A plagued history of Kampala

The parallels between COVID-19 and the 1910s in Kampala, when the colonial regime used a series of plagues to cut Ugandans out of the capital city.

Group photo at the opening of the new Mengo Hospital, Uganda. Image credit the Wellcome Trust UK, CC.

When COVID-19 was first declared a global pandemic in mid-March, the Ugandan government—experienced in controlling Ebola outbreaks in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo—quickly shut the country’s borders, roads, and work, using the state security forces to enforce the closures. In Kampala, on the hilly, northwestern shores of Lake Victoria, videos showing the police beating market vendors and boda boda drivers breaking curfew quickly emerged and spread around the country.

One hundred years ago, the colonial state was conducting a similar violence in the name of different public health threats, and their response continues to define much of the form of Kampala today. To understand the legacy of public health interventions as a state tool, and the violence used to enforce its power, we have to return to the founding of Kampala.

The history of Kampala as twin cities goes back to Kabaka Mwanga II’s rise to the throne of Buganda in 1885, when he established his kibuga (royal court) on Mengo Hill and thousands of his subjects settled around the area. When Fredrick Lugard—later famous for codifying indirect rule in British colonies—reached the area five years later, he decided to build Fort Lugard on a neighboring hill, which to the dismay of the Kabaka was to become known as Kampala.

Extending their settlement to Kololo and Nakasero hills, the white settlers created a competing capital city and used land reforms, poll taxes, and colonial violence to exploit African labor. As their power grew, a tacit agreement was reached between the Kabaka and the British that would see the neighboring settlements of the Kibuga and Kampala remain the homes for the African and foreign populations respectively.

Records are patchy at best, but Europeans’ arrival in the Great Lakes region seem to have been accompanied by a surge in disease. Colonial health archives focus on malaria, sleeping sickness, and the bubonic plague, the last of which reappeared in 1899 in Uganda and was present in all districts within the following decade. It’s estimated that sleeping sickness killed a quarter of a million people in neighboring Busoga from 1900-1920, while plague in Buganda was concentrated in the Kibuga, where nearly 2% of the population died from it in the following decades. To European settlers, having come to an agreement with the Buganda kingdom, but still seeking to expand their powers and protect themselves from the public health crises, an ideal solution existed: segregation as a public health intervention.

In 1915 W.J. Simpson, a visiting academic from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, called for the establishment of segregated residential areas for “Europeans, Asiatics and Africans … and that there should be a neutral belt of open unoccupied country of at least 300 yards in which between the European residences and those of the Asiatic and African.” Adopting the 1824 Vagrancy Act from the UK allowed the colonial government to de-indigenize Kampala, a common practice across colonial capitals at the time. This law was adapted into the 1950 Penal Code Act as “idle and disorderly” laws, which were not seriously challenged until October 2019 when President Yoweri Museveni called for a review of the law. However, state violence is hard to change, and in the current pandemic the police shot several boda boda drivers who were defying the lockdown.

Although not still as segregated by class and race as cities like Nairobi or Johannesburg, real estate inflation and growing income inequality in Kampala nonetheless force many of the city’s poorest to make long treks across town for work, exposing them to the police and other extortionists. And predictably, when the lockdown in Uganda began in late March, Museveni banned popular transport before banning private cars, even though popular transport is responsible for 50% of trips in the city (a further 40% are by foot).

Traders have been sleeping in markets, unable to get home. Police have used the curfew as a blank check to beat street hawkers, market women, and boda boda drivers, heaping additional economic hardship on the urban poor. Even health workers have taken to riding crowded ambulances to get to work in some parts of the country.

While the British no longer directly run Kampala, the green belt segregating the white neighborhoods has become the golf course used by the (still disproportionately foreign) elite living in their former headquarters of Kololo and Nakasero. Meanwhile, the very few people who can work remotely in Uganda are also those with a significantly more stable income than most. Plagues have changed names and elites have swapped out, but the response of the state continues to perpetuate division and political repression.

Further Reading