Mbale, 1965. The “Cleanest Town in East Africa” was a model city, and no longer reliant on the ivory trade from Karamoja to rationalize its existence. Immaculate streets laid out in a perfect grid focused everything on the central clock tower: a giant pink structure that resembles a Napoleonic souvenir fallen prey to a deco mind with a sense of humor. The people are cheerful. And they should be. Uganda had just been granted its independence from Britain, and the city was vying with Entebbe to hold the title of the newly formed country’s capital. Thanks to a good road leading to Jinja to the southwest, Mbale was directly connected to Uganda’s booming industry, outpacing other area townships to become the eastern region’s commercial hub.
The buildings are wonderful, a constant reminder of one of my favorite things about Africa, that colonial powers came, built hastily, then vanished. Instead of being undone, their work has just been Africanized. Old colonial façades hanging over every street, no longer imposing Khan and Sons, 1948, but instead Omoding Enterprises. Most of them still bare the year in which they were constructed, usually dates when WWII was just ending and colonialism in Africa, thanks to our good friend Woodrow Wilson and the nearsighted members of Britain’s Labour movement, was on its way out.
When I look past their rusted shutters and through their broken windows, I can sometimes see a fat old white man with a whiskey in hand and a lion’s skin on the wall behind him, gazing out over the African’s first foray into urbanization.
Reality hits hard.
The Mbale of today is a different place, and there is little to brag about. Though there is no chaos in the streets, abundant pot holes ensure every motorist inches along, zig-zagging like a snail avoiding piles of salt. Trash lines the street, and locals shamelessly toss their rubbish in the gutter. One building on Republic Street, the main thoroughfare, was caught in a terrible fire six months ago and has yet to be gutted and cleaned; one can still see the charred debris through the empty windows.