Rob Gipman on flickrTravel in Africa
has always been precarious but somehow, sometimes miraculously, one usually
gets from point A to point B, and often on time too. Instead of modern,
efficient and congested subway systems — too difficult and costly to construct
— urban Africa moves above ground.

Though overshadowed
by Nairobi, the current regional hub of eastern Africa, Kampala is catching up
fast, thanks to the mobile phone (which reached here several years before Kenya)
and the wheel. While it is normal to take two hours to cross downtown Nairobi,
longer when it rains, Kampala has the “boda-boda”, the motorcycle taxis, which
move you around fast. In Nairobi they hardly exist.

“Boda” – the word
is said twice for the sake of euphony — is a corruption and local
pronunciation of the word “border”, the Kenya-Uganda border where the service
originated many years ago, both as a means of goods transport and smuggling and
for passengers. The boda-boda has many advantages: it takes you exactly where
you want to go; it is a refreshing ride under the tropical sun; it is not bound
by the same rules as heavier vehicles, except at traffic lights; it can carry
as many as can fit safely; it is fast and efficient, and not expensive. It can
also be hair-raising, as it weaves in and out of jams, measuring its way
carefully between parked cars, its side mirrors skillfully missing the vehicles
it brushes past.

Besides its local
colour and pinch of excitement, the boda also provides a politically powerful
lobby. The police have tried arresting drivers who not wearing helmets in
accordance with recent regulations, often comically as the drivers wriggled
past them at controls. Passengers also without helmets were for a couple of
days dragged off slow-moving bodas at traffic lights by police, but the sector
protested, and the authorities have reached a compromise: drivers must wear
helmets (which, owing to the heat are uncomfortable), while passengers may
choose. Many young boda drivers are ready to support a local politician or
tycoon “godfather”, or at a moment’s notice to down tools and join in a riot if
their culture or rights are not respected.

In Kampala alone
there are some 40,000 bodas, all manned by youth or older married men from
central Uganda. Their service is as crucial as their political support; they
are effectively “untouchable”.

But the boda is
not only a carrier of people – and it’s not uncommon of a weekend to see a
whole family squeezed behind the driver, with the youngest one or two seated on
the petrol tank between driver and handle-bars. It has replaced the pack
animal. I have seen a boda carrying a coffin (presumably empty), a whole pig —
mouth agape — for Easter Sunday lunch, fifteen plastic chairs at once, a
passenger holding plate glass panels, Nile Perch from Lake Victoria jumping
around in a plastic bag, crates of eggs, soft drinks, sprawling bunches of
plantain, and even another motor-cycle strapped onto the passenger seat.

alpha4521 on flickrThe original boda
was a bicycle, and still is in remote areas, which, in turn, replaced the
donkey cart. Bicycles carry incredible burdens too; with enough strap it’s
amazing what you can do. To see one bicycle carrying a bed is not unusual, even
all the living-room furniture, sofa set, cushions and cupboard; and this in the
confusion of mid-day traffic. Some bodas advertise their driver’s beliefs below
the headlights: “I love Jesus” is common. “Jesus loves U” might be the answer
of a 15-seater Nissan taxi the boda is overtaking at one of the notorious
potholes of Kampala, the biggest of which have even been given names!

Walking one day
along the main street, Kampala Road, I also noticed these slogans on taxi windscreens:
Patience Pays; Big Wallet; One Man’s Meat; Slow but Sure; Not all Africans are
Black; Ibanda Boyz (a local band), Trouble 1 (“trouble” means there’s no
solution not even in adaptable Africa); PUSH (not exactly a recommendation),
and many with captions praising God: Bismillahi (In God’s Name); God is Great;
God’s Plan, God’s Mercy, St Noah (one of the Ugandan martyrs) and the most
popular UK soccer teams: Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool.

The taxi and the
taxi-driver reflect the local personality and culture. For example, there’s a
story of a Kenyan rugby sevens team visiting Kampala, and, as they would have
done in Nairobi but in conflict with the more sedate Ugandan manners, they showed
a bit of impatience to get on. As strict rules apply on the number of
passengers allowed, an equal number of Ugandans voluntarily alighted to make
way for the visitors to board, and waited for another taxi to come along.   

In Kampala
passengers pay the conductor as they alight; in Nairobi you pay when you board.
In Kampala the touts are witty and persistent but respectful; in Nairobi they
just want to pack everyone in fast and move off. In Ugandan taxis the local
radio station provides soft background music and political or soccer
commentary, and passengers don’t hesitate to courteously correct the driver or
conductor and ask to reduce or increase the volume; in Nairobi the music is rap
and rock, and deafening but the conductors have a quick tongue and few dare
take them on.

Different styles,
but with the same purpose: to meet the needs of the millions of daily commuters
with a minimum of formality; but passengers must take a good dose of faith and
be prepared for every kind of “spontaneity”, the lubricant of life in Africa.

Martyn Drakard writes from
Kampala, in Uganda.

Martyn Drakard is a retired teacher of languages who lives in Kenya.