Once we arrived in Jinja, we sat down with Adam, a guide that Mohsen had recommended who came up with some locations for us to visit. We could only have guessed where to go and would have been wandering about and getting lost in the town. We told him we were looking for old Indian buildings, and this could be the guiding line for the day’s itinerary. He took us to a place he called the “Dirty Flat,” which was an abandoned apartment building that nevertheless had people living in it. On the roof we pulled out phones, and started to take pictures. A woman called out to us. Adam went over to her and they talked for more than ten minutes. The conversation did not yield permission to photograph the building. Though disappointed, we were struck by how the light fell on the concrete structures, the heaviness of the building’s cement columns, and the contrast between these structures and the people living there. Shirts and dresses were hanging to dry on railings. Children played football along the corridors and in the stairways of this extraordinary place.
Incidents (of Travel)
I had known about Mohsen Taha for years, but we first met at an exhibition of photography called The Kampala Photo Market. The organizers, a tourist magazine called The Pearl Guide, had rented out part of an uptown restaurant to show the work of ten photographers. I was exhibiting images from my “Car Series.” And so our first encounter was in a crowded room; Mohsen said that my photographs were cool. I told him his work on Kampala’s religious architecture blew my mind. Mohsen sold all his photographs, yet my conceptual car images—although they caused many to stop, look and converse—sold poorly. In subsequent meetings, and on this tour of Jinja (a town some eighty kilometers to the east of Uganda’s capital Kampala) I would get to know Mohsen’s story as the “prodigal son” who got a postgraduate degree in International Relations at a prestigious American university in Nairobi, Kenya. I would learn about his decision to change careers, which he reasoned came from a lack of interest in the world of NGOs and international politics, as well as his own faith in art. When I met Mohsen at his office—Facebook, he suggested, didn’t suit any real negotiations—he was standing next to a blue mini-van. “I always wanted a car”, he said, “and this is what I bought when I won a 4000 dollar prize in a press photo competition.” “It was an image of my son,” he added. I got to know a family man, and a talented photographer who worked hard in advertising photography, but whose real faith was in visual art.
Jinja is evidence of the decay of cities—and the rapid turns in politics, migration, and economies—that can be seen all across Africa. Jinja was one of the first industrial cities to appear in East Africa, yet it began to decline shortly before Uganda became independent from Great Britain in 1962. Its story is wrapped up in the dynamics of race and industrial development that characterized the expansion of most African cities during the colonial period. In most European cities there is a distinction between town and country. In many African cities, however, the separation of areas for colonial elites from those for black and Indian people shaped the landscape in very different structural ways. In the most harsh of planning tropes, leisure facilities were built in the colonial center of town where it was hard for black and Indian people to access them. In Jinja it was difficult for the Indian population to access education services, so they built their own schools instead. The black population remained in an older part of town, where they retained their historical marketplaces and their centers of social organization. These clashed with the modern planning of its time; black people in Ugandan cities had to forge clever ways of negotiating life in the capital city. One of the hallmarks of such negotiation is invention and adaptability, something that can be seen in the urban creativity of makeshift metal workshops in the densely populated suburb of Katwe, for example. The urban landscape of 1960s Uganda was on our minds as we visited the abandoned houses and country homes of Jinja.
Looking at this building of a street in central Jinja, I imagine many like it around the country—whether in Kampala, Entebbe, Jinja, Mbale, or in Gulu. Indian architecture seems to define the urban in Uganda. The British colonial government invested more in industrial infrastructure—railways, roads, factories, and a few office buildings—as opposed to small shops, recreational centers, or residential houses. Regardless, Indian people dominated the early property market in Jinja and other major Uganda cities.
An office building on Gabula Road. As soon as the railway line reached Jinja in 1910, it began to grown rapidly into a town. Raw materials could easily be transported from the interior to the port of Mombasa in Kenya, and then to England. The arrival of the railway signaled the birth of the tobacco and sugar industry in Uganda. The Indian people who had initially come to work on the railway had set up towns along its route. Their proximity created an opportunity to work on sugarcane plantations, or to manage them. The factories to process tobacco and sugar that were first established in the 1920s meant that farmers could more easily grow their own sugarcane and sell it to the British.
