What it’s like to visit Kisenyi, the largest slum in Kampala

What it’s like to visit Kisenyi, the largest slum in Kampala

Our Kisenyi Slum tour is run in partnership with Slum Aid Project, a local non-profit organisation dedicated to improving living conditions in Uganda. One traveller tells us about her day meeting the community members benefiting from the program.

It was hard to digest.

Uganda is known as the ‘Pearl of Africa’ for the sheer beauty of the land, its people, and the majestic wildlife that roams across it. Something that does not fit into this dreamy description is the poor living conditions that many Ugandans endure. But it is the unfortunate reality for many locals living below the poverty line and in slum conditions across the country, most notably in its capital, Kampala.

Stepping foot into Kampala’s Kisenyi slum was a sight to behold. A concrete jungle is mostly thought of as a cosmopolitan city centre and this area was a world away from that. According to Uganda’s National Population Housing and Consensus (NPHC) 2014, 67% of the population live in detached dwellings and a further 12% in semi-detached. The dwellings themselves are a combination of unburnt bricks, mud, poles, and cement blocks. Roofs are mostly iron sheets or thatched, and floors can be a mixture of stone, cement, tiles, and earth. Understandably, these structures have a short lifespan and are subjected to harsh weather conditions.

Overcrowding, cracked walls, dirty floors, faded paint, and rusted materials are common features among the clustered structures many call home. On top of that, these unplanned settlements often lack basic necessities, including clean water and proper sanitation. This has lead to poor hygiene and the mutation of diseases to spread quickly among local communities. But hope is not lost in the Kisenyi slums.

I was taken around Kisenyi by a local named Luke, a man who also used to call these slums home and is now a representative for the non-profit Slum Aid Project. The slum itself is located on the outskirts of Kampala. It was a world away from the comfort of my hotel bed in the city centre, and something that troubled me that day — knowing that I would be going back to my hotel, filling up my plate at the buffet, having a shower with an array of soaps and going to sleep on a bed that could certainly fit a family of five. The contrast couldn’t be greater. It didn’t sit right.

traveller talking with locals in the Kisenyi slum

Books are one of the things most needed in the community

Mzungu, mzungu! I kept hearing this word shouted out to me by young kids. It means ‘white person.’ At first I felt discomfort with the call, but it’s not said with any hint of racism, nor ill intent. After all, I was an outsider walking around the close-knit slum community. But never did I fear for my safety while walking with Luke — far from it. I was greeted with wide smiles and was even asked to join a game of billiards with a group of teenagers. Standing around the open-air table, we laughed as we played a round and I felt encouraged despite my lack of skill for the game. It was a such a simple, carefree interaction but one that would have long-lasting effects. I decided to get serious and ask the locals about how they would like outsiders to help. I will never forget when a young mother, children in tow, came to me and told me what they want more than anything: books.

Education is paramount. Many of these children are forced into work, some just selling sweets on the street, from a young age. Receiving an education is not on the radar for many of them. Luke had told me it amounts to just USD 30 to send one child to school for a semester. It seems absurd to think that that is the same price for a meal and drink back home — there’s some food for thought.

traveller with musicians in Kisenyi slum

The local initiative Street Voice is helping locals in Kisenyi to learn and practice music

The unexpected surprise of the day was stumbling upon a funkily decked-out communal art and music area for youths. The area itself was nothing more than a few seats and a series of colourful montages of music posters on its walls, but this small, open-air patio is a haven for young members of the Kisenyi slum to learn music with donated instruments through the local initiative Street Voice. It was a place that encouraged those to develop their talents creatively in an environment that, on face value, is in poverty but wealthy in community spirit. I sat back and watched an intimate group performance with enthusiastic members chiming local songs to a soft-sounding acoustic guitar. I felt the togetherness of the community where it was not a place of thinking in terms of ‘I,’ but in terms of ‘we’ and how they would all come together through song.

Visiting a place like Kisenyi is difficult, but the human relationships and interactions born from it are worth their weight in gold. How heartwarming it was to witness positivity in a place that, on first glance, seems so bleak. But the warmth of the locals, well, that was something easy to swallow.

