Kampala Dance-Off

There comes a point when one must question the series of choices they’ve made in life. Whereas a single innocuous decision, such as accepting an invitation to a friend’s home, seems harmless, it has no doubt put them on a collision course with a formidable fate. A moment such as this came to me as I stood on the side of a road in Uganda stuffed into a short red dress and four inch stilettos. As men leaned out car windows and strangers’ necks snapped in my direction, the situation begged the question, “What is my life, even?”

I was in Kampala, but not the shiny, white expatriate’s Kampala. Nope. I was in the locals only, University district, why-is-a-mzungu-wearing-a-short-red-dress-here, drainage ditch neighborhood of Nakawa. Next to me were five Ugandan girls in various other states of undress. As I fussed with my hem, trying to pull it downward, Brenda, a zaftig woman with impeccable makeup and intricately woven braids, slapped my hand away. “Do you see my dress?” she said, motioning to her own plastered on garment, “I can’t even sit down in this tonight. That’s right, all night I’m going to have to stand, trust me when I say you look like you’re practically going to church. You’ll be the girl with the longest skirt, I promise.” She laughed and said something in Luganda–one of Uganda’s official languages–to the lady next to her. This woman, a roommate of someone, whose name I couldn’t remember, was wearing sequined six-inch platforms, a plunging yellow dress. She laughed and scooted my hem up as I squealed in protest.

“Where is the taxi?” Cathy, the only woman I’d met before tonight, sighed, irritated, staring at her phone.

“I can’t wait to see how you dance,” laughed one of her friends, as she looked me up and down. “We’re going to Alfredo’s so prepare to be out until the early morning. Ugandans don’t even start the party until midnight.” She leaned over and started fiddling with my hair, but not as if she were trying to fix it.

“Do you want to touch my hair?” I asked. She laughed and nodded. “Go ahead” I motioned. After a few months in Africa I had gotten used to this. The casual reach out and pensive look that screamed, “I’ve never felt that before but don’t know how to ask politely.” She reached over and began stroking the crown of my head.

“White hair is so slippery,” she mused, as if to herself. Soon a white sedan pulled up and Cathy announced that this was, indeed, our taxi driver. We piled in the back as she negotiated the price, flirting and trying to convince the driver that he was lucky enough to be taking around so many beautiful girls, that he ought to be grateful. “We should get a discount just based on that alone. Show him one of your pale mzungu legs,” Cathy called back, laughing at me.

“Only if I get the lowest price,” I yelled, over the music, which was now pounding us through Kampala’s backstreets.

We pulled up to Alfredo’s, an sprawling three level dance club, which is known as a local’s hangout rather than a hideaway to appease the influx of foreign workers. “I can’t wait to see you dance,” the woman with the bob said again as we found some couches to sit on. Drinks began to flow almost immediately, as if from nowhere.

“Men here,” Brenda explained, “will buy you drinks. Don’t bother to buy any yourself, it is a waste.”

As the DJ spun his records, the booze began to kick in and the floors began to crowd. The group began to loosen up. As “favorite” songs came on, women would stop mid-sentence to stand up off the couch and start dancing in place. They’d groove and grind to the beat before plopping back down on the couch again and carrying on the conversation as if nothing happened. While I have zero problem dancing on a floor full of people, the idea of standing up and dancing in place–especially being the only white girl in the room–felt particularly unsettling. “Come on, why aren’t you dancing?” Bob haired lady asked me.

“You just want to see if a white girl can dance. I need more whiskey for this,” I smiled back. Without hesitation she turned to the men seated beside her.

“Who is going to buy this woman some Johnny Walker Black Label?” she asked flirtatiously. Moments later one was in my hand.

The night wore on and soon we were shuffling to the middle of the dance floor. It was only here, in the crush of people, that I finally began dancing, fully aware that most people around were watching me and assessing my skills as a “white girl.” Luckily by that point booze had taken over and I couldn’t have given fewer fucks if I tried. “You’re not bad, why were you so ashamed to dance earlier?” bob woman said, as she came to dance next to me. I shrugged and danced further into a crowd.

