If you have the money, shopping in Uganda is done at western-style shopping malls. Garden City and Nakumatt Oasis are popular with expats. Most Ugandans, however, shop as they always have -- from roadside vendors. Many vendors sell their wares from rudimentary stalls or just spread out on blankets. On Kira Road, by the Engen Gas Station, you can buy jeans, shoes, pineapples and dish soap. Bukoto Market usually has a healthy supply of chickens squawking indignantly from makeshift cages.
But the great mother of all markets is Owino, home to over 50,000 vendors. Some claim the real number is maybe as high as half a million. Owino Market is a sprawling mass of stalls jammed with second hand clothes dumped from North American charity shops, live chickens, dead chickens, and all manner of food hidden under haphazardly placed tarp ceilings.
Getting to Owino is an adventure in itself; it is downtown, behind the taxi park where all the matatus (the mini-buses) congregate. The park is a mass of honking white vans and there are no sidewalks or pedestrian walkways. We thread our way -- very slowly -- often putting our hands on the side of vans to make sure they don't drive too close. In the midst of this are the men selling products to passengers in the buses. They sell the most random assortment of stuff: dish scrubbies, toothpaste, mosquito nets, and chewing gum.
Ducking into the narrow entranceway of Owino, the rudimentary nature of the market is striking. The ground is muddy and uneven; there is no electricity. The only light comes from the sun peeking through the holes in the tarp roof. The air smells of sweetly rotten fruit, musty clothes and something completely indiscernible. Although I can't distinguish any sort of order or logic to the market, my Ugandan friend manages to lead us through without any problem. Sellers must compete with thousands of others, so they shout, pull you into their tiny stalls, offer marriage proposals, anything to get your attention.
"Mzungu! Mzungu! Jeans? You want jeans? I have jeans. Come see my jeans."
"Ah! American! Marry me!"
Owino is the backbone of commerce in Kampala. It bypasses national chain stores and regional supermarkets. Everything is based on bartering and the intense push and shove of needy sellers and reluctant buyers.
Owino has burnt down several times, but each time, it has sprung up again. It's not so much the phoenix rising from the ashes, but rather an intense desperation to make a living, that brings the ramshackle stalls back to life. After a 2009 fire that leveled the market, vendors took out loans to cover the loss of their merchandise and money.
In 2011, the vendors lost everything again after a fire decimated the market; unfortunately, most of those vendors were still paying back the loans from the first fire. One group of vendors, the Twezimbe Parkyard Disabled Association, lost all records of their savings, loans and merchandise. For an already vulnerable population, these disasters are devastating.
It is not surprising, however, that Owino has burnt down so often. The rickety wooden stalls, overcrowded alleyways, and cheap products means that getting out alive would require a miracle. The further you go into the market, the more crowded and haphazard it becomes. Shoes are jumbled in a massive pile: finding a matching pair can be a Sisyphean task. Stall owners scrub away at the shoes, hoping to make them look new and clean. Jeans are stacked up in massive piles, often spilling over into the narrow pathway.
At the very back of Owino is the food. The stench of dead fish, complemented by the incessant buzzing of flies, is overwhelming. Silvery fish heads are stacked upon a decrepit wooden table. It's dark and confusing, and I have to dodge to the right to avoid the boiling pot of meat. Fresh mangos, pineapples and avocados are piled upon blankets on the ground, going for 500 Ugandan Shillings. Matooke (green bananas) are everywhere, the staple of the Ugandan diet.
The market is a place of sensory overload. Turn right and you will see overflowing bags of rice, flour, beans and spices. I smell cardamom, peppercorn, cumin and cinnamon. My housemate barters with the vendor for some spices. I see another friend arguing over the prices of mangos. 3000 USX for one mango? Crazy!
I try not to get flustered with all the vendors grabbing my arm and pulling me towards their merchandise; with the fires, loans and poverty, these people need to make a living. And if they can get a few extra dollars out of a muzungu, then all the better. It's chaos. It's overwhelming. But it is also a compelling expression of community and life.