs of shacks. The heaviest storm was a week ago. There had been an African Cup of Nations qualifier (the Ugandan Cranes lost two nil to Guinea, eliminating them from the competition). A volunteer from the UK who we had been living with had just left to go fly home. The flat felt empty and the noise of the storm filled the space. We stood behind the curtains of our bedroom window in the dark watching the whole of Kampala flash before us in electric blue with each lightning strike before disappearing into thick darkness again. Lights from houses disappeared in sections across the city as neighbourhoods lost power one-by-one. The windowpanes shook with each roll of thunder. I could hear rivers of rainwater pouring through the streets.
Mengo is what you’d call a local area. We seem to be the only expats living here. Strangely enough, you can conduct yourself fairly anonymously. Walking to work I get stared at often enough, and sometimes this develops into a full greeting (‘How are you?’ ‘I am fine’), but I never get hassled for money or to buy anything. It’s in neighbourhoods with a regular presence of expats and tourists, with easy tips and inflated mzungu prices, where I’ve had the most bother. Expats I have met tend live in rich suburbs like Kololo or Nakasero. They raise their eyebrows in polite surprise when I tell them I live in Mengo. ‘Oh well done’, with a patronising nod. ‘Good for you’, I am told, a figurative pat on the head.
Émigrés tend to live an isolated parallel existence to Ugandans, always being driven somewhere (‘My driver is on his way; you need a good driver’), from air-conditioned shopping malls like Acacia or Garden City to restaurants or country clubs where they socialise with other expats. I’m sure I already recognise a significant percentage of expats in Kampala. For that reason I am glad to live in Mengo. You never forget what continent you’re in. I’d give godless thanks to the evangelical preacher if I never had to hear the waragi factory again, but I’d miss walking down our rutted red clay street at night to buy chapattis for twelve pence at the local stall lit with a single tea light. But perhaps that’s because I’m new here. I have only been living in Kampala a month. Perhaps it’s inevitable, human even, that in time expats seek to recreate a corner of home abroad, to socialise with those from the same culture and background. Perhaps tolerance becomes tiring when one is always picked out as foreign and faintly comical to the locals; openness is a privilege of the innocent.
I think many expats revel in this indeterminate state of being, having an idealised view of where they’re from and who they are without having to face the realities of either. I can test this hypothesis tonight. We are going to the Caledonian Society’s St. Andrew’s Ball in Kampala. I don’t yet have a kilt to wear.