Katwe: Uganda's Hub of Creativity is Fighting to Keep its Identity
Katwe is one of the busiest and most thriving suburbs in Kampala. But it is slowly become overcrowding and slum ridden. Its history as a center of creativity is givng way to big business.
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First published: March 31 2008
Poing, poing, poing... The sound of metal clanking from almost every direction is what welcomes you to Katwe, one of the major suburbs south of Kampala City centre. The clanking competes with the hooting as the morning rush hour traffic enters the city. You might quickly decide this is a bad place, with too much noise and apparent disorganization. Yet Katwe is fast growing into the most sought after business center in Kampala. A visit to the place will tell you why.
Located about two kilometers from the city center, Katwe is famed for being a center of creativity, which possibly explains its name. Katwe, in Luganda, a local language, literally translates into 'a small head'. Now, the head of any thing is usually the source of ideas, which result in creativity. It is creativity that gives us the goods and services we depend on as humans.
According to Vincent Ssewanyana, the local councilor for White Nile Zone, Katwe's history dates way back into the late 1800s when the Kabaka of Buganda who reigned then gave his blacksmiths a chunk of land next to the Lubiri (palace) from which to operate. Here, they would make wares for the palace such as pans, spears for hunting, knives, etc. They gradually settled and their town became present day Katwe.
If you lived in Kampala in the early 1980s, you may recall that there were very few pronounced buildings in the vicinity of Katwe. You may also have seen the very old trees that provided the blacksmiths with protection from the scorching African sun. No major road passed through the middle of the town and footpaths were the major routes into Kampala city. Ssewanyana says that in the early 1990s, the old buildings started to be razed down to give way for construction of new storied ones. This process slowly continued and gradually, other types of traders started to migrate from the city centre into Katwe with their businesses.
Today, Katwe has a whole different look, starkly different from its past. Few people today can believe that the main street through Katwe from Kibuye roundabout that was constructed in the 1990s replaced a bushy footpath along which thieves always lurked every night to strip unsuspecting pedestrians of their property. The street is now home to several businesses but one thing that is still noticeable is the fact that most of its shops handle metal fabrications, automobile spare parts or electronics. Fridges, music systems, car spares, doors, windows and 'Made in Katwe' machines (which make sugar, fry popcorn and anything else you might think of) are repaired or fabricated in Katwe. From Kibuye roundabout to Kalitunsi near the Clock Tower, your eyes keep meeting this type of wares on the sidewalks and kerb.
Tiko Tiko, a mechanic who plies his trade in the area, says that one can get just about any car spare part in Katwe. "Katwe is probably the biggest supplier of spare parts in Kampala," he says. However, Katwe's major claim to fame is not about selling imported spare parts.
Katwe's ironsmiths have for years been known to duplicate imported products of any type. In Uganda, there is a choice between the original brands and the Katwe brand when it comes to spares of all sorts. That is why some people warn friends heading out to buy such items to make sure they do not buy 'Katwe' versions. However, because of the low prices charged for 'Katwe' items, many people have found them pocket friendly, although it is common knowledge that they are fakes. Ssewanyana is quick to defend the suburb's products, "It is all about being creative and using your skills to create a certain product."
Skilled welders abound in Katwe.
He continues to argue that it should not come as a surprise for you to learn that some ideas that were turned into engineering or manufacturing realities actually came from Katwe. Some people in Katwe have put their brains to work and come up with several products - even those you might doubt can come from such a suburb full of mainly uneducated Ugandans.
Hub of creativity
About four years ago, a group of mechanics in Katwe sat down and developed the idea of making a helicopter. Ssewanyana says that they built the chopper using car accessories. Finally, the helicopter could get off the ground but landing became a problem. The button that was supposed to reduce the rotor speed failed to operate and so the helicopter had to be tied with ropes to control its speed. Efforts to solve the rotor speed control button were futile and eventually the chopper was declared 'dead'.
Nevertheless, this did not deter the brains in Katwe them from making versions of other 'senior' products. They have made a car and lined up on the streets of Katwe are Ugandan versions of petrol-powered grass mowers, popcorn-frying ovens, children's bicycles, concrete mixers and grinding mills. It should not take a potential customer an entire day to look for these items in Katwe; you only need to ask around for directions to where such items are sold. In a recent press interview, Sarah Kizito (the owner of Lady Charlotte beauty salon and boutique in Kampala) revealed that she owns a Katwe-made aquarium in her house.
