Making a Modern City

I left Gulu on Sunday morning to do a short stint of research and deal with some logistics for an upcoming trip. By the time I made it back to town on Thursday, it was evening and I was tired. I paid my boda driver and grabbed my bags, turning towards my hotel. The lights were off, which had been typical lately with so many power cuts, but the door was shuttered too. I noticed a small 8 1/2″ x 11″ paper posted on the door. As I read about how the hotel I had just stayed in was now closed for renovations, the owner approached me from his seat beside the building. A friend of mine since last year, he apologized and explained that they were remodeling some of the building and were temporarily closed. “You know, with city status coming, we wanted to spruce the place up a bit,” he explained.

Two weeks ago, I went to an open mic show at a cafe in town. In between performances, the emcee thanked several  notable patrons for attending the show. Among them was the owner of the new big supermarket. He mentioned, off hand, that her business gave Gulu “a real supermarket” that resonated with becoming a city.

Gulu town has been inching closer and closer to city status for years, and with it come particular notions of what a city is. I remember back in 2013, seeing news about the removal of thatched roof huts from town, also justified as part of the march to city status.

More recently, a number of buildings are marked for demolition in the name of safety but also in the name of making Gulu look like a proper city. In the Daily Monitor this week, a local division chairperson is quoted as saying, “We are taking this initiative of demolishing the dilapidated structures in preparation for a city status. We cannot have a city with this kind of dilapidated structures.” In addition to several dilapidated buildings deemed structurally unfit by engineers several years ago, several thatch-roofed buildings are slated for removal too.

I don’t know much of the details of what’s been going on in town. I’ve heard stories of how, when the new main market was built, many vendors couldn’t afford rents there but were also being pushed off of land as the old outdoor market was razed. The streets winding outside of town in neighborhoods like Pece are well-paved with sidewalks and medians. It feels like every year when I come back here town has changed quite a bit, and keeps changing.

Demolishing or fixing buildings that are unsafe is one thing; erasing traditional buildings from the urban landscape is another. Gulu will likely attain city status next year. But what does it mean to be a city? What does a city look like? And whose city is it?

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