01 Oct The President’s Ghetto: Where Bobi Wine Grew Up
Capitalizing on the growing disillusionment of Uganda’s development and the ubiquitous anger and discontent of the country’s youth, which represent over 75% of the population, Bobi Wine’s movement, known as People Power, has become a formidable political force. Sam Broadway tells the story of the people in Kamwokya where Wine grew up and where much of his political operations and support are centred today.
By Sam Broadway
This summer, as part of my research for New York University’s Global Journalism program, I travelled to Uganda where long-famous musician-turned Member of Parliament, Bobi Wine (real name, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu), has made numerous headlines. In 2017, Wine announced his intention to run for a parliamentary seat in the Kyadondo East constituency of Kampala – Kyadondo is a working-class district which was also the site of the headquarters for the National Resistance Army (NRA) prior to their winning the Bush Rebellion in 1986. Since then, Uganda has known only one president, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, who’s National Resistance Movement (the political outgrowth of the NRA) has never lost a majority in parliament. In the 33 years since Yoweri Museveni took power, neoliberal economic policy has widened the gap between the rich and the poor, and education, while it has been expanded to larger segments of the population, no longer promises fulfilling employment. Bobi Wine’s immense popularity and well-known political leanings (Wine has been singing about the plight of the poor for nearly a decade), and his official announcement that he will stand for election as the next president of Uganda, promises to almost certainly and irreversibly alter the political landscape of the country. The following story is grounded in over a month of spending time with the people and place of Kamwokya where Bobi Wine grew up.
There is a mall in Kampala. With towering orange corners and white marble floors, it is a great temple to consumption. Its function is not unlike its decaying American sisters, though the Acacia Mall in Kololo is built for and attracts a much more affluent clientele. On Sundays, they descend on it to watch the latest Marvel movies in 3D (22.000 shillings, or $6 a ticket); shoppers dine on smoked salmon carpaccio (26.000 shillings or $7) while their children enjoy Playstation and virtual reality games (20.000 for 15 minutes, $5.50). Though truck beds packed with long-horned Ankole cows occasionally pass on the road outside the parking garage, no farmers or cowherds can be found licking ice cream by either of the mall’s two large fountains or eating chicken at the KFC.
Owned by a subsidiary of one of Uganda’s wealthiest men, the late Alykhan Karmali, known as Mukwano, the Acacia Mall casts a long shadow. Those who live under it can only dream of having enough cash to peruse the shops, try the ice cream, or eat the Colonel’s fried chicken. Many of these dreamers live in Kamwokya, a slum just five minutes by motorcycle from the mall’s main entrance.
Like most other slums in Kampala, Kamwokya sits at the bottom of a deep valley, downhill from wealthier neighbourhoods. Being downhill, it is the final resting place for so much wastewater from places like Acacia. On some nights, while walking up the road from the slum to the mall, before passing the fruit carts and the grilled chicken stands and the butcher shops, the stinging punch of piss and shit is overwhelming. The piss and shit of better-off Ugandans.
But Kamwokya is unlike Kampala’s other slums in at least one way. It is the home of the Ghetto President, the pop star-turned-politician, the man most loved in Uganda, and the 2021 presidential aspirant: Bobi Wine. In fact, it is just outside his childhood home, a quaint mudbrick and tin-roof structure, where the scent of Kampala’s cascading waste is most strong. And, graffitied in every direction the stench spreads, another reminder of the people’s love for Wine – FREE BOBI WINE, TUKOOYE M7 (we are tired of Museveni).
It was only a few days into my research that I more or less stumbled serendipitously into Kamwokya and the cache of material it would provide my reporting. I wanted to see Bobi Wine’s house, though, and my boda driver (motorcycle taxi) had taken me to his studio. I wanted to get to know the place where he had lived, the people he had relationships with, not only the place where he worked, the people he worked with. This was a bias I had not shed. If social life in the United States (and the rest of the Western world, for that matter) had been taken over by work life, if work had become the central point from which people formed relationships there, why not here. And the studio was conveniently located less than 200 meters from his house.
