Uganda, like the rest of the world, is a drastically different place now than it was in March.
As we remain in our compounds due to the ongoing lockdown the country looks like a still life painting. A pause button has been pressed on the daily commotion of speeding bodas (motorcycle taxis), bustling markets, and hustling vendors lining the streets. Schools, churches, shops and markets that sprawl over Kampala’s never-ending hills are temporarily silenced. The air is missing the constant sound of cars and bodas, having been replaced by birds and the short, tropical rains.
Uganda has welcomed weekly sessions, with our President Museveni broadcasting on TV and radio, explaining with a leisurely manner, how the COVID-19 virus spreads and how the general population must adhere to the social distancing and other behavioral changes in order to prevent the spread. On more than one occasion Museveni has compared the spread of this virus to that of HIV and Ebola, drawing correlations and reminding the public that Uganda is well versed in curbing viral outbreaks. We eagerly await Museveni’s compelling and lengthy four hour talks each week, in order to get updates on how Uganda continues to defend itself from this global pandemic and find out the newest restrictions which he continues to add to to the strict lockdown. For six weeks we have been told to stay home and now we must wear a mask when we leave our home.
Whether it was Uganda’s rapid response to the spread of the virus, by closing borders, airports, and the majority of the public sphere with haste or if its the low number of COVID-19 virus tests administered daily, Uganda has kept its total COVID-19 cases hovering around 100 cases, with no deaths, and high recovery rates.
Kampala now feels a little bit like a village. Bicycles dot the urban hills, as biking and walking are the only permissible ways to move around. Pedestrians are scattered in the middle of open roads, where cars only occasionally pass, if they have the lucky sticker proving they are essential. Monkeys climb our balconies and the short rains at night leave blazing sun all day, perfect for a compound workout, some work from home, a neighborhood stroll, and then an early dinner, as we must all be inside before the national curfew, at 7pm!
As the informal economy, the backbone of Uganda, is disrupted from every angle due to the national lockdown, new types of ingenuity spring up daily. Bodas, which are banned from driving passengers around, quickly adapt to delivering any type of good you can imagine. Some are renting out their boda by the hour, others renting out their personal bicycles. An electric bike and scooter shop emerged in April, with a waiting list for their rental service. While on a short walk the other day we passed three men selling face masks from their backpacks, a quick response to the newest order to wear masks outside the home. Every supermarket in town has begun to do home deliveries, and farmers markets have started to go door to door, with gloves, masks and boxes of fruits and vegetables.
The Ugandan government’s commitment to help those in need, by providing food donations, has been slow and minimal. However, the country has truly united in many ways. People are sending mobile money to their friends, neighbors and workers, bodas are doing their part to keep their colleagues employed, and informal and formal workers are walking 10+ kilometers to and from work, in order to feed their families. It feels as though time has reversed. It feels as though urbanization is now a thing of the past and rural Uganda doesn’t seem so far from this once hectic scene. Until the President speaks again, instructing us on how we must all adapt yet again, let us all jump on our bicycles and enjoy the clean air while we can.