In 2010, the police closed access to Kampala’s most central green space, the Constitution Square.
In his address at the time, the inspector general of police, Gen Kale Kayihura, argued that they decided to close off the park because various politicians planned on holding demonstrations there, which could disrupt people’s businesses.
In the following days, police officers and riot officers sealed off the entire place, setting up camp at what used to be the City Square. A place formerly synonymous with peace and tranquillity in the middle of the city’s hustle and bustle became an intimidating place known for running battles between the opposition, police and military.
If FDC supporters were not being whipped for trying to access the spot for a rally, riot police would be throwing teargas canisters at walk-to-work protestors. Even motorists were not allowed to use half of the one-way road that separates the two parts of Constitution Square with that part of the road turned into a parking lot for mambas, tear gas trucks and other armoured trucks.
It was in essence a barracks of sorts, because of the mean-looking officers that patrolled the site with fingers ready on the trigger and their army tents covering the green behind them, especially in the run-up to the 2016 elections.
This meant tourists could not visit the World War monument that stands in the park. But then following a presidential directive, the forces were withdrawn. They had become an eyesore, especially for foreigners from countries where soldiers toting AK- 47s do not roam freely among busy shoppers.
We don’t know whom to thank for giving us our park back, considering a recent report saying green spaces contribute immensely to improving city dwellers’ health and wellbeing.
Well, all the armed forces have since withdrawn from the square and finally, ordinary Kampalans can access the area again. By the end of 2016 all riot police officers and their heavy mambas had left the square, paving way for locals to take their worries and day’s frustrations to the green.
Recently, I decided to visit Constitution Square and experience relaxation in the middle of town while other people busied themselves just metres away. Before it was sealed off, Constitution Square was thought to be for a few idle people, who come to the space to take naps under the tree shades.
Indeed, we never see the true value of many things until they are yanked away from us. When I reached the park, there were more than 100 people relaxing in the lower park and, going by the way they were dressed, these were not “unserious people”.
Most of the men I saw were well-groomed, their shirts tucked in and they wore polished shoes. Even the women looked decent. These were just Ugandans enjoying a break from the routine craziness. A gathering of about six youths looking like university students stood in the square’s corner nearest to East Africa Development Bank chatting away; another group of eight women and men were engaged in a conversation over some documents.
Since the High court and Constitution Square are only separated by a wall, I guessed they were family members discussing a court case and documents. Some were just seated, swiping and typing on their phones and others were lost in slumberland.
THE UNIVERSAL WAITING ROOM
The day I visited being a particularly very hot day, I had to quickly find a tree shade. There was one to my right and I headed for it. An older man had beaten me to it and after introducing myself and greeting him, I lay down, stared at Mapeera House across Kampala road, but would not allow myself to dose off like I were on vacation.
I pulled out my phone and checked for any notifications and then struck up a conversation with Herbert Ntende Walusimbi, the old man next to me.
For over 20 years, Walusimbi told me, he had made the Constitution Square his waiting place. He said instead of waiting in restaurants where one is required to order for a meal or drink as one waits for someone, it is better to sit under a treet the square.
Now 50, Walusimbi travels from Mukono so that he can meet his colleagues and business associates in the city. The Constitution Square is their de facto boardroom.
When the meetings are done, he does not have to go through the chaos of navigating Kampala’s busy streets to reach the taxi parks, since the taxis to Mukono are stationed just below the park on Kampala road.
“This is a meeting place for so many people. This is a meeting place for many travellers. Although there is some little noise from the traffic, this place remains relevant. I think we should have more spaces like this one,” Walusimbi said.
Unlike Walusimbi who used to walk around the city to pass time as he waited for his friends and business associates, Tracy (declines to give a second name) used to wait in nearby restaurants.
She said she stopped visiting the Constitution Square the day police was heavily deployed in 2011. Now that they were gone, there was no need to be afraid since the public could freely access it.
“Closing it was bad because people wanted to come here and rest while waiting for someone. Currently it is good and there is no problem,” she said.
Apart from being a recreational park, Constitution Square also works as a source of living. Vendors with boxes full of beverages lure those resting under trees to buy drinks and snacks; that could become a huge problem in future. Ugandans do not have a good culture of cleanliness and despite the area having dustbins, many litter wherever they are seated.
Airtime vendors and others also roam the area looking for customers. For some such as Ronald Kasana, although working within the square comes with its own challenges like KCCA revenue officers, business is good because vendors can make about Shs 50,000 per day.
The upper part of the square remains largely deserted, possibly due to the previous presence of an army camp there. The fading paint on the World War memorial also signals the years of neglect to this place since no one was expected to visit it, anyway.
Once Constitution Square was closed off to the public and Centenary Park further east of the city given to ‘investors’, the city was becoming a concrete jungle with no respite for its workers and visitors.
Yes, Kololo ceremonial grounds and Sheraton hotel’s gardens are in the city centre, but not everyone can access them. So, welcome back Constitution Square! May we keep you safe and clean!