For the last few weeks, the Uganda National Museum has held a temporary exhibition that a group of us have organized on everyday life in an informal settlement in Kampala. The exhibition is based on research we conduced in a neighbourhood called Namuwongo earlier this year. The aim of the event is to generate debate in the city about the nature of struggle, negotiation and opportunity in informal settlements.
The exhibition is entitled ‘Celebrating Namuwongo’ and aims to challenge the terms of debate about a neigbourhood that is often wrongly vilified by outsiders as dangerous, unclean, and illegal. Our hope is that it helps to create a more progressive conversation about the present and future of the neighbourhood, including with public authorities. At the moment, Namuwongo’s residents barely register in the city’s main planning documents.
Five of us were involved in the project – Jon Silver, Joel Ongwec, Josephine Namukisa, Helen Friars, and myself, although we depended on the help and advice of quite a few others.
We set out to develop an understanding of how different people navigate urban space, encounter and respond to the rhythm, people and networks that make up their experience of urbanism, and to consider the implications for how urban life is understood in terms of research, policy and practice. Our work combined interviews, follow along methods, focus groups, and workshops with local civil society groups, and culminated in the exhibition (which runs until the end of June).
We tracked the daily lives of six different residents from the
area, and the exhibition documents moments in the lives of these residents through photographs and maps.
The six residents have quite different lives: a young carpenter, a widow who sells fruit in the city centre, an older woman who runs her own business making beads in the neighbourhoood and who plays an important role in community support groups, a relatively better off man who runs a dynamic fruit and vegetable stall in the neighbourhood, a taxi driver, and a local power broker who holds considerable sway over most changes that take place in particular parts of the neighbourhood.
Namuwongo is located on the edge of the city centre, squeezed into a slither of land across a disused railway track, a wetland area, and an industrial area. These land pressures have led to demolitions by the railway and the National Environment Management Authority (responsible for the wetland), who claim that much of the residents are living in the area illegally.
Any demolition is a trauma, but in Namuwongo what’s been particularly brutal is demolition that took place in the middle of the night, as children slept in small shacks only to be woken by the noise of bulldozers and terrified voices.
The research process was quite an experience – exciting, fun, and emotive in different ways. The opportunity to example people’s different urban experiences and perceptions of Kampala and to translate those knowledges into different contexts – the exhibition was a first for me and a steep learning curve! – was a rare privilege.