While Mohsen was photographing this office building, a local security official started to call out to us. We began moving in the opposite direction, which seemed to make him angrier, and he yelled out even more. Mohsen worried that his camera would be taken away. The security official explained that he could take us to prison because we were photographing buildings. I explained that we were merely documenting the old architecture of Jinja, and he immediately released us and said we could keep shooting. We continued hesitantly. Yet after a Ugandan-Indian woman summoned us over to her house, asking what we were doing with the camera, Mohsen decided that it was too risky to keep shooting in the town. The woman told us that a number of people had come to photograph her house and then put her house on the property market without permission.
After the incident on Gabula Road, we went to explore the area around the Jinja Sailing Club and Jinja Golf Club, where several houses line the shore of Lake Victoria at the source of the River Nile. The inhabitants of these houses on Nile Crescent were obviously not the first owners. All of the buildings seemed more than fifty years old, and one had been almost destroyed by fire. The people who lived there were hesitant to disclose details about their life, fearing the implications of our photography.
This house was literally falling apart, with a number of its windows removed. Walls had fallen through, the living room had no roof. The current owner of the house was an old woman who was living there with her daughter and three grandchildren. She was picking through vegetables on the veranda in the extraordinary heat—it was about 28°C. There were goats and a Bougainvillea tree in the compound, which had chickens underneath.
What astonished me most was that the house was still there. More than forty years ago, in August 1972, the then President of Uganda, Idi Amin, woke up one morning and decided that Indians—many of whom had migrated to Uganda during the building of Kampala–Mombasa railway in the late 19th century—should leave the country within 90 days.
In another house on Nile Crescent, we discovered the remains of a Persian rug. Details like this told us that the Indian families couldn’t take much with them on their expulsion. Many of the houses were looted in the dark days that followed, although some of the property undoubtedly remained. Perhaps the rug was too insignificant to be stolen. Cool air came from the direction of the river, and we marveled at the sense of seclusion away from town and the industrial area.
The many layers of this partially-burned house seemed to pose certain questions to me. Who started the fire and when? Who owned the house forty years ago, and how did they escape? What would the original Indian owner think if they saw this photograph of their house? Would they be happy that it had, at least, not completely disappeared into the civil war debris and decay of Jinja? What would they think about their house becoming a home to someone else?
Mohsen was particularly drawn to photograph the children who played on the veranda and made faces through the broken windows, a goat tethered to one of the frames. As I walked into this now skylit living room, I wondered what that evening must have been like in 1972 when Amin’s decree to expel Uganda’s Asian population was announced. I imagined the man of this house coming home, switching on a television, throwing his feet onto a stool, and watching the prime time broadcast on Uganda Television. News that would change his life.
This house is opposite the golf course on Nile Crescent; it is not in such a poor condition as the one in the previous image. Noting a clothesline and imagining the lawn, Mohsen and I thought about the wealth of the original Indian owner. The house exuded a laid-back atmosphere more suited to the countryside and it reminded me of Jinja’s humble beginnings.
Throughout the 1920s and 30s more and more Indian people owned sugarcane farms—as well as the financial cooperations to support plantations of both sugarcane and tobacco. They also owned and built many of the first shops in Jinja. Most of the architecture in Jinja shows a tremendous colonial influence—large verandas, very low roofs, and bungalow style houses, show the strong Indian style of the town’s buildings.
Looking at this impressive house, I thought about sugarcane plantations and tobacco processing. I thought about the original Indian owner, who probably would have worked in a high-level job in one of those industries. I thought about the discovery, by the British, of the source of the Nile, and I thought about how affluence turned Jinja into one of the most important early colonial centers in East Africa.
This house, with its large veranda, would have once been the home of an Indian family. I imagine them going to the outdoor cinema to watch Indian movies, and their children going to an Indian school in the center of Jinja. It is easy to presume that their life would have been contained within Jinja, unlike the migratory experience of those whose children would have attended mission or “village” schools as they have become known. The Indian parents that lived here would have been able to watch their children grow into adults.