Sole umbrella businesses
The version of beach umbrellas that are commonly used by vendors in Kampala's markets originate from Katwe and Ssewanyana makes some of them. Such umbrellas are common in roadside markets, in parks and outdoor bars, sheltering Ugandans from rain or sunshine. Ssewanyana says that he started his umbrella-making business while a young man with a friend, Paul Kasumba in 1984. Before that, their company, Nvuba Engineering Works, fabricated steel window frames and doors. They noticed that imported umbrellas, which were expensive, would quickly get ruined and be thrown away. This was because no one could repair them.
After a lot of research, they bought the necessary tools from Kisenyi (another densely populated suburb next to Katwe) and opened up their business. They employed a lady to sew up the umbrella tops while they made the steel frames. After some time, the lady left the business, which was a huge blow to them. However, this did not deter them since they had learnt many skills from her. With time, young men were employed to learn the trade and today, the business is booming. Nvubi Umbrella Makers is still the sole maker of these umbrellas in Uganda. Market vendors come from Shauri Yako, Owino, Nakasero, Kibuye, Nateete and Kisekka markets to buy these umbrellas.
University in Katwe
So much is manufactured in Katwe that sometime back, Katwe's brains decided to start a university to teach technology students about their inventions and innovations. It may not appear like the typical faculty/department of technology where students are admitted after finishing their high school studies, but it exists. Hidden behind a tall mango tree stands Musa Body University of Technology. Its 'lecture room' is a big room filled with metallic products. Here, 'students' are kept busy by metal and woodwork.
The famous Musa Body university.
The university is credited with producing most of the successful entrepreneurs in Katwe. Many of the mechanics, welders, carpenters, and fabricators in the area admit to having passed through the Musa Body 'campus' before setting up their own businesses. Wahab Nsimbe, a welder in Katwe, says that he was a student at the university about ten years ago. He says he learnt most of his skills from there.
Katwe ten years from now
Ssewanyana says that with new traders coming into the area, Katwe's population is no longer as creative as it was before. Most shops now sell imported products at bargain prices, which leave little room for local innovation.
The look of Katwe's main street is changing.
Katwe is now becoming too busy for the liking of the inhabitants who have lived and worked here longest. The workshops from which the 'innovators' used to work are slowly being replaced with modern multi-storey buildings. It is believed that in ten years, Katwe will probably lose its historical significance as a centre of innovation in Uganda. The innovators' worry that little or nothing creative might come out of this industrious town any more. Why? Because most businesses that have arrived in Katwe recently and other developments like the main street have brought too much traffic and congestion, as well as an unhealthy competition for space.
Many people in Katwe no longer get innovative ideas due to the delays and waste of time that have resulted. Ssewanyana ponders, "What is the point of getting a creative idea and failing to implement it? Time is the main factor here. Therefore, we shall probably keep Katwe the town and less of the types of products that we are associated with."
Katwe straddles two divisions of Kampala District; Makindye and Rubaga. Most of the business centre lies in Makindye Division, while Lubaga Division mainly houses the residential areas of Katwe. But these are not your usual residential areas. One-roomed houses are a common sight in the off road parts of this suburb, with structures built very close to each other. Smelly sewage coupled with used polythene bags fill the open drains. It is not uncommon to see some women cooking food next to a pit latrine here. People do not seem to mind about their hygiene at all. You have to wonder how healthy they are.
Katwe has become congested.
Asuman Issa, a resident of Katwe, says that the cost of living in Katwe is relatively low, compared to other suburbs around Kampala. This probably explains why the area is overpopulated and is slowly turning into a slum of sorts. Houses are uncomfortably too close to each other. Garbage is dumped onto the roads and left there for weeks before Kampala City Council dustcarts come to collect it. Despite all this, the suburb is one of the busiest and most thriving business areas in Kampala. Many people will be hoping that Katwe, the industrious place and its products that we have got used to can survive the onslaught of overcrowding, deteriorating hygiene or competition from modern business products.
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First published: March 31 2008
Olive Eyotaru Yemima is a graduate of Mass Communication. She first worked with Ultimate Media in 2005 as an intern and returned in 2007 as a features writer.
A Ugandan talented creative writer, Eyotaru now writes for both the local and international media and continues to shine in the media every day that passes.