Kampala’s moneyed youth mill round a photography exhibition, quaffing wine and debating the works on show. But this is no ordinary exhibition and these are no ordinary conversations. The exhibition displays photographs of some of the city’s most notorious potholes.
Weary commuters, vegetating in Kampala’s perpetual morning traffic snarl-up, were tickled recently by the creativity of anti-pothole campaigners who planted trees in potholes in one area and fished from others filled with rainwater. These acts of comic sabotage were then photographed by members of the public and submitted to the exhibition.
The pranksters provided light relief in a campaign against the potholes – some more like craters – that many Kampalans blame for spending so much of their time sitting in traffic. But it’s no laughing matter. One newspaper columnist even suggested that, though Uganda’s civil wars have always been fought over ideology, the next could very well be ignited by crumbling roads.
“Sometimes you can’t believe this is Kampala,” says Francis Xavier Ssempiira, organiser of the exhibition, gesturing towards some of the photos. “Look at this picture of these roads in Juba, South Sudan. They are far superior than our roads in Kampala and that country is coming off years of war.”
For many Ugandans, the mystery of why a country with enviable growth figures for a decade has had its capital christened “world’s pothole capital” can be answered with one word: corruption. The public, the media and NGOs now say they are fed up with years of backhanders hampering Uganda’s development.
“The government allocates money to improve the road network but you see no change because of corruption,” says Ssempiira. “Money is siphoned off by contractors, people do shoddy jobs, new roads have foundations of garbage.”
President Yoweri Museveni, who celebrated his 25th anniversary in power yesterday and faces national elections on 18 February, has had to admit that graft is a problem. The opposition is making capital from portraying the aging revolutionary as an undemocratic leader who can’t govern an emerging country in today’s Africa.
For the new generation of Ugandans at the pothole exhibition, most of whom heard about it on Facebook or Twitter, Museveni’s war stories are old hat. They want urbanisation, they want to see industries grow, they want to compete with Kenya’s regional economic gold star and they want a functioning capital.
“I’m a graphic designer,” a man in his twenties says as he recognises a photo of a pothole near his office. “Look at the size of that thing. It makes it harder for me to get out and meet my clients. We’re spending too much on fuel, we’re spending less time at our places of work. It’s all money. Enough is enough.”