Health Saw · December 28, 2021

The Travelling Psychologist Series 2 – Down in Kampala


Your first site of Uganda is usually Entebbe airport in the far south of the country lying close to Lake Victoria. I had prepared so many documents at the visa office in Beijing (where I travelled from) yellow fever certification, bank statements, photocopies of various forms. After getting in the line for immigration and visa extension I faced a rather large lady behind the bullet proof glass. She said, “passport” Stamp, one month extension, “thank you sir have a good stay” I pushed all the papers at her, she looked at me, no need, bye! I was so disappointed if she had known the sweat and tears getting all that together in China before I came, surely she would just look to make me feel better?


The capital of Uganda is Kampala, sprawling, dirty, on a hill, crowded and downright smelly. Is it exciting for the visitor, are there fascinating things to see, do you feel you are in deepest Africa, perhaps not, but you have just arrived and are starting to discover pavements are full of holes, cracks and uneven. So walking meant a constant eye on your feet, the person coming at you and the many obstacles in your way. I remember seeing a photo of a temple (Hindu), in the brochure from the Ugandan consulate in Beijing, looking so magnificent and white. Yes here it was, dirty looking, damaged in many places and worn down by time. This was to be a common occurrence in Kampala between tourist photos and the real thing, this is a city that is in ruin, and even the new buildings that seem about 10 years old look worn and tired. Damage is everywhere, in the road, streets, buildings and general environment. As a city centre goes it is amongst the worse I have seen. The best thing they could do with the place is tear it down and start again. Can I say anything complementary well to be honest no? However this is East Africa, deserted by colonialism in 1962 and run from tribalism ever since. Where HIV and polygamy are still the main social concerns, where religion is based on missionary zeal and Old Testament hell-fire, where women are still third class citizens in the minds of men, where railways tracks are over-grown and deserted, taxis disguised as buses run around in confusion and terror for both pedestrians and passengers. Suicidal motorcycle riders are everywhere weaving in and out of the chaotic traffic vying to sell the back seat to anyone willing to risk their lives behind them as they try and manoeuvre ahead of the bus/taxi and cars. Every car is scratched or dented in some way, so buying a new car in Kampala is probably not the best decision you can make. The roads have tarmac that is so soft in the heat that much of it just melts down and leaves huge holes in the road breaking down many cars through violent ups and downs as they try to drive over or around the damage. In some places they have what we in England call, sleeping policemen, a hump in the road to calm the traffic. In Uganda these humps are so high and large the bottom of any car with some laden scrapes along the top of the humps with a scream of metal against tarmac. As a passenger in the back seat it means a jump to the ceiling, bouncing your head off and abrupt sit down again. In addition to this they have some parts that have several smaller humps of four together so driving over them is the joy of being shaken to death and talking funny for a few moments.

The wildlife, after all this is Africa is hiding and I am not sure where? Lots of exotic birds are around but not much else. My landlady tells me every evening and morning the monkeys come over the house roofs and chatter loudly. The dogs go mad trying to catch them. However after three weeks I still have not seen them once, despite getting up early with camera in hand to go looking for them. My landlady swears they are there every day – but I am now suspecting the troop has gone on holiday to Kenya for the rainy season. Also a green snake was in the garden but by the time I got there with my camera (seconds) it had gone? The locals tell me that if you want to see the animals now you have to go to the Wildlife Park and pay. I think I saw more wildlife in Shanghai than Kampala. However it is early days and I need to be patient and wait.

My purpose being here is of course is to work. The Uganda counselling association has invited me to give a speech at their conference and a local counselling company has offered me a partnership to help them streamline their operations and bring them up to date. In addition to this I will teach some psychology courses in the local universities. There is a large expat community in Kampala and everyone of course speaks English so unlike my time in China at least I can understand everyone apart from when they talk in the local dialects. I have done a tour of the hospitals here, (very poor quality most built in the 1940’s by the British and then in the hands of the Ugandan government left to go to ruin) most mental patients are locked behind high fences with barbed wire to keep them from escaping. In one hospital the staff told me they were terrified to even go in the mental illness block as the patients are unsupervised and wander around freely. I saw this for myself and thought back to Bedlam hospital in London 200 years ago – and that is here now! No Quaker humanism in Uganda to treat mental illness with compassion and moral healing. I was offered one post in such a hospital in Ishaka, about 5 hours outside Kampala, but the owner had just come out of prison being held on tax-evasion charges and he was so arrogant I decided perhaps not best to get involved. The shame is I would have enjoyed the challenge of bringing the mental part of the hospital into the 21st century and saving the misery of all those patients who are trapped in an endless cycle of 1950’s psychiatric thinking and methods. Drugs, confinement and punishment – still the only thing psychiatry understands. However you cannot help them if the boss is in and out of prison and likely to disappear for good at any moment throwing the whole thing into disarray.

Soon I will have to decide if I will stay longer or move on. I have a two month visa that is about to run out and have to pay $850 to renew for one year. If I do that I will make a three year commitment to improving Uganda’s counselling, training and psychology via the local companies and see how the penny falls.

I cannot recommend Uganda as a desirable place but when you come to a third world country you have to lower your expectations but not your desire to make it better. The days of Idi Amin are long gone, and peace is over the country but like any African state local crime is very high (had my wallet lifted on a taxi/bus already) and you have to be careful of mob-rule here. I will see in a few weeks if I stay or move on – life is about travel, experience and adventure – so live your life do not let life life you.