Kampala, Uganda: One look down the street, and it’s clear– I’m not in Venezuela anymore. Wooden shacks with scrawny chickens run around kids who are just as skinny and smoldering piles. In one of the most artisanal of all industries, men make charcoal in tiny ramshackle tin-shanties. Barely any of the streets are paved, and the dirt really is a deep Martian red, just like you see in the movies.
This is Makindye: an unremarkable slum in an unremarkable corner of Kampala, the Ugandan capital. It’s my first extended stay in Africa, and I’m quickly realizing the Latin American common sense I developed growing up in Venezuela may just not work here.
You do see slums like Makindye in Venezuela, of course. But not that many.
And certainly not within a 10 minute drive from parliament.
As an east-side caraqueño, Caracas born and raised, my instinct is to steer well clear of places like this. It’s an instinct honed over decades of parental admonitions and that pervasive, well-founded collective paranoia back home.
Steering well clear of slums is what I would’ve done on my trip to Uganda, too, if my AirBnB room hadn’t turned out to be right in the heart of a slum.
That’s the first thing I don’t get. I’m staying at a really nice house, with a gorgeous garden and a smattering of young aid workers in residence. Nobody in Venezuela would invest to make a house this nice in a slum this run down.
As I arrive, my French AirBnB host warns me gravely about pickpockets. “You must be careful: they are very good at it. The worst part is that you may not notice you’ve been robbed at all until you get home.”
I try to suppress a laugh. “You’re worried about…pickpockets?!”
I go out, tentatively, to try to get some ingredients for dinner. Ladies up and down the street keep little wooden stalls with a handful of vegetables for sale: eggplants, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, maybe a cabbage and an avocado, and a couple of things I can’t identify.
My caraqueño psyche tells me I shouldn’t feel safe in a place like this.
But very quickly I realize… I do.
It’s hard to quite put into words but within minutes you feel it. There’s absolutely no sense of menace to this place. No gangbanger vibe. There’s none of that class, race, political, social tension that’s slowly made Caracas a dangerous place in the past twenty years.
The facts are stark. In 2011, there were 183 murders in Kampala. Murders in Caracas, which has twice the population, are running at about 4,000 a year. There’s nothing remotely like the frenzied gun-culture of a Latin American slum in Makindye. On the rare occasion when someone is kidnapped in Kampala, it’s national news for days on end.
Makindye dissolves my caraqueño defensive crouch pretty quickly.
The main attention I attract are kids who stop and stare at me in amazement and point, saying “Mzungu! Mzungu!” (“white guy!” “white guy!”) The adults mostly ignore me, or just greet politely.
I stop at one of the vegetable stalls and the lady is slightly thrown. I guess mzungus aren’t her core demographic. The kids stare, amazed, but one stern look from her and everyone becomes immediately polite: speaking softly and doing their best to serve.
“The tomatoes are 100 shillings each, sir, they are very sweet,” the lady says. I’m doing arithmetic in the back of my head. Let’s see 100 divided by 2,600…that’s like 3 or 4 cents. More expensive than a liter of gas in Venezuela, I guess, but still.
“Here you are, sir, thank you very much for coming,” she says with a soft voice and a smile, handing me a black plastic bag. A smile! A soft voice! What on earth is going on here?
Of all the ways Kampala’s third worldness is radically unlike Caracas’s, this is the one that jumps out at you first: the soft voices.
Nobody shouts. Again and again, I find myself asking people to repeat themselves. To speak up. I just can’t hear them.
Then there’s the strange rural feel to the place. Every fourth plot is a banana patch, every shanty has a little vegetable patch out back. There are chickens and goats everywhere, and if they’re making charcoal next-door it’s because that’s what people use to cook, every day.
I remember reading that the slums around Caracas were once like this—way back, when the first generations of country people were squatting on them, they would plant little vegetable patches and try to keep up rural mores in the city. By the time I was born in the 1970s, though, that kind of countryside-in-the-city feel was already a relic.
I remember when the dominant bureaucratic euphemism for Caracas’s slums was “las zonas marginales” (marginal or informal areas). It’s an outdated, odious misnomer, but one that made a certain spatial sense in its time; Caracas, like most Latin American capitals, has a formal core surrounded on all sides by a sprawl of unplanned slums.
But nobody would think to call Makindye marginal. In purely geographical terms, slums here are not on the margins. Slums are the core, encroached on here and there by formal construction and fringed, especially to the north and east, with swankier suburbs catering to Uganda’s military and commercial elite, or to its sprawling NGO-expat community. It’s these more formal, planned built-up neighborhoods that are Kampala’s zonas marginales, not Makindye.
The toniest bit of Ntinda, Kamapla’s wealthiest suburb, is nicknamed “Ministers’ Village” with admirable forthrightness about the wealth that the politically connected can amass here.
None of this is to soft-sell the daunting problems Kampala has: the terrible incomes and non-existent infrastructure, the rampant HIV/AIDs, the corruption.
As night falls, you can see the kerosene lights coming on in Makindye. You see electric lights on in maybe one shanty out of every 4 or 5. In Caracas, shanties are famously decked out with satellite dishes. Here, even electricity is out of reach for most, TV a distant dream, and satellite TV entirely off the radar. There are plenty of obvious ways Makindye is much, much poorer than Petare.
But then women and girls walk around Makyndie alone, at night, without a second thought. Nobody wastes money putting bars on windows to keep thieves that don’t exist from stealing stuff they don’t have. The informal nighttime curfew so many in Venezuela have grown used to would scarcely be comprehensible to people here, who socialize intensely at night, outside their huts, as their kids play around them.
None of this is to deny the obvious. Poverty here is unmistakable. It’s real. It’s extreme.
It’s just that poverty has a flavor, as much as a degree. The social scientist’s penchant for quantifying it and measuring it, for reducing it to a number, can’t account for this. Is Kampala poorer than Caracas? Is Makindye poorer than Petare?
Statistics can inform these questions, but they can’t answer them. Poverty doesn’t just lie on a linear spectrum, with people unambiguously poorer or richer depending on where they fall.
Poverty really is multidimensional, and when you really look at it you realize the dimensions don’t all map into each other neatly.
Maybe that’s why I can’t shake this strange sense that Uganda is at the same time far poorer and immeasurably richer than Venezuela.
Francisco Toro is the founder of CaracasChronicles.com