Stories from Africa

  • traffic jam in Kampala
    The clogged streets of Kampala create challenging driving conditions.

    Getting Around Kampala Can Be Interesting

    Uganda is small, about the size of Oregon. But within this area live 37 million people. Few examples of this number are as evident as the ever-present chaotic traffic jam in the capital city of Kampala.

    With a city population of approximately two million (some say five million), the street and city design was created for much less. Or more than likely, there wasn't a plan at all. Depending on time of day -and luck -it can take from one to four hours to travel across town. Kampala has few traffic lights. Traffic police are stationed at several street intersections across the city. However, from my own observations, many of these workers appeared to spend more time looking at their cell phones and visiting with each other than directing traffic.

    This all leads to a challenging situation for anyone needing to get anywhere in the city, especially during rush hours.

    The solution to the chaos, depending on one's point of view, is the boda-boda or small motorcycle taxis. The term boda-boda comes from the days when crossing the border from neighboring countries entailed some distance. To help speed the process and help carry cargo, riders on small motorcycles would take people from one border to the other. Thus, the term boda-boda and it has stuck ever since.

    "We don't recommend visitors to take a boda-boda,"explained Debbie Willis, an expat from Britain and owner of the Red Chili Hostel where I was staying. "I've lived here 17 years and have never taken one, because they are not safe and can have crazy drivers."

    One of the local newspapers has reported that five people die every day on boda-bodas in Kampala.

    This form of transportation also can be unsafe for other reasons. A couple of young women tourists from the United States told me how they were recently robbed while taking a boda-boda late at night. The d2rivers took them down an unlit street where others waited and robbed them for the cash they carried. Similar incidents have happened to locals, so vigilance is needed.

    But for trips across town during the day, the boda-boda is just too hard to resist, especially for anyone short on time.

    Dean on a boda-boda
    Riding on a "boda-boda" down the streets of Kampala, Uganda.

    Each time I jumped on the back of a boda-boda, I said a silent prayer before setting off.

    Once positioned on the back of the motorcycle, the boda-boda driver would speed down a street, and we bounced around the road like a pinball. There was always a constant question in my head."Should I watch or just close my eyes?"

    On one of my first rides, I struck up a conversation with my driver. It went like this:

    "What's your name?"

    "My name is Sunday."

    "Are you married with children?"

    "Oh yes, I have five children."

    I always liked to know with whom I was risking my life, and I took comfort in knowing that Sunday had children; a sign that he had something to live for.

    The ride got particularly interesting at large roundabouts, where it looked like a free-for-all of cars, minivans, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians all jockeying for position in the street.

    As the autos came to a standstill, side streams of boda-bodas wove around the cars like water in a stream around large boulders. Sometimes there was just enough room to squeeze between cars and I had to pull my knees up to avoid hitting the doors.

    And if there wasn't enough room to go around the cars, the boda-boda drivers would drive on the sidewalks -or any open space along the road -to bypass the traffic jam.

    Going slowly in-between and around cars didn't make me nervous. Riding fast down semi-busy streets got my heart going. I always felt on a slow ride I could jump off; a fast ride would be a bigger gamble.

    Flooded streets of Kampala
    Flooded streets of Kampala are void of motorcycle taxis.

    The only time the boda-boda riders disappeared from the roads was when heavy rains flooded the streets and turned them into rivers.

    With some good luck and some overtime for the angels that watch over me, the boda-boda drivers delivered me to my destination. For rides on boda-bodas, good luck and angels come in handy.

    Fremont Tribune

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