There are so many things about Uganda that are radically different from what I’m used to that to try to select one thing to be the first to write about, and to hope that it would capture what I’ve experienced thus far in Uganda, is an exercise in futility. Instead, I’m stuck just arbitrarily selecting something – tonight, transportation – and hoping to make a little sense of it.
Kampala doesn’t have a public transportation system, at least in the sense that the city government doesn’t play any role in getting people from point A to point B. (In fact, our house near the center of Kampala is on a rutted dirt road). Transportation, though, is certainly not as atomized and individualistic as it is in the West. Aside from cars, there appear to be two main ways to get around. The first are Mutatu, VW buses with a driver and a conductor that drive random loops around the city and pack in an absurd number of people. Aside from being above ground, it’s frankly not that different from taking the subway.
The way of getting around with which I have very quickly fallen in love is “The Boda” (short for “Boda Boda”… almost remind me of abbreviating “WaWa” as “The Wa.”) Mom, you can stop reading now. A Boda is simply one of the thousands of crappy motorbikes being constantly driven around at absurdly unsafe speeds through the already chaotic traffic of Kampala; you simply wave one down, tell them where to go, and 2000 shillings (roughly a dollar) later, you’re safely at your destination. This, of course, would be the perfect thing to illustrate with a picture. Unfortunately, my internet connection’s speed is measured in the kilobytes per second (remember the charming days of dial-up modems?) and after a twelve-hour day of work on our project, I don’t have quite the conviction to sit here and watch a picture load for twenty minutes.
Or, at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. My first day here, Eliana – one of the other research assistants – and I decided to walk to the University at the center of Kampala and then take Bodas the country club where we were working that day. Eliana – who had already been to Africa before and had been in Kampala for a few days – negotiated with my driver and gave him directions. Eliana gave me just enough shillings to pay for the ride, and I hopped on the back.
A few minutes into our ride, I realized that we were no longer following Eliana. Instead, my driver took me onto some back roads. Kampala’s neighborhoods are pretty obviously stratified, and I could tell that this was not the place where a country club could be found. He then announced that I was at my destination, and that I should get off and pay him. I told him I didn’t think this was the place, but by this point, I had forgotten the proper name of the country club (everything here seems to use the same consonant sounds over and over again). Another Boda pulled up and started talking to my driver in Luganda. Eventually, we figured out where I wanted to go, but my driver wanted more money than I had.
All in all, it was a very confusing situation. It’s hard to tell whether I was being ripped off or if it was simply miscommunication. (People here speak English, but the less privileged people don’t speak it nearly as well.) But here I was in Uganda, with no money, idea where I was, or ability to communicate. Eventually being patient and not getting frustrated seemed to pay off, because I made it fine. But it was interesting to realize how blurry the lines around exploitation are here. On the one hand, this driver might very well have deliberately dumped me – completely clueless – in a random part of Kampala. At the same time, we routinely haggle with drivers over an extra five-hundred shillings – which to me seems a little absurd, since we are begrudging them twenty-five cents, which is a good chunk of a Ugandan’s daily wage.
The other thing I have realized from riding on Bodas is the intense trade-off between safety and authenticity of experience here. You can quite easily move around only in Land Rovers driven by Westerners, eat in Posh restaurants, and avoid neighborhoods with even a semblance of crime. But you very quickly use any connection with the people you’re supposedly here to learn from and to help. A Boda for me combines one of my favorite things about running and biking – the wind whipping around me and the chance to see everything from ground level – with the assurance from having someone who actually has a sense of how to navigate. Beyond that, Boda drivers are just plain normal Ugandans. I’ve learned more about Mouseveni – Uganda’s half-President, half-dictator, from sitting behind a Boda driver than from the CIA World Factbook. I guess a little risk goes a long way.
One thought on “Everything I know about Uganda*, I learned from a Boda”
I hope it isn’t the boda bodas who taught you to call Uganda’s president ‘Mouseveni’. Museveni, it is, but I’m sure it was just a small typo.
The boda bodas know a lot, but they also know nothing at all. They have what we Ugandans call ‘wasi-wasi’.
Whenever I get visitors who haven’t been to my home before, I tell them to ask the boda boda cyclists around the corner to direct them to me. The boda boda guys have convinced themselves that I am a mixed-race employee of the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence and that I own a gun. That couldn’t be further from the truth. But it’s been great in keeping the robbers at bay!