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Originally published Saturday, August 24, 2013 at 7:05 PM

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Overcoming the past, raucously, in Uganda

Exploring the pulsating city of Kampala — nightlife, neighborhoods and history — plus some daytrips into the natural world of East Africa.

The New York Times

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“Art-Culture-Life”: So beckoned the humble sign. Being a fan of all three, I made my way inside.

Art came first in a portico lined with rich, Dalí-esque landscapes; in the craft shop, stocked with mottled straw purses and hand-carved bowls; on restaurant walls, splashed with multihued graffiti. There was culture, yes, in the form of eclectic sounds: a DJ spinning house music and an open-mic session showcasing poets and singers from Africa to America.

As for life, it abounded here at MishMash, a self-described “cultural hub” that’s part rambling gardens, part performance space, part open-air cinema, part gallery and part eatery serving everything from burgers and beer to mojitos and liver pâté.

It all made for a lovely evening, although hardly the one I’d expected in Kampala, Uganda. To many, after all, the East African country is best known for its worst face: former President Idi Amin Dada, whose brutal regime from 1971 to 1979 was known for its abuse of human rights. But that was then. Now, after nearly three decades under President Yoweri Museveni, the country appears to be stable, and its sprawling capital is a dynamic metropolitan center, an ever-evolving hub of, well, art, culture and life.

The urban world

As soon as I arrived, I fielded queries about my departure. Surely I was passing through Kampala en route to safari in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park to see endangered mountain gorillas or Queen Elizabeth National Park to ogle elephants or down the Nile to see hippos.

In fact, I’d come to experience urban Uganda, which is partly a work in progress. Cosmopolitan restaurants are increasingly cropping up; expected to open in the coming year are a towering Hilton hotel, two expansive malls and a sleek highway connecting Kampala with the neighboring town of Entebbe, the site of the country’s international airport.

I checked in at the Sheraton, a sprawling Kampala institution nearly half a century old. It’s never short on action: The outdoor Paradise Grill hosts live music nightly, and on weekends, the Equator lounge is transformed from elegant hotel bar to chic disco, crammed with well-heeled locals. I ambled around the hotel’s grassy grounds, then I continued my walk on the slopes of Nakasero, a hilly business district that’s home to Kampala’s most famous outdoor market.

Afterward, I walked down the commercial boulevard that is Nile Avenue to the Uganda National Theater, where I enjoyed a multiracial, multiaccented rendition of “Macbeth.” The theater itself borders on ramshackle but the performances proved believable, even riveting.

The next day I took a trip through history. The journey through the heart of downtown and into a neighboring suburb was not for the faint of heart: cavernous potholes, inexorable traffic jams and swerving boda-bodas (motorcycle taxis) can turn a car trip through Kampala into a grand obstacle course. But in half an hour I was high above the urban hustle and bustle, surrounded by vivid orange earth and green hills, encircled by yellow butterflies and appreciating why Kampala is called the “city of seven hills.”

Old Kampala, where impalas once roamed — hence the city’s name — was Kampala’s embryo. In the 1890s, Capt. Frederick Lugard, Uganda’s early British administrator, established his fort here. Today it’s a living lesson on all things Buganda, the region housing Uganda’s biggest ethnic group (“kingdom” in the local language). The Bugandans have a monarchy and their own parliament. I drove by the stately parliament building and stopped at the imposing black and gold-tipped gates of the Lubiri Palace, the compound of the Buganda kabaka, or king. I opted out of the guided tour, which does not enter the palace itself, but includes a peek at Amin’s torture chambers and Rolls-Royce.

Nightlife and daytrips

Kampala is a patchwork of disparate neighborhoods, some lush and suburban, others rough and tumble, thronged with wooden shacks and roadside vendors. I saw the city’s many faces mostly by night, when they come alive and pulse with music; this is because some three-quarters of Uganda’s population is younger than 30, the prime partying age. When the sun goes down, they flock to the aptly named Industrial Area close to downtown, home to spacious, modern nightclubs like Guvnor, where the soundtrack is a mélange of American hip-hop, local Afrobeat and Jamaican dance-hall music.

During my final days, I indulged in the ultimate Kampala luxury: getting out of Kampala. Figuring I ought not leave Africa without a wild-animal sighting, I took a 40-minute drive to Entebbe, a serene suburb that once housed the British colonial government. The Uganda Wildlife Education Centre — known to locals as simply “the zoo” — was my mini-safari: zebras, hyenas, white rhinos, shoebill storks and three charming chimpanzees.

Then I hit the beach. The shores of immense Lake Victoria are a haven for new and old-time hotels and restaurants; I settled in at Spennah Beach, a weekend hangout. Children played in the silky white sand, revelers rode water scooters, vendors grilled chicken and DJs blared Jamaican music.

More natural beauty came on a day trip to Jinja, which makes its claim as the source of the Nile and boasts adrenaline boosters like wild-water rafting and bungee jumping. I opted for something more placid. The 90-minute drive took me out of Kampala’s traffic jams and into rural villages, pine forests and fields of sugar cane and pineapple. A rowboat carried me to a stunningly unexpected oasis: the eco-chic Wildwaters Lodge, built treehouse style on a rocky island in the river. Lounging by the pool, I discovered how soothing the sound of rapids could be. And I added a fourth gem to Kampala’s crown: art, culture, life — and nature.

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