Along the main, paved road that descends from Kololo to the bustling working class, and even lower-middle class, outskirts of Kamwokya, there are several portals. Through them, ghetto youth pass from the winding, narrow, polluted and unnavigable alleys at the heart of the Kamwokya to a world outside, a world filled with vague promises of wealth and leisure, of which they only need to catch whiff to become anointed, respected, ‘known’ in the ghetto. While Bobi Wine’s studio, Fire Studioz, along with that of his older brother, Dream Studioz, are certainly two such portals, warping young starlets beyond their former clime, there is another, perhaps more significant in its diversity, that lies between them on the road.
Fire Base Barracks is a walled-off strip of land the shape of a twisted hourglass with a large blue main gate and a more discrete steel door exit near its middle. Adjacent to the entrance is a small conference room used by Bobi Wine to conduct some of the official business of his growing, immensely popular movement, People Power. The walls inside the conference room are decorated with the portraits of famous, black revolutionaries and leaders – Nelson Mandela, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Sankara, Kwame Nkrumah, Haile Selassie I, and more. Towards the rear of the Barracks is where the training happens, but not in any revolutionary force of its own, but of young, ‘ghetto youth’ boxers.
Fire Base is made up of several groups based on activity (for their own safety I won’t name any names). But the groups are as follows: the politicos, who are there less frequently but are close associates of Wine (his driver, his assistant) and help with the People Power day-to-day; the boxers, who train daily at 5pm and are mostly young men still in or just out of secondary school; the musicians, who record reggae, R&B and, to a lesser extent, hiphop and dress in their best ghetto-cum-streetwear, typically with flashy sunglasses; and, for lack of a better term, the Rastas, the ‘nature boys’ who amongst other activities smoke weed, chew khat with bubble gum, and make what they have to drink, smoke, or chew available to the musicians or boxers the activities of whom overlap with their own.
But you won’t see Bobi in the backyard. The backyard is for the boxers, the low-level musicians, and especially, the nature boys. This is their territory, their safe space to do that which they are accustomed. And a Bobi Wine fighting hard to leave his past reputation as the ‘President of Uganja’ – while still not alienating his roots with visits to the ghetto – won’t be found in the backyard of Fire Base (though, he will stand on the hill at its edge and, as he did me, greet those down below). Today, the Ghetto President is perhaps more Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu than he is Bobi Wine, and the bottleneck between Fire Base’s front and back sections is, in a way, a physical demarcation of his psycho-political transition.
Before I was aware of the significance of this Wine-Kyagulanyi transition, I was quite free with my pursuit of the story. I wanted to get to know the Fire Base crowd, all of them. And so, as the radical journalist I vainly believe myself to be, I joined them in whichever activity I found them conducting: smoking herb mixed with grabba, chewing khat mixed with comic-strip bubble gum, or drinking sorghum porridge mixed with rasta conversation.
As the weeks ran on I became paranoid that Wine’s wish to distance himself from the activities of the nature boys had extended by proxy to myself. Fortunately, I was wrong. In Uganda, and perhaps in many places throughout Africa, no public opinion is formed based on private hearsay. And so, I finally got my interview. Though, on the fourth occasion I met Wine, I was cautioned not to smoke with him around.
Of course, every one of the Fire Base contingent loves Wine. For them, like so many other young Ugandans, he possesses a pure, avuncular quality that they trust, admire, and feel close to however distant from it they might actually be. This same quality is extended to those characters populating Wine’s extended universe, and on any given night, it is readily apparent. This was certainly the case with King Lutz, one of the many Fire Studioz promoters as well as my own personal friend and guide, who can navigate the maze of Kamwokya without conscious thought, stopping only to pat familiar children on the head or greet his fans.
