The Kampala Serena: a celebration of African culture

‘But you are really expensive,’ I said to Stephen Kangave, that evening’s Duty Manager at the Kampala Serena.

‘Not so much!’ he protested, with a confident smile. ‘When you compare the amenities and the services of any other hotel in the city, you will see that the small difference in price is well worth it!’

Well, after enjoying two pampered days and comfortable nights at his hotel – and having sampled, I think, all its main rivals over the last few years – I could only agree with Stephen Kangave.

Mind you, a number of new hotels have sprung up Kampala in the last year or so, in a small frenzy of building in order to cope with, or cash in on, CHOGM – the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting that was held there last November. Some of those hotels might well struggle to survive – but not the Serena. Well before it was confirmed that CHOGM would go to Uganda, the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Investment had decided to make the US$30 million investment in converting the old Nile Hotel. Nevertheless, you could say that the Serena certainly cashed in, having hosted the opening ceremony and accommodated Queen Elizabeth.

The Kampala Serena is a very sophisticated and special place – ranking, without doubt, as one of the best hotels in the whole of Africa. The architecture and interior design was carried out by the Nairobi-based Symbion International.

Some years back, after Symbion had refurbished the rooms of the Nairobi Serena, I spoke with Jon Cavanagh, their Managing Director. He explained a basic concept of designing a hotel room. The bedroom, he said, should express something of the culture of whatever country you are in – but the bathroom, especially for women guests, should be as bathroom high-tech as anywhere else in the world.

Well, the Kampala Serena has exploded this concept. The bathrooms, yes, are as clinically efficient as you could wish. Otherwise, the whole hotel is a celebration of Ugandan and African culture. ‘We brought the colours of Africa,’ said Jon Cavanagh, ‘the lakes, rivers and fertile soils, into almost every aspect of the project.’

At the opening of the hotel in 2006, Prince Amyn Aga Khan elaborated on the same concept. ‘We took the Nile as our theme,’ he said. ‘the Nile as a place where different peoples met, different philosophies, cultures and aesthetics crossed each other and which, from this intermingling, produced a continuous swell of artistic creativity and originality.’

And that is how the Kampala Serena is: a continuous swell of artistic creativity and originality. I can think of no other hotel, anywhere, that has made such an investment in art. Alan Donovan, founder of our African Heritage, was commissioned to produce the ‘Lost Art of Africa’ collection that spreads through all the rooms and corridors: terra cotta sculptures replicated from the antiquities of Bankouni, the Jenne, the Nubian and the Ooni of Ife; pre-Islamic horsemen sculptures from Morocco; Buganda drums and woven baskets.

There are some striking contemporary works, too. Expedito Kibbula Mwebe of Kampala has carved fishes and crested cranes in panels and reliefs of rich mahogany. Yoni Waite of Lamu has created copper and brass embossed walls – and mosaic glass columns and wall dressings. Julius Mutungi of Kenya has crafted some magnificent rock sculptures.

As across Uganda with its abundance of lakes and rivers, water flows everywhere. It meanders in streams through the 17 acres of lush gardens; it cascades down rock faces; it gathers in pools; it even enters the hotel, where it falls down a curtain of wires and is carefully guided through the reception areas; it is the inspiration for the décor of the ‘Lakes’ restaurant.

‘An inspirational blend of 5-star polish and pan-African panache,’ goes one of the press-kit blurbs. ‘This world-class hotel will showcase the cream of Ugandan culture, while delivering the ultimate in personalized service, international cuisine, social style and business reliability’….

For once, the PR jargon sounds almost OK.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation