At 11am on a Monday morning, Olivia Musisi walks into La Bella Bar and Restaurant on Dewinton Road, in Kampala. The workers seem to stand to attention – alert.
She immediately orders one of them to place some box covers at the entrance to serve as carpets for patrons walking in on the rainy morning.
Handbag in hand, she paces across the restaurant, scanning for tidiness and then, walks to the corridor that leads to the washrooms. La Bella has not lost its old self in the crowd of new bars and restaurants. The walls have a fresh coat of paint.
As a matter of fact, it is not a fancy place when compared to the swanky bars and pubs around town with their neon lights and comfort that spreads from quality furniture to carefully chosen leather seats and colours to blend with glamorous surroundings.
The stools and tables in La Bella are made from simple wood. Some leather seats line the walls and bar counter.
Musisi tried to mordernise the place but met with resistance. “There was a lot of resentment from the old patrons when we introduced high stools at the bar. They want the place to retain its old look. They want to keep the memories.”
Aeneas Tandekwire, a former clerk to Parliament, is an old timer. “I have been hanging out here for a couple of decades,” he says, adding, “Through the years, I have been here, I have seen people from all walks of life such as, civil servants, cabinet ministers, Members of Parliament, business people and more.”
The strategic location of the hangout, and the fact that the doors open early and close late in the night, make it an easy choice.
Through the years
It is October 9, 1960 and the Union Jack has just come down. As the Uganda flag is hoisted up the flag pole, the crowd in Kololo Airstrip gets lost in emotions, shouting and waving their hands while others hold miniature flags.
Dauda Mukasa, who was an electrical technician at the time, cannot help but smile to himself. “I was happy my country had gained Independence. I got onto my Vespa motorcycle and took a ride around town. Everyone was in cheerful mood, singing songs, hugging one another, or seated in a city bar enjoying a drink.
One of the places where Ugandans celebrated was La Bella. Back then, the hangout was a nook for those who enjoyed their beer in a peaceful and quiet atmosphere. On Independence Day, though, the patrons could not help but get a little loud as they toasted and downed bottles and glasses of frothy drinks.
La Bella is still standing today, 56 years later, serving beer, whisky, gins and food. It is a family business that has changed management within the Musisi family. Olivia Musisi is the current director.
“The premises are owned by a Goan Indian family who started the business in the 1950s but could not sustain it,” Musisi says, continuing, “In 1977, my mother, Mary Namboozo Musisi, bought the business and took over its operations. At the time, Uganda was going through political turmoil which, naturally, affected flow of business.”
The Indian region of Goa was colonised by Portugal over 600 years ago. The Portuguese imposed their culture on the Goans from the Catholic religion to social life. The Goans came to Uganda as cooks, butlers, tailors, and some ran businesses.
Later, in the waning years of the colonial administration, they were second only to the Europeans in the social order. When President Idi Amin expelled Asians, some Goans remained in Uganda because he had exempted the Asians in the civil service.
By 1977, there was an economic downturn in Uganda and many businesses went under. It is, therefore, surprising that La Bella continued to flourish.
Musisi’s mother, who passed away late last year, managed the bar and restaurant for two decades. In 1997, she relinquished management to her son, Allan Musisi who passed on in September 2010. Diana Musisi took on management for a year. When Olivia returned from the United Kingdom (UK), she took over the management.
Dickson Zizinga, an actor and comedian, says La Bella has cultivated loyal customers through the years.
“I spent most of my childhood along Dewinton Road. My family owned a business there and I saw, and continue to see, some of the patrons who hang out there. Such people return because La Bella lies within their means. The drinks and food are affordable and it is a place where you can hold a conversation with someone since, unlike other bars, it is peaceful and quiet.”
To Jenkins Mukasa, a musician and music critic who was raised along Dewinton Road, the quiet character of the road played into facilities like La Bella and Sardinia Restaurant, which could be the oldest hangout places there.
“Dewinton Road was nice at the time; not as noisy as it is today. It was like a small urban town with everything in one place. There was no heavy traffic jam in the 1980s. La Bella has stood the taste of time. It has never closed while some places like Bimbo Ice-cream Parlour eventually closed down.”
He observes that on top of being a bar frequented by old folks, La Bella used to be a popular place with students of Namasagali College who used to wait for transport at Uganda National Cultural Centre (National Theatre) to their school.
“On such days, Dewinton Road would be painted red - the colour of the school uniform, and there would be more business for La Bella because students would enjoy a meal or some beer. That boom in business would be shared between La Bella and Kifirigi bar. This was particularly between 1988 and 1995 when Namasagali College put up stage performances at the National Theatre.”
In Mukasa’s opinion, the bar also kept in business owing to its segmented market and focus on core clientele. “The management continues to keep a personal touch with the patrons. They have a one-on-one relationship with many clients. In old times, the customer care was so good that they would offer drop-off services to customers who left the bar late or a drink on credit.”
From the ambiance, it is easy to tell that this bar and restaurant are still going strong. Who knows, it might live to celebrate its 100th year!
Although many of the patrons of La Bella Bar and Restaurant sing its praises, over the years, some customers who have visited the place have given it mixed reviews.
Kochi from India, writing on Trip Advisor, a reputable travel website, says, “Wonderful place to experience an evening at a local Kampala Bar, good service and friendly staff and local snacks. A great experience for me. While comparing with bars in other countries in Africa, one should not miss it at all.”
Hisham, another reviewer, writes, “I was taken there by a Ugandan friend. Local food but the meat was too hard. After paying and as I was leaving, someone I don’t know ran to me and asked me if I paid my bill.”
All in all, La Bella seems to be here for a long time to come. On a sunny afternoon, life moves slowly at La Bella. A security guard rests his chin on a wooden stick as he listens to a friend. Above them is a signpost of La Bella.
It has photographs of wine bottles and traditional dishes and snacks. From where the guard is seated, there are concrete flower vases. There are seats outside for patrons who choose to sit by the street.