Overcoming the Past in Lively Kampala

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"Art-Culture-Life": So beckoned the humble sign. Being a fan of all three, I made my way inside.

Art came first in a portico lined with rich, Dalí-esque landscapes; in the craft shop, stocked with mottled straw purses and hand-carved bowls; on restaurant walls, splashed with multihued graffiti. There was culture, yes, in the form of eclectic sounds: a D.J. spinning house music and an open-mic session showcasing poets and singers from Africa to America.

As for life, it abounded here at MishMash, a self-described "cultural hub" that's part rambling gardens, part performance space, part open-air cinema, part gallery and part eatery serving everything from burgers and beer to mojitos and liver pâté.

It all made for a lovely evening, though hardly the one I'd expected in Kampala, Uganda. To many, after all, the East African country is imagined as more militaristic than MishMash-y, best known for its worst face: former President Idi Amin Dada, whose brutal regime from 1971 to 1979 was known for its abuse of human rights. But that was then. Now, after nearly three decades under President, Yoweri Museveni, the country appears to be stable and its sprawling capital is a dynamic metropolitan center, an ever-evolving hub of, well, art, culture and life.

As soon as I arrived I fielded queries about my departure. Surely I was passing through Kampala en route to safari -- in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park to meet endangered mountain gorillas, or Queen Elizabeth National Park to ogle elephants, or down the Nile to see hippos?

In fact, I'd come to experience urban Uganda, which is partly a work in progress. Cosmopolitan restaurants are increasingly cropping up; expected to open in the coming year are a towering Hilton hotel, two expansive malls and a sleek highway connecting Kampala with the neighboring town of Entebbe, site of the country's international airport.

I checked in at the Sheraton, a sprawling Kampala institution nearly half a century old. It's never short on action: the outdoor Paradise Grill hosts live music nightly, and on weekends the Equator Lounge is transformed from elegant hotel bar to chic disco, crammed with well-heeled locals. I ambled around the hotel's grassy grounds and marveled at the enormous marabou storks circling above Kampala like grand kites. Then I continued my walk on the slopes of Nakasero, a hilly business district that's home to Kampala's most famous outdoor market. There, if one's negotiation skills are up to par, one can buy shoes, mangoes and tourist knickknacks in one fell swoop.

Early dinner -- tandoori chicken and spicy kachumbari salad with tomato, onion and chiles -- was at Faze 2, a leafy outdoor oasis shaded by green umbrellas. Afterward, I walked down the commercial boulevard that is Nile Avenue to the Uganda National Theater, where I enjoyed a multiracial, multi-accented rendition of "Macbeth." The theater itself borders on ramshackle but the performances proved believable, even riveting. (Did Uganda's long battle with dictatorship translate into a special understanding of this particular play? I wondered.)

Maintaining my back-in-time theme, the next day I took a trip through history. The journey through the heart of downtown and into a neighboring suburb was not for the faint of heart: cavernous potholes, inexorable traffic jams and swerving boda-bodas (motorcycle taxis) can turn a car trip through Kampala into a grand obstacle course. But in half an hour I was high above the urban hustle-and-bustle, surrounded by vivid orange-earth and green-hills landscapes, encircled by yellow butterflies and appreciating why Kampala is called the "city of seven hills."

Old Kampala, where impalas once roamed -- hence the city's name -- was Kampala's embryo. In the 1890s, Capt. Frederick Lugard, Uganda's early British administrator, established his fort here. Today it's a living lesson on all things Buganda, the region housing Uganda's biggest ethnic group ("kingdom" in the local language). The Bugandans have a monarchy and their own parliament. I drove by the stately parliament building and continued down a rocky road lined with trees, each planted by one of 52 Bugandan clans.

Along the way I passed children in tailored school uniforms. I stopped at the imposing black and gold-tipped gates of the Lubiri Palace, the compound of the Buganda kabaka, or king. I opted out of the guided tour, which does not enter the palace itself but includes a peek at Amin's torture chambers and Rolls-Royce.

Then I headed to something more uplifting: the Kasubi Tombs, a Unesco World Heritage site.

"This is a holy place; wear this," my guide there instructed, handing me a lesu, an African wrap whose orange-brown color matched the earth's. After proudly presenting portraits of recent kabakas, he led me through the marvelously conical, grass-thatched huts where Buganda royalty are buried.

