The 1960s and 1970s are still rated by our parents as the best years – they may have changed presidents often, lived through crappy economic systems and political unrest but the social circuit was booming.
That was before Bebe Cool erected things on his head, Chameleone declared himself number one or Bobi Wine fought and, later making peace with everyone. In the 1970s, the country danced to music by artistes such as Elly Wamala, Jimmy Katumba, Fred Masagazi and the Africa Go Band, later known as Afrigo Band.
They were creative, edgy and in more than one way, their hairstyles or clothing was a mirror for what was in vogue.
As most of you have seen in pictures or videos, miniskirts, platform shoes, afros were quite trendy for women, while neon bell bottom (flare) trousers, silk shirts, scarfs and those three-piece suits for men.
Mike Mukula, former health minister and MP for Soroti Municipality, says most trends were from Europe and America, where Ugandans used to go for further studies.
Mukula notes that being fashion followers and lovers of good things, Ugandans used to buy most of these clothes on their trips while others would get them from the various shops that had been started by frequent travellers.
He says he was in school at the time but followed the trends; the fascinating Afro hairstyles were more organic and mostly made out of sisal.
Namakula adds, since they did not have chemicals, they left their hair natural, usually combing it into an afro. Some people however combed their hair into an Afro. They would leave the Afro-pick in the hair, another style that had been copied from African-Americans who wore it as a political emblem and signature of a collective identity. It was their way of saying no to the oppression meted out on them by Whites.
The twist and tight dresses were given the name because of their nature. They were tight yet one could still dance twist while wearing them.
Then there were the shrink tops, which were small vest-like sweaters, many claim they served no purpose other than causing confusion. These vests were so flamboyant that no matter what else you wore, they stood out.
Songs such as Elly Wamala’s Ebinyumo have celebrated the lifestyle of the 1970s but for millennials, it was the 2004 hit, Sambagala by Halima Namakula and Bebe Cool that drove the message home.
The song talks about Ugandans and their ways at the time – the miniskirts, the famous Suzanna and Nile bars, the afros and the types of cars trendy men drove.
Namakula says Suzanna and Nile were to the 1970s what Club Silk and Angenoir were to the early 2000s; “Basesa Night Club in Bwaise also existed but it wasn’t as famous as the two.”
Suzanna was in Nakulabye and Nile in Katwe, both Kampala suburbs every youth wanted to be there.
“I was young at the time these places trended but my mother and aunts always talked about them,” she says.
Mukula says even in the 1970s, Ugandans were somewhat trendsetters in the region. It was not only about clothes but even in other fields of entertainment. For instance, in 1964, Uganda was the first country in East Africa to broadcast television in colour.
“Ugandans have always had exposure and they easily adopt new things,” he says.
It’s because of that, according to the former minister, that people rocked the miniskirts, high waist bands and high end suits, among others. He notes that for most men at the time, Yves Saint Laurent, a French fashion label was the most sought after.
Engato ya Gabon
The afros matched with maxi skirts or dresses or bell-bottom trousers and platform shoes nicknamed Gabon, completed the trendy look.
“Gabon was a trendy pair of shoes for both men and women,” she says.
There is a story on how the shoes came to be called Gabon. Gabon president Omar Bongo visited Uganda in 1973 (from Addis Ababa en route) and in 1975 Organisation of African Unity (OAU) meeting. He is a short man who always wore platform shoes to accentuate his height. Ugandans christened them Gabon!
However, Mukula notes that the country slowed down especially when Amin came into power. Some people left the country since they were afraid of an uncertain future while those that stayed were not as outgoing.
In an interview, artiste Diplock Segawa, says the political calamity changed the way Ugandans used to party but did not stop them from going out.
“Most Ugandans knew that they had to be out of town by 5pm, beyond that was too late,” he says ,adding that because of this, people started sleeping in the night clubs.
Many knew that leaving a night club at 10pm would cost them their lives, and they are said to have resorted to dancing until morning, giving birth to ekikeesa aptly translated as trans-night.
Arts and culture journalist Moses Serugo will never stop talking about the artsy nature of Kampala in the 1980s. He singles out The Centre as a place that gave him a chance to appreciate creativity.
Currently known as Watoto Church, it was called The Centre because it is in a location believed to be the centre of two roads, Bombo and Kampala roads.
“I went to Buganda Road Primary School and since we did not have a recreational hall, we used to go to The Centre for the different performances,” he says.
The memories of having fold back seats when you stood up or unfolding them to sit, he says are those he cherishes. He notes that the different films and theatrical productions they watched could have influenced his career choice.
At that time, Uganda had something they would call a vibrant cinema culture, with only one TV station that was state-owned, many enjoyed winding down the day watching films.
To the cinema
Norman Cinema, the current Watoto Church and Netha, the current home of the Ebonies, Theatre La Bonita on Colville Street were also popular among cinema goers. But there were other cinema spaces such as Ordeon and the drive-in experiences.
“You could easily find a cinema hall in almost each major town,” says Samson Lubuulwa, a lawyer, adding that there was just one TV station, yet not very many Ugandans owned set boxes at the time.
“Beyond that, cinema was affordable,” Lubuulwa says.
At the time, he says, he used to earn about Shs1,500 a month and with that salary, he could pay bills, save and keep some for leisure activities.
“Tickets to Norman and Netha would cost between Shs4 and Shs5 (approx. Shs4000 or Shs5000 at the current rate),” he says. As a student, he experienced the drive-in cinema which was at the present Container Yard in Nakawa,Kampala.
“People loved the drive-in because of staying in the car and parking near a speaker…it was also one of the places where beer was affordable at only Shs3.”
For Namakula, the trip to the cinema was always an experience and always had a different significance. “For example, besides being romantic, a man that took one to a drive-in had to be rich since he automatically had to own a car.”
Many people, according to Namakula, owned cars, but classy men used to drive the Ford Zephyr; “You could compare them to a Mercedes Benz today, they were countable,” she says.
A village could have only one and everyone in the neighbourhood would know,” she adds.
The intimate experience
For a cinema like Norman, she says it was more intimate, both men and women would dress the part – men in their tights and women, mostly in shiny dresses.
“Everything about going to Norman to watch films was an experience, even walking up the staircase,” she recalls.
Most times, the man would be waiting for the woman at the end of the staircase and Namakula says even the way he stood was thought through.
“A man would stand at a point to ensure a woman notices the pleat on the trousers and his shiny Gabon shoes,” she says, adding that most men could not sit before the woman arrived because they were afraid that sitting would crease the well pressed trousers.
However, after Asians were expelled, Kampala life was never the same. For instance, the cinemas were run down but worse still, even if people had chosen to keep them running, the supply for films was no longer there.
Today, even when some of the spaces still exist, their role has since evolved from what those in the 1970s knew them for.