It is a funny thing, being the only foreigner at a dance club. You are immediately placed somewhere between exotic zoo exhibit and a breakable, untouchable thing. We moved down to the second dance floor as Rihanna and Daddy Yankee blasted through the speakers, I was well aware that while most men were happy to watch from afar, none were willing to actually dance with me. While the girls I had come with were grooving alongside me, men seemed to keep a good two foot perimeter. In a place like Kampala [and East Africa in general] where grinding is a national pastime, it looked rather odd. Similarly strange is the accepted protocol when one spots another white person. General etiquette is to ignore them. You both are out with locals, you’ve been accepted into the scene, there’s no need to fashion discourse simply based on skin color alone. I ignore them and carry on.

Then it happened. “You want to dance?” said a voice behind me. A man, who by almost anyone’s barometer of attraction would register as gorgeous, stood there smiling. I smiled and nodded, and suddenly, the seas, once parted, crashed back together once more. The gates were open. I would dance with a black man and was therefore fair game. The man who had initially asked me to dance, who turned out to be a Rwandan journalist [or so one claims at a dance hall], was actually quite gentlemanly as he twirled me away from men who’d creep up behind me to perform a dance moved described poetically as “The Oreo.” Whiskey continued to flow from no one in particular and before I knew it, it was 4 a.m.

Cathy pulled me from the crowd and out into the parking lot where she piled me into a limo-van. As in, it was a minivan with long limousine style seating. We were the only two from the group left at the club and as a man–who she assured me she knew prior to tonight–got into the driver’s seat and started down the road. We laid down across the long seats, singing along with the beat.

“If you can’t love me now, don’t love me later, when my later is much greater, it only proves that you love me paper, me paper.” Suddenly Cathy sat up hollering up to the driver, “Darling, we must stop for food!”

Take away food in Uganda at 5 a.m. is dodgy as shit, but with enough Johnny Walker, it seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. We piled out of the minivan-limo and mobbed into the takeaway joint. People stopped and stared as I grabbed Cathy and held her up against the counter. “Jabalayko,” I slurred In bad Lugandan, “We’d like some Chaps.” I pointed to a meat pie that would later come back–literally–to haunt me. “Also some chips and chapati.” We rolled back into the minivan-limo and feasted as the lights of Kampala twinkled out the windows. Soon the streets became familiar and we reached the hostel where I was staying.

“Goodnight, darling!” Cathy said, giving me a kiss on the cheek as a stumbled out of the van.

“Bye, call me in the morning” I said, only able to kiss her shoulder in return as my balance seemed a bit off at this point. “Thanks for the ride!” I called to the driver, who waved in response. They pulled out and I swaggered down the dirt path to my hostel room. In two hours I would be wrenched out of sleep before running to the private bathrooms and spending the next few hours sleeping on the tiled floor. To this day I still contest that one can’t truly know the wretch of sickness until they’ve slept on an an East African bathroom floor. But for that moment, as I sneakily stumbled into the top bunk of my bed, not bothering to take off my shoes or my dress, I felt as though I’d finally gotten an in into this culture I’d fallen in love with. Uganda had my heart the moment I entered the country and I had finally been not only been taken in by the locals there, but taken out and treated like just another girlfriend on a Saturday night.

Going from the pretentious Seattle music scene to the exclusive Parisian club scene, my first night out in Kampala, and the many nights out that followed that one, cemented the city as one of the most welcoming, friendly, fun cities in the world. Given a chance to live in Kampala or Paris, I would choose Uganda in a heartbeat. In less than three weeks it had felt more like home than North America or Europe ever had. When I finally left the country, a month later, my friends threw a going-away-whiskey-fest for me. I gave them giant hugs and promised that given the means I will come back again one day. The next time though, I’ll bring my own party dresses.

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Olivia Marudan

Cad. Boondoggler. Swindler. Ass. Plagiarist. Hutcher. A movable feast in the subtle culinary art of shit talking.

6 thoughts on “Kampala Dance-Off”

  1. I don’t think I’m brave enough to do that, but I love your story and I completely agree that the only way to know a city or culture is to get to know the locals! For that reason, I prefer living in a new city to just visiting it, or at least making local friends and staying with them! Not always easy or possible, obviously, but it’s wonderful when it works out. I’d love to have an experience like this one, though! I feel so sheltered in my little bubble of the world. I’m almost too afraid to travel on my own unless the city is deemed fairly safe…

  2. I think any travel experience is only made better by getting the locals-only version. I’ve been lucky enough to have that in a few places, and it really makes the trip. I love being a tourist, but I love seeing what it is I’m actually touring, not just what they want me to see.

    Safe travels!

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