Clea and I have recently bought a new car. We couldn’t continue without one because we found ourselves increasingly using boda bodas to get around. A boda boda is the name in Uganda for small motorbike taxis. Kampala has thousands of them, mostly chinese made Boxers. They’re cheap, easy to use and convenient, but they’re also dangerous. No helmets are provided. Using a boda boda to get around is in the same category as using petrol to light a BBQ or a hand grenade as a paperweight. The kind of thing your mother would be firmly against. While growing up my mother worried if I left the house wearing slightly damp clothes, she worried that I might fatally stab myself if I moved too fast while holding scissors. Compared to running with scissors riding a boda boda is like brandishing a loaded hand gun while running down a steep hill, over rough ground, in the dark, drunk. It’s dangerous and we are well aware of that, we work in a hospital, we’ve seen the bodies.
So that’s the main drawback of boda bodas, but they also have benefits. A boda boda driver is happy to take two passengers and will even squeeze on three (four people, one motorbike); if you have a small child you can prop them on the handle bars. Luggage is also no problem. Recently I have seen a boda carrying a large lorry tyre plus passenger, a boda carrying a BBQ made from half an oil drum and a boda carrying a large stack of white plastic garden chairs. Possibly the most ludicrous thing I have seen transported by a single Boda is a sofa. When not hindered by a sofa a Boda will always find a way through the traffic, even if this involves riding on the wrong side of the road, the wrong way around a round-about, on the pavement (in the few places that pavements exist), or down a long muddy track for around 500 yards through the middle of a slum and over a railway track. I know all of the above from first hand experience.
The other option for the car-less traveler is the Matatu. Matatus are taxi minibuses, Toyota Hiace vans converted to seat 14 passengers. The conversion involves sticking banners across the top of the front and rear windscreen bearing slogans in support of either: Jesus, Allah, Man-United, or Arsenal, infusing the interior with a powerful body odor scent, tuning the engine to blow clouds of black smoke from the exhaust pipe and welding four rows of three seats in the back. The seat at the end of the front three rows folds to allow access to the seats further back. This combined with minimal leg room means that passengers are constantly being shuffled around to allow passengers on and off which may result in fellow passengers, or more likely the conductor, sitting on your lap. The legal capacity of a Matatu is 14 passengers and in Kampala they stay close to this quota, but don’t count the conductor despite the fact that he needs somewhere to sit while handing out change and hollering out of the window.
Matatus operate into and out of a central hub called the bus park. There are two bus parks located right next to each other in central Kampala. One is called the new bus park and the other, the old bus park. They are both equally chaotic. Bustling does not do them justice, perhaps scrambling. From an outsiders perspective it is madness, but from this chaos a functioning mass-transit system grows. I have a cousin who has a degree in transport studies. If he is ever looking for a Phd subject I will strongly advocate the bus park. Five years should be just long enough to make sense of it.
Matatus are driven with a reckless disregard for human life but they are still safer than Bodas they are also cheaper, their main drawback is speed, they are slow, they cannot avoid jams (they are the jams), plus they stop constantly to pick up passengers which involves either shuffling, if there are lots of passengers, or just waiting for as long as it takes for sufficient passengers to show up if there are few.
Traffic Jams are a big problem in Kampala. Kampala has traffic jams for the same reason as all of the world’s capitals, too many cars. Where Kampala may be unique is that most of Kampala’s traffic jams also involve a man in a white boiler suit and black wellington boots standing at the front blowing a whistle. This is the uniform of the traffic police. Most of the stories you will hear about the traffic police involve bribes, but in addition to their penchant for petty corruption they also have a remarkable ability to create traffic mayhem simply through standing at the front of a traffic jam waving their arms and blowing a whistle.
Controlling traffic for the police involves two separate stances. One is standing blowing your whistle and waving traffic onwards. The other is stopping the flow of traffic to allow another column of cars to move. The second stance is much more difficult to achieve than the first. Especially in Kampala. Cars don’t stop, they don’t stop for anything, if they can help it. Now if you’re a policeman this is not only dangerous, but it also undermines your authority, bear in mind these police can be bribed with an apple (true story), they already have precious little authority. Whatever the reason most of Kampala’s traffic police opt to spend the vast majority of their time in stance one, blowing a whistle and waving at cars. Option one equals the path of least resistance.
The result is that you can sit at a junction in Kampala and not move for ten minutes or more while the police whistle enthusiastically. During this time a huge queue will build up. So huge that further down the line it starts to block up other junctions, cars give up waiting and perform risky and dangerous U-turns and then impatient drivers pull out and drive against the oncoming traffic forming new lanes with new queues and eventually totally blocking oncoming traffic. This chaos usually spreads just about far enough from the junction for it to overlap with the zone of mayhem from the next traffic cop doing exactly the same thing at another junction. Through this mechanism the traffic police manage to create a web of traffic disaster. You have to feel sorry for the traffic police. If there is one rule about driving in Uganda it is that there are no rules (though broadly speaking most cars stick to the left). This is not an easy environment in which to impose order with a whistle.
