With few early written records we must rely on the oral tradition for the earliest history of Kampala. This suggests that people were living in the area that is now Kampala for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Earliest records indicate that the area was established as the capital of the Buganda kingdom since the 1600s.
The name, Kampala, is said to be derived from the word, Impala – a type of antelope regularly found grazing on the hills. The Kabaka (King) of Buganda hunted these and it was referred to as the ‘Hill of the Impala’. It is likely that when the British arrived they heard the area called, ‘Kasozi k’empala’ an began pronouncing it by its present name, Kampala.
The area rose to prominence, from the perspective of the European powers, around 1869 with the opening of the Suez Canal. Then, until 1889, the area of Kampala (and northern Uganda) was of interest to European and Egyptian powers which financed explorers under the administration of ‘Equatoria’. Troubles in Sudan spelled the end of the joint Anglo-Egyptian interest in the region in 1889 and a race between Germany and Britain to establish a colony ensued. Politics in Europe meant that the British effort succeeded with Frederick Dealtry Lugard forcing the Kabaka to sign a treaty granting ‘protection’ to Buganda in return for the Imperial British East African Company, essentially, taking over the place.
The city used to only occupy seven hills. These were: Rubaga, Namirembe, Makerere, Kololo, Kibuli, Kampala, and Mulago. Each of these hills was designated with a specific purpose. Three were for religious communities (Catholic – Rubagga, Anglican – Namirembe and Kibuli – Muslim). Kololo and Nakasero were for diplomatic, residential and administrative purposes. Mulago was for a hospital and Makerere for the university.
The structure and layout of Kampala’s centre is a product of European colonial planning with the first urban planning programme being initiated in 1912 and encompassing the hills of Nakasero and Old Kampala. At that time, Kampala’s population was 2,850 people. The British divided the city into three quarters – the European, Asian, and African. Nakasero and Kololo were European. Old Kampala was Asian.
The colonial period came to an end in 1962 and independence from Great Britain was declared on 9th October 1962. The fortunes of the city were, and remain, closely tied to the socio-political events of the country through to the present day.
Kampala today is a vibrant and lively city with approximately 1.6 million people living on the numerous hills located six miles from Lake Victoria. It is also one of the fastest growing cities in Africa. Given its close proximity to the equator the weather is mild, pleasant and generally ranges year-round between 28°C (82°F) and 17°C (63°F). There are two rainy seasons from February to June and again from September to November.
The city sprawls across hills and lowlands and encompasses the Kira municipality – which is technically the second largest city in Uganda. Covering over 20 hills each boasts different communities, neighbourhoods with a mix of shops, restaurants, clubs, churches, mosques and markets.
English, Swahili, as well as many local languages are all official although English and Lugandan are most frequently heard. Almost all street and commercial signs are in English. Unlike many other African capitals the streets do have names although they might not be readily posted. Most of the names are derived from locations (e.g. Jinja Road) or politicians or businessmen (e.g. Luwum Street). Additionally, many places and parks retain colonial or Asian names – like Queen Mary’s Gardens or Shimoni Road.
As the commercial centre of the country there is a wide variety of shopping opportunities for every taste and budget. Small market stalls line almost every road selling everything from phone credit to vegetables to clothes or plumbing supplies. Large shopping malls provide higher end products and large open-air markets are scattered through the city.