Safety & Security in Kampala

Safety & Security in Kampala

I had a friend living in Kampala who was having some people from the U.S. visit him last year. These particular visitors had moms, and those moms happened to be very worried. While on the phone with one of the aforementioned mothers my friend tried to assuage her fears by saying “to be honest ma’am you son has about a 50/50 chance of making it out of here alive.”

While the above statement was completely in jest, many people I’ve met (my parents included) have an image of Africa/Uganda as a “dark continent” full of lurking dangers like child soldiers, evil dictators, poachers, genocidaires, and maybe even a warlord or two. While these things are a sad reality of Africa and Uganda’s past and present they are definitely not the norm of day to day life in Kampala. I generally feel about as safe in Kampala as I do in any big city in the U.S. However like all big cities around the world bad things happen here, and it’s a good idea to be aware of potential risks.

Crime

My girlfriend and I can personally attest to the high rate of petty crimes in Kampala after being robbed at machete point last year. Also I can’t even count the number of expats I’ve known that have had a computer, phone, wallet, purse, or camera stolen from them over the past few years. Unfortunately this high rate of theft is increasing, so it’s best to always be aware of your surroundings, be wise about what items you choose to carry with you, and when and where you travel.

The U.S. Embassy in Kampala states that “crimes such as pick pocketing, purse snatching, and thefts from hotels and parked vehicles or vehicles stalled in traffic jams are common.” One rule of thumb that my girlfriend and I use while driving around the city is to keep our doors locked and windows rolled up at least 3/4 of the way. There was one time that she had her phone stolen right out of her hands as she was talking on it at a traffic light. Likewise I’ve had three friends that, while driving slowly over potholes, have had their door opened and purse grabbed out of the passenger seat. I’ve also known two friends that had their backpacks unknowingly cut open as they were walking through Owino market, so as nerdy as it sounds walking with your backpack on your chest while passing through crowded areas is a good idea.

Sorry about all the nasty stories, but I have one more if you’ll bear with me…  Armed robberies of pedestrians can also occur, sometimes during daylight hours and in public spaces. The most dramatic story I know is of a U.S. volunteer with an international NGO. This was no ordinary volunteer, he was a 32 year old, about 6’6” in height, and around 270 pounds of near solid muscle.  Unfortunately this man was traveling alone with large sums of cash, a backpack with a laptop computer and digital camera, and an iPhone.  While pausing on an isolated street corner during the middle of the day he was tackled from behind by two men then knocked unconscious and robbed of all his belongings. So the moral of the story is… even if you are a burly giant it’s still a good idea to travel in groups, stick to well-lighted and well populated areas, carry as few valuables with you as possible, and stay alert for possible dangers.

Home Security

If you’re an expat living in Kampala chances are that you’ll be living in a house or apartment with a high concrete wall surrounding it and a live-in guard to keep things secure. If you’re an expat living in Kampala chances are that you’ve also heard a few stories about break-ins. I’ve heard my share… and for some reason they tend to occur around the merriest time of the year (Christmas). In the majority of the stories I’ve heard the prime suspects have been either the live-in security guard or the housekeeper. This would seem to suggest that it is a very good idea to take your time when recruiting a security guard, and choose your house staff based on recommendations from people you trust and know well. Your guard and any other house staff you have will need to have keys to your property so you’ll want them to be vouched for. If you don’t know anyone in Kampala then I would suggest joining the Expats In Uganda Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/groups/expatsinuganda/) and asking for suggestions from there.

A good idea to dissuade break-ins is to purchase a high quality safe to keep all your money and important documents in. I also like to hide valuables and money in various places around my room like on top of my window frame and underneath my dresser (P.S. please don’t tell my guard this).  But perhaps most important of all is to form genuine trusting friendships with your house staff, visit them at their house for dinner one evening, invite them to dinner at your place, and just build good ol’ fashioned camaraderie.

Slipped Mickeys

As bizarre and movie-esque as slipping someone a “mickey” sounds it actually occurs in Uganda. Patrons of bars, casinos, nightclubs, and other entertainment centers should never leave their drink or food unattended. According to the U.S. Embassy in Kampala “when visiting such establishments, it is advisable to remain with a group of friends, as single individuals are more likely to be targeted. Victims have included female patrons who reported they were drugged, then taken to another location and sexually assaulted.”  Yikes!

There have also been instances where expats were targeted while taking public transportation. Specific stories I know of include one expat that took the long distance bus from Kampala to Nairobi and another that was traveling to Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest. In both instances they accepted snacks or a beverage from a fellow traveler and when they became incapacitated were robbed.

Boda Bodas

Taking a “boda boda” motorcycle taxi around Kampala is, in my opinion, the most dangerous thing you can do here. Most organizations (including mine) strongly discourage or even prohibit their employees and volunteers from riding these because of their ridiculously high injury and mortality rates. I’ve regrettably known of several expats and Ugandans that have died while riding these, and have seen more than my fair share of horrific accidents.

Boda boda drivers, while many may be the most genuine and sweet people you’d ever want to meet, have a notorious reputation for being involved in the Kampala crime syndicate. Some things to be aware of are: never get on a boda boda that already has a passenger on back, as there have been instances where the first “passenger” ends up being an associate of the driver and when a secluded area is reached both will overpower and assault or rob the victim. If you absolutely must take a boda boda at night, always use extreme caution as many drivers drink and become intoxicated. There have also been instances of intoxicated passengers being driven to a secluded location then assaulted or robbed. Perhaps this is all the more reason to go green and ride a bike.

On the opposite note, I have had wonderful experiences with boda boda drivers. One of the most joyful and hilarious guys I know is a boda boda driver, and he shares a house with several of my expat friends.

But Don’t Let Us Scare You…

Ok, enough with the doom and gloom.  There are thousands of international visitors that travel through Uganda each month without a hint of trouble.  If you are wise and aware of your surroundings Uganda can be a very safe country.  Foreigners are generally embraced and treated with the utmost respect and care and are able to thoroughly enjoy the many wonderful things that this “pearl of Africa” has to offer.

About Aaron

I'm the creative director of the music and arts organization Ensigo, and have been living in Uganda for close to three years. I’m thrilled to contribute to the Living in Kampala website, and will do my best to unveil some of Kampala’s hidden gems and local talent that I’ve discovered during my time here. Get in touch at aaron@livinginkampala.com.