Traffic without rules is an interesting experience. It feels a lot more organic than the rigid rules of British driving. Congested traffic behaves more like a crowd of people. If you’ve ever been on the London underground at rush hour you’ll have experienced something similar. There are no road markings on the roads so lanes form and dissolve naturally depending on the number of vehicles the road can accommodate. No car automatically has priority over another car, priority is decided on a case by case basis and comes down to size, speed and aggression. You will never experience more efficient filtering. Every gap is exploited. Jams are literally bumper to bumper.
Remarkably there is very little road rage in Kampala. Clea did once see a man get out of his car and wave a handgun at a pedestrian that had caused him to break sharply, but apart from that this madness seemingly goes on without tempers fraying. This might seem remarkable, but when I think it through, it is kind of logical. In the UK road rage is usually fueled by the righteous indignation of certain drivers who get all hot and bothered about some other road users’ transgression perceived or otherwise. When reckless insanity is the norm and there are no rules to break what is there to get upset about?
No rules no rage, it’s the idealized rhetoric of an anarchists manifesto, but there are drawbacks to anarchy. In 2007 there were over 2,000 reported road traffic fatalities in Uganda , a similar number of deaths to the UK’s 2,222 fatalities in 2009. Uganda and the UK may have a similar number of fatalities, but the UK has twice the population of Uganda and a great many more cars and unfortunately many deaths go unreported in Uganda. Per capita the reported death rate is about 70% higher in Uganda and this statistic is compounded by the fact that Uganda has fewer roads. Uganda has only 70,000 sq km of road compared to the UK’s 394,000 (and 77% of Uganda’s roads are unpaved). On a death per km of road basis the rate of fatalities in Uganda is 5 times that of the UK and I’d expect any comparison of death per mile travelled to be even more damming.
Traffic control is clearly badly needed and one form of traffic control that has proliferated to a ridiculous degree in Uganda is the speedbump. They are in places almost as numerous as the potholes, or the inverse speedbump, which Kampala is famous for. In fact the two often go together which makes for some interesting topography. Potholes before and after speed bumps amplify the effect while speedbumps with potholes on top of them will eventually wear away, though before that occurs the bump will pass through a longitudinal volcano phase with the pothole creating an oval caldera, which is particularly interesting to negotiate when perched on the back of a Boda. So far I am yet to encounter a speedbump within a pothole, but surely it is just a matter of time. As a traffic calming measure the only thing that differentiates a pothole from a speedbump are the road markings; conveniently Ugandan speedbumps do not come with road markings, so there they are effectively the same thing and they can be just as dangerous and inconveniently placed. There is one speedbump near our house which has been positioned on a fairly fast bend, but only covering half the road. Rather than slow cars down this bump simply pushes them into oncoming traffic.
Potholes are the other major cause of congestion in Kampala. It is difficult to describe just how many of them there are and just how huge some of them have become. It is as if Kampala has recently endured a prolonged artillery bombardment or the roads have a terminal case of a degenerative wasting disease. In Kampala there is a saying: ‘if you’re driving in a straight line you must be drunk’. The roads have been left to rot. The worst roads in the country are in Kampala the country’s economic hub. I don’t know if it is indifference, incompetence, short-sightedness or the result of corruption. What I do know is when driving up a steep hill don’t stay too close behind a big lorry. The lorries can’t easily manoeuvre themselves around the worst potholes so hit them head on. When they hit a big one they loose momentum and can start to roll backwards.
Lorries roll backwards down hills not just because of the state of the road surface, but because the lorries are badly maintained. Clea and I once saw three lorries that had been involved in a pile up on the road from Kampala to Jinja. Two of them were upside down in a ditch at the side of the road, you could easily see that most of the 24 or so tyres on view were completely bald. They had been driving through a patch of rainforest.
The lack of any kind of vehicle safety certificate does have advantages. In the UK most cars are scrapped when they fail an MOT, when it is more economical to scrap a car than pay to make it safe. Ever wondered how long you can drive an unsafe car for before it stops working. It turns out it is a very long time indeed. Even on Kampala roads. Combine no road safety certificates with cheap labour and innovative mechanics and the life span of a car can be extended to an unfeasibly long time. The upshot of this is that cars devalue slower in Uganda than they would in the UK, which is remarkable considering the wear and tear a car sustains driving on Kampala’s roads. Having said that there is a limit, you’re not going to see a vintage car lovingly restored in Kampala. If you love your car you will get it out!
The below is a little video, hastily stuck together, of some of our driving in Kampala experiences.
 Ugandan road fatalities 2007.
 UK Road fatalities 2009