In Focus: Kisenyi Slum

Home to some of the most vulnerable populations in Uganda, the Kisenyi slums show how local NGOs are working to improve living conditions for locals. This In Focus experience takes you behind the scenes of a local non-profit making a difference.

About author

Julia D'Orazio

Riding unicorns and dancing with disco centaurs across Europe or, in other words, exploring the world! Hailing from ‘The most isolated city in the world' (Perth), she is both a travel industry professional and a travelling gypsy pro, having ventured to 60 countries and happily counting.

  • Meghna Malhotra#1

    July 9, 2017

    It is heart breaking to read of such things. Though reality is that there are tons of people in similar or worse situations and there is as lot we can do to make things tad bit better. Thank you for taking the initiative for making the world a better place.


      August 30, 2017

      Thank you Meghna for taking the time to read my experience on touring the slums of Kampala. I am glad it has inspired you to take action in helping make a change in people’s lives – however how big or small your efforts may be.

  • Boney Lou#3

    March 30, 2018

    Hi Julia, i was born in Kamwokya another sub urban they a slum in Kampala , i call home till today, I have read many “mzungu” s edition of stories describing slums in different cities i have lived in as evil places, underscored by crimes, Drugs , prostitution or worse they go a head and post such information on tourist website masquerading as the experts of the city when actually they have never been on the ground and they have no idea what actually happens there. I can’t thank you enough for taking time and vist Kisenyi and taking time to write a fair representation of that slum. Every one will tell you there are in that slum not that they love it there or because they really want to be there, they have no alternative except liking it as it and try to make it a better place just like is Luke s doing . Most African , Ugandan inclusive we uphold the Ubuntu Philosophy As Desmond Tutu describes…
    “Ubuntu […] speaks of the very essence of being human. [We] say […] “Hey, so-and-so has ubuntu.” Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.” We belong in a bundle of life. We say, “A person is a person through other persons.”

  • willy murangi#4

    March 18, 2019

    Thanks Julie for visiting our country and fairly writing about our Kisenyi. as i read through your article, i was worried that guys there could have stolen from you. I live in Entebbe town but i always pass through Kisenyi almost every after two days. The situation there reflects a lot from Uganda’s past. it includes land tenure system , wars and past bad governance that precipitate into poverty. The slum you saw was part of a very big slum but Kisenyi II was upgraded through gentrification. this was not easy because land in Buganda region of Uganda has a funny type of ownership which originated partly from our colonial masters. you find that a particular land has a landlord with a land title but the tenants were the original owners of the land but turned out to be tenants during colonialism when the governor and Buganda king gave out specific chunks of land that had its original occupants to few chiefs that collaborated with colonial Government. The tenants instead of paying the ground rent to the king would this time pay the chief. In Buganda , all land belonged to the king, therefore giving a piece of land and its occupants to some one was very easy. The king of Buganda himself had collaborated with imperialists because he wanted them to help him fight the neighboring kingdoms especially Bunyoro kingdom that was under king Kabalega. Indeed they helped him to subdue other kingdoms and eventually merged them into larger Uganda, but to his dismay, it was not under him but to the Queen of Great Britain who ruled Uganda through a Governor as a protectorate. Actually one of the hallmarks of colonialism was the merger of hostile kingdoms under one government that emerged into a sovereign state of Uganda after independence. If i go back to the owners of land that turned out to be tenants, they are free to sell the land to another person who also turns into a tenant. The bad thing with this arrangement is that tenants would not put permanent property on their pieces of land for fear of losing them if they get evicted by the landlords. The current government counteracted the powers of the landlords by enacting a land act that makes tenants bonafide occupants of the land owned by the landlord. In this act , a landlord cannot evict bonafide occupants, he can ask them if they can buy the land incase he wants to sell it and if they cannot afford to buy it, the landlord compensates them to go and buy else where. It is the government also that determine the ground rent.
    In such a situation where the landlord cannot easily evict the tenants and the tenants are poor to develop the land, such poor structures like those you saw in kisinye thrive. The poor are renting from the poor bonafide tenants. in some other towns in Uganda where such land tenure system does not exist, gentrification is taking a normal course and slums are reducing. In Kampala, am afraid we shall have to wait for a social-economic transformation which take time other wise livelihood needs the mercy of NGOs and donors.


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