The air in Entebee has a distinctive smell, like the smoke from a wood fire but a little spicier. Outside the car window the buzz of insects reverbed, and a thunderstorm rolled out in the distance over Lake Victoria. It was 5am, the roads were empty, and I got from Entebee airport to my hotel in 45 minutes, as predicted.
My initial experience of Uganda’s capital was a little different. In Kampala, so I’ve been told, people run on two clocks. ‘African time’, where 3pm means ‘3pm-ish’ but it probably means 3.30pm, or 4pm, and ‘Muzungu time’, which effectively means ‘expat time’ or ‘white person time’. The latter is generally used in jest, but it is a clear indication that being punctual is expected.
During my first two days in the capital, despite my best efforts, I was not running on Muzungu time. In Kampala mapping out a journey on Google Maps will give literally no indication of travel time. The city is chaotic and thriving, and obstacles pop up regularly. En route to my first interview a presidential candidate’s parade brought traffic to a standstill, virtually paralyzing part of the city.
We stayed put for almost an hour, and my driver, Geofrey, simultaneously apologised, laughed, and shrugged his shoulders as if to ask ‘what did I expect from driving in this city?!’. People jumped fearlessly onto our bonnet, and others stood on the seat of their motorcycles or ‘boda bodas’ to get a better view. Boda bodas are widespread in Kampala, and it often seemed like they outnumbered cars. As we sat, Geofrey told me the most popular make is ‘Boxer’, and its popularity can be attributed to the fact that it is a relatively cheap bike option, and parts are affordable and easy to find and replace.
Although I did see their appeal while stuck in an hour-long jam, boda bodas are notorious for accidents, and contribute to thousands of deaths a year in Kampala. The majority of riders – and therefore casualties – are male, but as I watched bikes weave past they seemed especially dangerous for women passengers. It is against the custom in Uganda for women to wear trousers (although a few do), so women have to sit sidesaddle behind the driver, in a far less secure position. It’s also not unusual to see more than two riders on a boda boda. The most I saw on one standard-sized bike was four men, one who had to sit on the engine.
As the crowd grew and the parade neared I stood up in the 4X4 and stuck my head out of the top to see the mania unfold. The crowd was in its high hundreds now, and people thumped on our window, and men sat in the middle of the busy highway. With over 60 boda bodas blocking our way it seemed we would be stuck for hours until Geofrey got out and simply asked nicely. In the midst of the chaos I expected anger, but people very politely moved aside and asked others to do the same.
Apart from the pop-up crowds driving on roads in Kampala is not for the faint-hearted. Without paying close attention it was often hard to know which side of the road we were meant to be driving on. At one point we not only drove down the wrong side of the road, but drove down the pavement on the wrong side of the road. Pedestrians sidestepped us without any visible annoyance, and boda bodas casually swerved to avoid us without even acknowledging the fact we were blatantly in the wrong place.
Despite the traffic’s frantic feel, I felt safe. Kampala is like that. It’s the kind of city where the road is hectic and intimidating, but then I would realise I had forgotten to put my seatbelt on. It was a city of contradictions. People were calm and generally friendly, yet police with guns guarded almost every doorway, from political buildings, to hotels, to the phone store I bought a SIM card in. On my first day sirens blazed as a military helicopter was escorted through a congested road, flanked by at least three police vehicles packed with men with heavy-looking guns. The helicopter was wrapped in tight shiny plastic, which made me think of a toy being delivered to a child, until my gaze returned to the men holding guns close as their eyes scanned the streets.
The threat of terrorism has shaped Kampala. People talk openly about the bombs in 2010, which killed 74 spectators watching the football World Cup at a bar and a rugby club. Al-Shabaab, a Somali terrorist group affiliated with Al-Qaeda, claimed the attacks. I asked locals if the heightened police presence was a new addition to the city since the bombs, but they implied that Kampala had been on high alert for some time.