Kampala is a patchwork of disparate neighborhoods, some lush and suburban, others rough-and-tumble, thronged with wooden shacks and roadside vendors peddling jackfruit or ubiquitous street food: chapati bread and rolex, a kind of egg-and-cabbage burrito. I saw the city's many faces mostly by night, when they come alive and pulse with music; this is because some three-quarters of Uganda's population is under 30, prime partying age. When the sun goes down, they flock to the aptly named Industrial Area close to downtown, home to spacious, modern nightclubs like Guvnor, where the soundtrack is a mélange of American hip-hop, local Afrobeat and Jamaican dance hall music.

In Kabalagala, a red-light district of sorts, the street buzzes with all-hours vendors selling chicken and chapati, while revelers sip Bell beer at ramshackle pubs. Bugolobi is an expat's oasis, home to airy residential abodes and funky haunts like Gatto Matto, a grassy garden of a restaurant and lounge where I perched by a fire pit for an open-mic poetry night and ordered falafel and Thai fish cakes.

The paramount expat's delight is the tony Kololo neighborhood, home to bar-and-restaurant-lined Acacia Avenue. Here Europeans and Americans live and play, many taking a respite from their United Nations work. After dinner at one of the district's trendy new openings -- Tamarai is a palace of a Thai restaurant, decked out in fountains and Buddhas and with a Sri Lankan tea bar serving 14 flavors -- I barhopped the night away at indoor-outdoor haunts like Big Mike's, where locals and tourists mingled and indulged in shisha pipes filled with grape-flavored tobacco.

During my final days, I indulged in the ultimate Kampala luxury: getting out of Kampala. Figuring I ought not leave Africa without a wild-animal sighting, I took a 40-minute drive to Entebbe, a serene suburb that once housed the British colonial government. The Uganda Wildlife Education Center -- known to locals as, simply, the zoo -- was my mini-safari: behold zebras, hyenas, white rhinos, shoebill storks and three charming chimpanzees.

Then I hit the beach. The shores of immense Lake Victoria are a haven for new and old-time hotels and restaurants; I settled in at Spennah Beach, a weekend hangout. Children played in the silky white sand, revelers rode jet skis, vendors grilled chicken and D.J.'s blared Jamaican music. I sipped local Waragi gin, ate a monster-sized fried tilapia and marveled at the gray lake and sapphire sky, fringes of greenery framing it all.

More natural beauty came on a day trip to Jinja, which makes its claim as the source of the Nile and boasts adrenaline boosters like wild-water rafting and bungee jumping. I opted for something more placid. The 90-minute drive took me out of Kampala's traffic jams and into rural villages, pine forests and fields of sugar cane and pineapple. A rowboat carried me to a stunningly unexpected oasis: the eco-chic Wildwaters Lodge, built treehouse style on a rocky island in the river. Lounging by the pool, nestled amid aloe plants, I discovered how soothing the sound of rapids could be. And I added a fourth gem to Kampala's crown: art, culture, life -- and nature.

IF YOU GO

Sheraton Kampala Hotel (Ternan Avenue, Kampala; 256-414-420-000; from $225).

Protea Hotel Kampala (4 Elgon Terrace; 256-312-550-000; from $200). In the heart of Kololo, spare, clean rooms and a garden restaurant and bar.

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK

Faze 2 (10 Nakasero Road; 256-392-700-815). Tandoori oven specialties, spicy curries, barbecue dishes, even Italian-style pasta. Main dishes from 15,000 shillings, $5.75 at 2,545 shillings to the dollar.

Gatto Matto Restaurant and Garden Lounge (2 Bandali Rise, Bugolobi; 256-750-424-344). Salads, sandwiches and Continental dishes. Breakfast from 18,000 shillings; lunch and dinner main dishes from 20,000 shillings.

Tamarai (Plot 14 Lower Kololo Terrace; 256-755-794-958). Extensive pan-Asian menu,. Main dishes from 20,000 shillings.

MishMash (Plot 28 Acacia Avenue, Kololo; 256-794-010-101). Everything from fish and chips and bangers and mash to spicy meatballs, salads and liver pâté. Main dishes from 20,000 shillings; tapas from 9,000.

WHAT TO DO

Tour Old Kampala with Enjoy Safaris.

Uganda Wildlife Education Center (Entebbe; 256-414-320-520). Adult fee, 30,000 shillings.

Spennah Beach (Sebugwawo Drive, Entebbe).

Uganda National Theater at the Uganda Cultural Center (Plot 2, 4 and 6 De-Winton Road, P. O. Box 3187, Kampala; 256-414-254-567). Plays, musical events and cultural nights.

Wildwaters Lodge (Kangulumira Town; 256-772-237-400). Day pass with pool access $25.

travel

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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