A powerful and well educated Indian elite had emerged in Jinja. By contrast, the British and French missionary education model, and the schools they established for blacks in Uganda, developed outside of the towns. “Village” schools were purposely isolated from urban life; Christian missionary colonialism purposefully managed the education of a Ugandan elite. Yet while the missionary schools had a monopoly over the countryside, the Indian schools took precedence in the cities. By the 1960s, if a child went to school in a city in Uganda, they most likely went to an Indian school. The success of the affluent Indian class changed the cultural fabric of the major cities in the country: Jinja, Entebbe, and Kampala. From the food that was eaten, to the movies that were shown in cinema halls, Indian culture found a stronghold in the urban context of Uganda.
I first saw a photograph of this building in the newspapers a few years ago. It once belonged to Idi Amin himself, yet it rarely comes up in any of the books or films made about his life. Foreign biographers and journalists often made sensational reports that focused on the ruthlessness of his fascist government. Accounts of Amin himself tend to focus on his military character. Little or no attention has been paid to his properties or day-to-day life. Yet I don’t think Amin paid that much attention to personal possessions, at least when compared to Mobutu Sese Seko, the former President of Zaire, today Democratic Republic of Congo.
The life of Amin by the River Nile could have prompted his hatred for the Indians. That he lived among them long enough to know them shows something deeply paradoxical about his decision to expel them. As a military officer this was the home he chose to build away from the capital. Here in Jinja he could relax with all the amenities of a town that had been developing its own infrastructure since the 1920s. Yet he kept this house almost in total secrecy. Look at the fountain in the courtyard. Look at the arch on the front door. Look at the small veranda. Look at the flight of stairs, and the balcony at the very top of the building. Amin probably stood there looking at the River Nile.
The empty streets of Jinja echo what happened after 1962—a growing antagonism towards persons of Indian and European descent, and their eventual departure. Within the scope of a postcolonial nationalism, the disenfranchisement of the Indian and European elite became further politicized. Kenya’s President Jomo Kenyatta, as reported by Paul Theroux in 1967, gave a stern warning to non-Africans.
In the 1960s postcolonial African nations invested obscene amounts of money in high modernist architecture. This is seen most iconically in Dakar, Accra, and 1970s Nairobi, and is evidence of a need to rewrite the narrative of Africa as an urban destination—to literally remake the African city. Such high modernist structures have come to represent the core political ideology of decolonization.
When looking at this image of an empty street near the Jinja football stadium, I recall the colonial economies of sugar, cotton, coffee, and tobacco. I think about the organic development of towns in Jinja districts—as well as Mbale, and Kampala—in contrast to the burst of spectacular architecture which commemorated the birth of African nations and the African nationalism of Kwame Nkrumah, Samora Machel, and Julius Nyerere. I think about the fragmentation in urban African cityscapes. How do they resolve the tension between successive regimes and infrastructural changes? What is the nature and temperament of the urban? These are questions that provoked Mohsen and I to consider buildings that had been abandoned. And in turn, to consider the groups of people that have migrated in and out of cities and towns throughout the 21st century. These buildings made us reflect on the ongoing disenfranchisement taking place in many African cities at present, and that it seems will continue for years to come.
An expanded phase of a project conceived by Latitudes (Barcelona) in 2012, this new series of tours is conceived as fieldwork and an expanded studio visit. It is presented as reportage and dispatches from invited curators and artists working around the world.
is the founder and director of Epique Media, a photography and graphic design outfit based in Kampala, Uganda. He graduated from the United States International University with an MA in International Relations before pursuing his interest in photography. He is the winner of the Forbes Africa 2015 Agility Photo Competition GRAND Prize. His photography was exhibited in The Kampala Photo Market (2015) and Uganda Press Photo Awards exhibition (2015).
is a writer, researcher and curator. He currently works as Research Curator at ANO Center for Cultural Research in Accra, Ghana. His research and curatorial projects include: ‘Life mu City’ (2014) a series of panel discussions on urban language held at the Goethe Zentrum Kampala; the biennial contemporary art festival, KLA ART – UNMAPPED (2014) on urban mapping and social classification in Uganda. As research intern for C& – Contemporary And, he wrote short essays on African cultural producers on the international art scene. Serubiri is an alumni of the Asiko International Art School, and was awarded the 2015 Stadtschreiber residency at the Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies.