In Kampala everyone speaks with authority about what’s really happening in government. They know who is actually in control of the money and where they are channelling it. They know who has real power in the country. Politics is lunch time conversation and bar talk; everyone is blowing hot air.
The public voice does not exist in Kampala. The people are not heard, sometimes because they do not speak, but most times because no one is listening. Politicians are not listening. The police are not listening. Friends are not listening. Parents are too busy to listen because they are also trying to be heard. We do not take the time to listen to ourselves.
There is an obvious lack of graffiti in the city, especially compared to its siblings: Nairobi and Johannesburg. There are a few common tags: Zenson, Spray it, and Monk 256. Kampala is full of walls that are not speaking.
I first saw the writings on the wall two years ago, when the bus from Kabale dropped me somewhere in Kampala. I had no working sense of direction then, but I knew it was the middle of town. I turned and saw the long perimeter wall of the Aga Khan temple. I stared down the length of a dirty, smeared, once-white wall: now covered in writing. Nonsense, scratched in black charcoal, chronicled famous names, important positions, places and amounts in shillings.
Something was wrong. The wall was out of place, a dislocated joint someone tried to ignore as it throbbed with pain. In a city choking on billboards, sign posts and phone numbers for opportunities in Dubai, I had found a settlement of words selling nothing. The city had let these words grow unchecked on the side of the wall.
Something felt right. The wall was an invitation to belong. The words gestured welcome to outcasts, outsiders and the offbeat. Joseph, the author, was himself an outsider, pressed against the periphery.
The majority of the writings read like half-baked conspiracy theories shared in a loud whisper. Most were dated and named a public figure along with an amount of money as if to clue us in on where all our taxes were directed; if not to our roads, schools and hospitals.
The whole neighbourhood seemed agitated, except for the Aga Khan Mosque, which sat inside the wall, safe from the pressing of the male body, the tension, the noise, and the dust. I read somewhere that it used to be a gathering place for the Asian Muslim community in the 60s and 70s; many of them lived nearby before they were thrown out of Uganda by Idi Amin.
Now the mosque only holds memories. The prayer call rises from five decades back and falls in waves of echoes over Old Kampala.
And Kampala sits indifferently. Or it moves constantly, but still indifferent; a passionless response to the night terrors and dreams of millions of inhabitants. Inhabitants who vomit in its corners and collapse sweating in its corridors. Who hustle along its backbone and rob each other in its wide eyes. Who tunnel through its organs and spill out of its openings like ants. Who try to conquer this city but are crushed under its stoic indifference.
This city does not notice me swerving under its arms as they try to pull me in different directions. I recognise Joseph’s name as a singular eye winking at me from bus stops and hidden walls scattered across the city. I recognise in his name something within myself, willing itself to be heard.
I have nothing to love about this city but the wall of writings.
Joseph’s wall was the only sign of public dissent. Every time he wrote, Joseph signed his name. Joseph Museveni was our president. Joseph Amin Dada was the infamous dictator of Uganda back from the dead. Pastor Joseph was the late Pastor Munroe, reincarnated. Joseph Red Cross Account was going to save the lives of Africans in war zones. Joseph Quran was the holy word manifested.
Every time I saw Joseph’s name, I saw him reaffirming his existence. He reaffirmed his existence 17 times on the wall of the Aga Khan Mosque, twice on Jinja Road, once in Kabalagala, and uncountable times at the bus stops along Kira Road.
His writings were dated entries in a public journal. He was on Kampala Road in July. So was I. So were millions of people, every day. I wonder how many times I must have passed him on the roadside. The major narrative of Joseph’s life took place between September 14 and December 10, 2013, documented on the Aga Khan wall.
Joseph told his story in fragments. He had been to Kansanga, to Kasubi, to Kiseka. In my imagination, his best friend was Barnabus, whose name appeared frequently on the walls. He hung out with Peter, Sunday, and Kamoga. I imagine Maria was his lover. “GWE, MARIA AKUYITA JOSEPH!!!” Joseph, Maria is calling you. While you are busy writing, she is missing you.
500 kilometres away in Karamoja, there is a building lined with shops on one side and houses in the back. The face of the building is also covered in conspiratorial writings, naming forgotten crimes and unknown murders. The residents don’t allow me to take pictures. They say the writer is a madman.
Joseph might also be a madman. He could be the one who sunbathes naked at the Independence Monument, the only person who has truly felt free there. He could be the one who grabbed my arm near bank of Uganda and laughed when I screamed in shock, because he did it on purpose, because he knew I was scared of his proximity and was watching him out of the corner of my eye. Madman we say, so he cannot stumble into humanity.
We all watch them carefully, the madmen and madwomen, calculating the distance between us and them. We move in tension, not sure if they are going to strip or spit or shout or dance or sit down in the middle of the road. Their hair has locked with dirt in the same way. The persistent sun and dust or rain and mud has coloured all their clothes the same brown. They all carry the same sack of brown material and collect bottles, pieces of metal, and scraps of rubbish. They are camouflaged against the dusty streets and dirty walls and we hold our breath hoping they will not leap out and bite us.
Mad people must be assigned to a madhouse. In Uganda they are banished to Butabika, the notorious mental hospital that is more holding cell than hospital. Overstretched and underfed, it is listless, unable to contain any more cases of mental disability. Its patients pour out onto the streets, invisible until they collide with another person, a car, an authority, or a wall.
When I begin searching for Joseph I start at the mosque. The security guards do not know who he is, nor do the staff I find inside. He was never caught. I ask in the surrounding shops. Most shop owners say they are new to the area and found the writings there.
An electrician says the people who write on the walls are high on mafuta. They sniff petrol and heave up their incoherent thoughts. His lips quiver as he tells me this and I wonder if it is because he is uncomfortable with the conversation or disgusted, as he tells me how they defecate at the back wall of the mosque.
A boda-boda rider also tells me it is not just Joseph. There are a few of them, three or four, who write on the walls. He says they are not right in the head; in other words, madmen. He laughs as he tells me one of these men has been around since 1979. He was a doctor before he “lost his mind”. I don’t trust the phrase, because it wants you to think your mind was misplaced, and could be found if you simply retrace your steps. When he laughs, I feel isolated and uncomfortable inside. He is laughing at someone I know and maybe I should defend him.
The Aga Khan Mosque is being renovated. The last time I was there, they had painted pure white over the writings. The mosque is advancing to its former glory, but Joseph will cease to exist in the public memory. The bus stop benches are bright with telecom posters pasted over Joseph’s conspiracies. He collapses under commercial weight.
He is now only echoed on lonely half walls whose owners have not drummed up the energy to drown him out completely. He is going to become the quiet that falls after the prayer call. The lull in a conversation. The silence of a city buzzing so loud it cancels itself out.
Gloria Kiconco is a poet and arts journalist based in Kampala, Uganda. She contributes regularly to START, a journal of the arts based in Kampala and her personal essays have appeared in the The Forager Magazine and Doppiozero’s Why Africa? Her poetry has been published in Brittle Paper and Lawino. She performs regularly at Poetry-in-session in Kampala. You can find more of her writing on her blog, rhymesbythereams.