It was the very first time I had ever really stayed out late. It was around 3 am, after my friend’s after party following his Kwanjula; a traditional wedding. That said, we turned up at Gurvnor; Kampala’s premier night spot in gomesis and Kanzus; our traditional attire. After dancing to what seemed like over 99 songs, we left the club – shoes in one hand and part of the flowing attire in another.
With all that dancing, it was no wonder we were famished. As we slumped back in the car seats, debating on where to find ‘decent’ food at such an indecent hour, Charlie suggested TV Chicken and started driving towards Wandegeya, a city suburb in Kampala that never goes to sleep. Its name, Wandegeya, is derived from the weaver birds – “endegeya” in Luganda – that used to inhabit the area years before it turned into a concrete jungle. Now, it’s like a students’ district of sorts with a major university (Makerere University), YMCA and so many other institutions of learning.
As our car pulled into the parking lot, I was suddenly wide awake. The place was buzzing with life at 3.30 am like it’s only 8 pm! The first order of business was to get me a pair of comfortable shoes, because my feet couldn’t handle anymore torture from the high heels after all that dancing. Surprisingly, it wasn’t hard – it’s always business time in Wandegeya. Hawkers selling merchandise from shoes, bed sheets, pillows, fresh fruit… It was easy to find a shoe vendor, and shortly after, I was a proud owner of flip-flops.
I realized that people around us were dressed to the nines, probably from the club or some party (that would explain the flimsy dresses). Of course we received strange looks, being seen in our traditional garb at such an hour.
Before Kampala City Council Authority relocated vendors to the newly constructed Wandegeya Market, the Wandegeya Association of Chicken Roasters had their base by the roadside and in the parking lot. As soon as you walked in, your eyes got caught by the phenomenon Kampala people refer to TV Chicken.
TV Chicken simply refers to chicken roasted in a microwave-like machine with a clear glass that allows you to feast your eyes on the almost pornographic sight of a whole chicken slowly turning, or “somersaulting,” as many here will argue. By the time it’s ready for serving, the chicken has this inviting golden brown look that will make your enzymes run a riot if you don’t respond to their urges fast enough.
Charlie and the boys had their guy, Mustapha. They were such frequent customers of Mustapha’s that once the other roasters recognized Charlie, they said, “Those are Mustapha’s people.” Making way for us. Mustapha was delighted to see us! He said hello to the boys like they were lifetime buddies and politely smiled at me. He set about looking for plastic chairs, a table or us and where in the parking to put them so we could be comfortable. As soon as we were settled, he sent the tea lady to make us cups of tea.
“The usual?” Mustapha asked Charlie regarding our order.
“Yes. Plus one,” replied Charlie.
I raised my eyebrows at Charlie in question. He just smiled and said, “You will see.”
The lemon grass-spiced tea arrived a minute or less later in steaming metallic mugs. As the boys reminisced about the kwanjula and the pretty bridesmaids, I sipped the tea that reminded me so much of my grandmother and of my childhood. I started to take in my surroundings by indulging in some people-watching, moving my eyes from the roasters to the customers streaming in, most of whom were students picking up late night meals. Some girls were on dates with their sugar daddies. I couldn’t picture a father out that late with his daughter dressed like that! Mostly, it seemed, the guys had come from watching a game of basketball at YMCA – a three-minute walk away. They were laughing heartily while digging into their chicken.
Almost a half an hour later, I discovered what Charlie meant by “the usual” as Mustapha placed our chicken platter on our table. I couldn’t really touch anything until the waitress came with a kettle of warm water, a tab of soap and small basin so we could wash our hands. Charlie peeled off the polythene bag covering our food… What a platter! There were three birds in total, cut into pieces; two packets of fries; slices of avocado; smoked bananas and cassava, all mixed in cabbages for just the four of us.
I stared at the boys.
I reached for the drumstick. It scalded my fingers; so I blew air on it. I couldn’t understand how the guys could eat such hot food, but luckily, the cool outdoor temperature was helpful. Very soon I was able to dig in almost as fast as the boys. For lack of a better word, the food was the kind that makes your taste buds sing in harmony! Maybe it had something to do with sitting under the stars, albeit having to move every now and then if a car was leaving the parking lot. We left the parking lot close to five in the morning!
These days, the roasters are housed in the newly built market. But they still continue to serve their patrons in the parking lot. Granted, it’s less chaotic, but it lacks the buzz that comes with Kampala street food delicacies.
My friends and I are in different trades, so we try to meet twice a month in Wandegeya for TV Chicken. It’s always a great opportunity to meet and catch up. We also have a roaster guy. We call him Rasta, because on our first interaction he had short dreadlocks. Later, when he cut the dreadlocks off, we thought of asking for his real name: Kato (which means he is a twin). Lately, we even call him in advance when we’re planning to assemble, as we call it, so we don’t have to wait too long for our orders. That way, he will try to get us the biggest birds he can. Plus, when you wait too long, the tantalizing aroma from the roast will have your stomach growling in protest. Sometimes there are 10 of us at the assembly point devouring about 10 birds. It’s more of a struggle, really, with some calling dibs on drumsticks or wings way early in the day. Days like these make Rasta a really happy man and a source of envy to every other chicken roaster.
Sometime back, it was just the two of us – Conrad and I sharing one bird. Midway through the meal, Conrad said, “You know, I’ve never really appreciated this chicken as much as I’ve done today. We’re usually fighting for the biggest parts, sometimes holding two at a time…”
We looked over at a group of friends, about seven of them; fighting for the chicken wings. “That’s usually us,” he said.
Turns out that the group of friends worked at a bank, and after they granted my request to take their photo, they asked Conrad and I to open up accounts at their bank. See, in the midst of all the culinary activity, serious financial deals are struck too. That’s Wandegeya for you.
I originally shared this on The African Channel.