Masaka: From ‘ghost’ to vibrant town

A view of a busy Masaka Town with its newly-erected malls.

By Michael J Ssali

Soon after the war that ousted Idi Amin in 1979, Masaka looked like a ghost town, with nearly half of the buildings in its main commercial centre destroyed by the Tanzanian army.

The police station, Uganda Commercial Bank building, Tropic Inn, Chief Magistrates Court, Municipal Council, Provincial Governor’s offices and the district headquarters had all been bombed.

The opening of the Bypass – the road from Kampala to Mbarara did not help.
However, today, as Mr Johnson Munono Baryantuma, the Town Clerk, says, land in Masaka is a hot cake, with developers and investors coming in from various parts of the country to buy plots to erect commercial buildings.
“That’s why these days you hear of land grabbing and the acquisition of fake land titles. All rich men in the neighbouring districts want to own a piece of Masaka Town,” Mr Baryantuma says.

He adds that a big percentage of those scrambling to invest their money in the town were originally born in Masaka but had moved to Kampala and are now returning home after realising that there is money to make. He said the town, which boasts of an estimated 70,000 residents, has a flock of cars, which has forced the planning authority to turn some streets such as Edward Avenue and Elgin Road into one-ways as other plans to reduce traffic congestion are being developed.

There is hardly anything to remind anybody about the 1978/9 war. The police station, the court, and all buildings destroyed during the war have been replaced or are being worked upon.

Where the small government Tropic Inn stood before the war, has been replaced by a large and magnificent Tropic Inn Hotel, complete with a grand swimming pool. Now the town has several other large hotels, including Golf Lane, Hotel Brovad, Zebra Hotel, Maria Flo Hotel, Greton Hotel, and Palm Springs Hotel.

The Town Clerk’s views were echoed by Mr Drake Guloba, the proprietor of a popular night spot, Drake’s Pub, along Edward Avenue. “If you carry out a survey of people opening up businesses in most of our new shopping malls, you will notice that majority are recent arrivals from Kampala. When you hear of the changes that involve closing down markets in Kampala and the high cost of doing business, it becomes easy to understand the influx,” Mr Guloba said.

The businessman, who is looking at investing in real estate business, attributes the town’s rapid development to the presence of Mutesa One Royal University.
Hajj Ali Matovu, the chairperson of Kimaanya/Kyabakuza Division, said nowadays residents want to live in their own houses as opposed to the old trend when people targeted government or company houses.

The so-called senior government quarters no longer hold meaning because today, the best houses belong to private individuals, for example the Kumbu Housing Estate in Kimaanya, which has been constructed by private individuals.

The government hardly has any houses left as most of its former buildings have been sold off to tenants and individuals. Mr Joseph Kalungi, the district chairperson, attributes Masaka’s rapid economic development to the improved economic development.

“You have to see what is taking place in the villages. People are harvesting more coffee, a crop whose international market prices have gone really up. They are tapping a lot of money from coffee in all the surrounding districts. Secondly the region is producing a lot of pineapples, which are sold in Sudan and Kenya as well as Kampala,” Mr Kalungi said. He added: “All this is money that has helped the shopkeepers in the district have a ready market for all their products. This is also reflected in the rural areas, where you actually see new buildings with red iron sheets being constructed nearly in every village.

Besides coffee, the people have invested so much on other agricultural activities such as cattle keeping and piggery.”

Ms Jane Nansubuga, a trader along Hobart Street, attributed the rapid development to the hard work of some prominent business owners. She named Hajat Sarah Kiyimba, the owner of Brovad Hotel and other commercial buildings as the most outstanding entrepreneur in the town.