Bad Guys, Good Life: An Ethnography of Morality and Change in Kisekka Market (Kampala, Uganda)

  • Date:
  • Location: Geijersalen, Thunbergsvägen 3H, 75120, Uppsala
  • Doctoral student: Baral, Anna
  • About the dissertation
  • Organiser: Institutionen för kulturantropologi och etnologi
  • Contact person: Baral, Anna
  • Disputation

Based on ethnographic data gathered over a period of almost three years, this dissertation scrutinizes the everyday lives of informal workers selling auto parts in Kisekka Market, central Kampala.

Its ambition is to understand how the workers navigated a highly moralized environment in today’s Uganda, where the supposed moral deterioration of society is passionately discussed in public and in private.

Analytically the dissertation focuses on three “moral landscapes”, or moral discourses of different geographical scales, that intersected in the workers’ lives: first, the Ugandan nation or the country; second, the Buganda kingdom with its cultural institutions to which the majority of the workers professed allegiance; and third, the capital city Kampala. Materializing in Kisekka Market, each landscape posed moral demands that the workers navigated daily as they struggled to balance norms with lived practices.

The workers were perceived by external observers as morally ambiguous for their supposed instrumentality in riots and violent crimes in Kampala. Their notoriousness increased for the fact that they were men, often uneducated, and therefore, in public discourse, potentially threatening. Consequently, they were referred to as bayaaye, translated as hooligans or bad guys, and this label defined their relations with customers from all parts of Kampala and Uganda.

In exploring the implications of the three moral landscapes, particular attention is paid to the in-between. Rather than focusing on mediatized events like riots and crimes, the dissertation investigates and locates the workers’ agency in the mundane processes of care and getting by and the tentative paths to a good life that unfolded daily in Kisekka Market, regardless of larger political tensions in Kampala and beyond. The city’s development plan to replace Kisekka Market with a fancy shopping mall rendered the workers’ situation increasingly exposed and their lives increasingly vulnerable. In the workers’ quest for some degree of control and self-worth, the label of bayaaye refracted into its multiple dimensions – proudly appropriated or painfully rejected by the workers themselves – attesting  to the complexities of everyday ethics, in Kampala as elsewhere. Consequently, the ethnography of this dissertation problematizes the dominant yet fraught narrative around young men in urban Africa.