Kamwokya, as a working-class neighbourhood, might be filled with those who wake well before the sun rises, but by equivalent working-class impulses, it also comes quite alive once the sun has set. King, being Kamwokya-born, knew this, and it showed in his excited eyes and wide, open-mouthed, gap-toothed grin when he suggested taking me out on a Friday.
We started at Rumor, a swanky, string bulb-lit pub on the hill that technically belongs to another neighbourhood but nonetheless looks out over Kamwokya and is frequented by the ghetto’s upper crust for live local music. Then, across the street to the Rwandan-owned Supermarket (also a bar) that had long ago ceased the sale of every other less-profitable product that would constitute the full intention of its name, its shelves now sparsely populated by neatly-spaced bottles of wine and beer.
Supermarket is a haven for Fire Base-affiliates of all kinds – musicians, promoters, producers, environmentalist nature-boys, both established and up-and-coming – who gather to drink for cheap and to smoke in the narrow, unlit back-alley they’ve nicknamed Chinatown. But like Rumor, Supermarket can only boast a clientele from and a view of the ghetto.
Down at the roadside – the true epicentre of Kamwokya’s nightlife – the people are as lively as their activities are varied. At Cock N Bull, there are as many choices as there are stories of the building; those not suffering cheerfully in the bouncing humidity of the first-floor club or fighting to take a shot at the pool table amidst the crowded lip-syncing competition in the bar on the third, are transfixed by the outdated screens of black, plastic computers, their eyes growing dry as they place meagre yet hopeful wages on electronic games. Yet still more strain their own eyes by candlelight to see the real thing.
Across the street, past the row of Rolex stands where a chapati and omelette combo (known as a Rolex) costs 20 times less than the smoked salmon carpaccio served in the cafe at Acacia mall, there is a small, mud-brick portico with a low ceiling. Stepping through it is like stepping through a wardrobe that leads to another world, a world with a small, dimly lit pool table and two groups of men, staring at the rapid flash of cards being dealt by the light of two candles. The game is one of pure chance. Slap your money on the worn, oily surface of the wooden table – the more you mean it, the better your supposed odds – and, with speed, deal the cards. If your chosen card comes first, you win; if your opponents’, you lose. The game is absurdly fast and requires considerably more bravado than skill: ghetto poker.
For many in Kamwokya, gambling is a way out – if only out of their minds and if only for those small, nightly moments. For many others, especially the young, it is music – though with the government ban on Bobi Wine’s concerts even music’s promise has been stalled. And for others still, it is boxing; boxing in any form it can be organized. After all, boxing, unlike music, is entertainment that can be gambled on.
My night out with King ended with a greasy, double Rolex (for the much more affordable 2.000 shillings or $0,50) and the false assumption that I had only learned something about Kamwokya. I would learn much later the meaning behind King’s own words, the ghetto is not some place in Uganda, it is a mentality. And indeed, the phenomenon transcends place. It was there at a bar called Antidot, in the strip-of-a-town called Nakifuma. It was there in the ring, some as young as 13, took swings at each other for temporary fame and glory. It was there in the soft red glow of the tidy bedroom-offices of prostitutes beckoning men going to and from the urinals. It was even there in Gulu, past the statue elephants guarding the market, past the hotels with their beef and chicken buffets – there in the thatched-roof dwellings of internally displaced people which they also call a ghetto.
The ghetto is the phenomenon that grows in the shadow of Acacia Mall, the shadow cast by the unequal distribution that is the hallmark of the Washington Consensus. And in the case of Uganda, the growing movement of People Power, with its populist language, its red berets, and its leader – whether he is called Bobi Wine or Kyagulanyi – the shadow is the disease and the cure.
Sam Broadway is studying Journalism and Africana Studies at New York University. He worked as an English teacher in Rwanda from 2013 to 2015. His primary academic interests are sub-Saharan African politics, socialism, and documentary photography, particularly in Ghana, Uganda, and Rwanda.
Featured Photograph: Local music promoter, King Lutz, who acted as Sam Broadway’s guide in Kamwokya (all photos in the text taken by Sam Broadway).