It is Risky Business in Kampala

It is Risky Business in Kampala


The daily life of street vendors in Kampala.

By Prossy Nandudu and Gerald Businge
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First published: November 15, 2005


“Leave me alone”, “leave alone”, “what have I done to you,” a woman is shouting at Kampala Road near Bank of Uganda as two burly men pull her towards a parked vehicle.


As the woman’s cries get louder, I run to the scene to witness what is being done to a mother in broad daylight.

The men dressed in dark blue uniforms are pulling a black kavera (plastic bag) which the woman is clinging on like it holds all her life, before they throw her and her kavera on their green/yellow vehicle.

The Kampala City Council Officials have just arrested the woman for finding her selling on the street sidewalks. This is the woman I had just passed displaying wallets, sweets, newspapers, cigarettes and a few key holders.

“I have been warning you. But you woman you don’t listen. I warned you not to sell from here. I told you to at least go a bit further from here. Now we are taking you and your things,” says one of the two KCC officials, equally agitated.

As I turn right to see the woman who had a Relate Magazine among her displayed items which I wanted to buy, she is no where to be found, neither are her displayed items. Across the street, scores of women are hurriedly packing their merchandise in buveras and bags in an attempt to hide them from the KCC officials.

It is Tuesday afternoon. After about six minutes of the scuffle, one Najuma emerges with her goods from behind the nearby Bata shop on Kampala road with a triumphant smile. Today she has beaten Mayor Sebana’s law enforcement officers.

Apparently, this is the daily life of these women you must have met on Kampala streets selling all kinds of items from cigarettes, newspapers, to rings and polo shirt buttons.

They know that they are not supposed to sell on the streets, but are trying to use their enterprising minds to offer a few goods they know you will need.

“We are trying to look for a living,” says 26year old Najuma, who sells roasted groundnuts, sweets, cigarettes, diaries, sweets, and wallets, among other items.

She says she started engaging in “this business” so that she could pay rent, feed her children after she separated from her husband who used to mistreat her. “We are peacefully serving the people and KCC shouldn’t harass us,” argues Najuma.

Through being tactful, Najuma has been able to look after her three kids and she loves her risky enterprise. “What can I do if I can’t risk to sell genuine goods here?” she asks.

Perched on a stone near the gate of Kyagwe Road Primary School at 9:23am, 45year old Mary Juane sits inattentively, one hand on her cheek, the other pressed between her cross stretched legs. Clad in a transparent pink dress tucked in a fading yellow skirt, no KCC official would think she is one of the women they want off the streets.

Smartness and selling outside the busy city business district are the main reasons she has not been confronted by the dreaded blue boys on their green and yellow trucks.

But besides her well laid on a stretched dissembled box are items for sale. Her main customers are school children who buy at break time. “They mainly buy roasted ground nuts, roasted soy beans, sweets and sometimes pens and pencils,” she says proudly of the children.

Other customers are the young men working in Kisseka market. “Those ones buy cigarettes, match boxes, orbit or bubble gum as they go to work. That’s why there are no customers now,” says Juane, who came to Uganda as a refugee from Sudan.

She stays in Makerere Kivulu with her husband and 4 children. Her husband is a tailor in Makerere Kivulu, one of the city slum suburbs.

She says he earns little to supplement on what she earns on the streets. This Wednesday, she is praying hard to get more customers so that their eldest son who missed senior four UNEB exams due to lack of school fees can be able to resume and complete this year.

“I also knit clothes, table mats but only on order since there are no promising customers in this area. So if I can convince the customers who come to buy these items here to also order for a mat or table cloth, then that is a good day,” she says.

Juane sells between seven and ten thirty in the morning and also five and seven thirty in the evenings because there is no disturbance from Kampala City Council officials.

She sells purposely to get daily bread, what she terms as “mere ya lelo” (food for today), yet, despite the mixture of her worries and hope, it is nine thirty in the morning and she only has Sh700.

Why arrest such women, many people including Makindye West MP, Nsubuga Nsambu have been asking. “These women are just trying to earn a living. KCC should stop arresting these women for selling on the streets until an alternative is found for them. That is their livelihood,” Nsambu commented on a recent ceremony.

Most of these ladies Ultimate Media talked to say they borrow the money from relatives or friends to start these small businesses and by arresting them, KCC is putting them in double danger. Most of them said their opening stock is between sh25, 000 to sh30, 000.

“These people just round us up like thieves. They don’t mind about the damage they cause to our goods and us. It is worse when they attack women with babies,” says one Sarah who was found selling near Central Police Station.

KCC spokesperson, Herbert Ssemakula says that KCC does not harass the women who sell on streets but only want them to sell from elsewhere. He says there are enough markets that can accommodate all the women and their business conveniently and not the street.

“We are not interested in their products, we don’t even touch them. We send them to judicial courts that are independent for them to be charged. There is a law in place because the street is not for every one to make a market,” Ssemakula says.

He says permission was granted only to women who sell Newspapers.

Sarah elongates her hand to get cigarettes for her customer as her nipple slips out of her baby’s small mouth. The baby yells attracting sympathy from one customer who carries the baby as Sarah serves people. Such is the situation of these women.

Sarah knows KCC officials could be coming anytime and all she and her fellow women who befit the enterprising title given their circumstances can do is to be alert in case they sight the blue boys, hoping to escape before damage is done to their bodies and goods.

By Prossy Nandudu and Gerald Businge
more from author >>
First published: November 15, 2005
Prossy Nandudu and Gerald Businge work for Ultimate Media.