Every hour is rush hour in Kampala

Boda-bodas are the main transport mode in Kampala
Boda-bodas are the main transport mode in Kampala

A trail of motorbikes resembling ants in the harvest season is a permanent feature of Kampala roads. The reckless driving sends shivers down the spines of the uninitiated. Mmegi Staff Writer BABOKI KAYAWE shares her experience of the ‘death on wheels’

Setting foot on the streets of Kampala, one is met by an army of motorbikes locally known as boda-bodas travelling at lightning speed.  It is quite a scene to behold: women with bowls full of bananas on their heads, children selling edibles wrapped as small packages and a very crazy traffic jam, especially at peak hours.

From Entebbe International Airport, to Hotel African – where I was accommodated – I noticed a pack of motorbikes operated by male drivers while the passengers are mostly women who in some cases are carrying children.  Seeing them, I assumed the men here were caring and prepared to carry their wives, girlfriends and children to and fro.

It was only during my second day in the Ugandan capital that I learnt that the bikers were in fact, boda-boda drivers, the notorious two-wheeled motorbike taxi that is the main transport system for Uganda and other parts of East Africa. The boda-boda drivers speed about like lunatics, chasing an income. Hungry for as many commuters as possible, they drive anyhow as long as they beat the traffic and deliver their customers. The safety of customers does not appear to be a major priority as passengers are without helmets most of the time.

A colleague, Ronald Bagaga, escorted me to the National Theatre where an assortment of craft shops are housed.

Along the way, he emphasised that the “boda-boda guy is the most dangerous in Kampala”.

“Every time you cross the street, the guy to look out for is the boda-boda driver,” he said. Each motorcyclist makes about 100 trips daily and the city has a population of about 3,000 bikes.  Driving down Acacia Road to Makerere University, the hotel driver I am with revealed that the biggest hospital in the city, Mulago Hospital, was always busy with many motorbike accidents. According to Stephen Ssenkaaba who writes in a Ugandan daily called NewVision, Mulago’s Injury Control Centre alone receives five to 20 boda boda accident cases everyday, translating to 7,280 cases each year.

A five-year (2008-2012) injury and fatality trends report from Ugandan police indicates that 3,043 motorcyclists were injured in accidents in 2012, up from 1,795 in 2008. 

“All these problems have been partly linked to the huge expansion of the boda-boda industry without proper planning,” Ssenkaaba wrote. Many other people told me the same horrifying stories about boda-boda in the next days in Kampala and ironically, I found myself curious about what it would be like to take the most dangerous ride in town. When I finally could not curb my curiosity I took a walk out of a craft shop and into a sea of boda-boda drivers, each asking if I wanted a ride. I was very sceptical to put my safety in the hands of just any of the bikers and tried to conduct a quick character scan to identify the calmer and sensible guy, even though the whole group seemed to share the same DNA.

Nonetheless, I settled for Tony Lwanda, a 35-year-old biker who has been in the business for 10 years.

Lwanda realised how scared I was as I clung onto his jacket and he repeatedly assured me that I would enjoy a smooth ride.  The journey cost me 3,000 Ugandan shillings, which is equivalent to about P28.70.

I asked him why the riders were so reckless and Lwanda explained that the industry was made up of all kinds of characters. According to him, the name ‘boda-boda’ actually came from the term ‘border to border’ as the bikes were a popular mode of transport from the Kenyan border to the Ugandan side. “There are different people in the sector. Some chase money while they neglect safety,” Lwanda said. “Though I know that this is the fastest mode of transport in the city, I also ensure that I don’t get lost in beating the traffic at the expense of both my life and the passengers’.”

According to him, the boda-boda business is big and for a decade, it has put food on the table for his family of four. The business has sent his three children to school, in addition to constructing a modern two-bedroom house in his home area of Mukono district in central Uganda.

The 10-minute ride in the midst of the Kampala traffic is smooth and I am impressed by how Lwanda manoeuvres around a bunch of vehicles, coils his bike off the road shoulders and finds a way through the maze.  I asked Lwanda about his plans for his life beyond the dangerous trade and he said he was unclear just yet. “But venturing into the banana transportation race is one of the possibilities given their high consumption,” he said.

Bananas here are eaten in all forms, from fried to boiled and even mashed into a staple dish called matooke.  Ironically, even as they ride to put their favourite banana meal on the table, the boda-boda drivers run the risk of hitting the very women and children carrying the beloved fruit.However, in Lwanda’s capable hands, I arrived safe and sound, unhurt despite the generally high injury rates involving boda-bodas.

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