Almost in contradiction, Kampala is also fearless. Boda bodas swerve in front of fast moving cars, and girls ride sidesaddle casually looking at their phones, ignoring the swarm of vehicles around them. People seem unfazed by the giant guns that security guards hold, and, even for me, the guns, army vans, and constant security checks melted into the background surprisingly quickly.
But I didn’t come to Kampala to talk about traffic jams, boda bodas, or terrorism. I came to talk women’s reproductive rights, women’s use of contraception, and I came to talk about abortion. The 2013 report ‘The Stakes Are High’, published by the Center for Reproductive Rights, placed Uganda as the second worst country in the world for the unmet need for contraception, because many women who want to prevent pregnancy do not have access to the means to do so.
In my first days in Kampala I talked almost exclusively with employees of Marie Stopes Uganda. Its clinics in the city see around 35 clients a day, for a number of reasons. Most of the services it offers are not related to contraception and abortion at all, but compose of a range of services from fertility testing, STI testing and HIV counseling. But I spoke with its staff specifically about its efforts to increase the prevalence of contraception throughout the country, and its efforts to curb the number of deaths from unsafe abortions.
Henry Mulunda, who heads its contraceptive social marketing team, says after condoms the second most popular form of contraception is emergency contraception. He explains that there are many misconceptions that surround long-term contraception – as well as myths that contraception causes infertility – and these scare many women away from such methods. He adds that even when women do take contraception discontinuations rates are high, especially for the pill. Additionally, contraception still comes with a certain stigma, especially in rural areas where contraceptive education and access are generally lacking the most. The staff tell me it’s also not unusual for men to try and prevent their partners from using contraception.
Stigma also extends to abortions, contributed to in no small part by the fact that Uganda’s abortion laws are generally ambiguous and seemingly contradictory. Gynecologist and obstetrician, Dr. Charles Kiggundu, says he began looking into the law a number of years ago, and approached a legal fraternity to try to understand what the law means in “simple” language. He tells me, “what I thought was easy, really wasn’t very easy”.
Although the law against abortion in Uganda is not absolute, it is restrictive. Medical staff performing a termination outside of the scope of the law, or girls or women receiving one, can be liable for up to 14 years in prison. Advocates for a clearer law on abortion say confusion over when abortion is or is not allowed leads pregnant women and girls to seek out an abortion in poor conditions, or to attempt it themselves. According to The Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD) unsafe abortion leads to over 1,500 deaths in Uganda each year.
Marie Stopes clinics offer two safe abortion methods. Clients can take pills at home, or have surgery, which takes less than 30 minutes. Quality assurance and training officer, Norah Tuhaise, tells me the client is awake throughout the procedure, and afterwards they are given a drink of juice before leaving the clinic. She says the surgical option is so quick, that it is possible to have it done during a lunch break, and then return to work afterwards.
At a clinic in Kampala she shows me the alternative: images of various items girls have inserted into their womb to attempt an unsafe abortion. She lists a variety of items that she has seen used over the years, including herbs, metal objects, and weeds. She says that even if girls survive unsafe abortions there are often lifelong effects, such as a perforated womb, which leads to a hysterectomy.
Later in the week I speak with a number of women who have either had an abortion, or who are seeking one. I talk to a woman called Sarah, who says if her husband knew she was getting an abortion he would kick her out of the house. Another young woman, Liala, had an abortion two months earlier. She tells me she carries guilt for breaking ‘God’s law’, and says if her family knew about the abortion she would “be a disgrace”. Another woman, Yvonne, has come to a clinic to enquire about abortion methods. I ask her if she is worried about the law, but she tells me it’s not a concern, “as long as I have a place I can trust”.
In total, I spoke to around eight girls and, although not all of them were worried about the law, all told me they were afraid of the procedure itself, of the pain, and the recovery, and the inevitable risks that surgery comes with. But Tuhaise says the alternative is far riskier. She is convinced that without Marie Stopes’ services the majority of these girls, and others like them, would be desperate enough to have unsafe abortions.
Louise McLoughlin received funding to travel to Uganda through the Simon Cumbers Media Fund 2015 Student Scheme. To find out about the 2016 Student Scheme click here.