Kampala commute: the boda ride

I knew Johnny was an enterprising boda driver when he phoned me unprompted at eight thirty one morning and asked if I was ready to go to work. He had taken my number the day before after hailing him in the street. I was only just out of the shower; I told him to pick me up in twenty minutes. True to his word he stood by the roadside twenty minutes later with his arms tightly folded and leaning his small frame against his moped (or boda) – helmet hanging from the handlebars, light gleaming off metal – engaged in languid banter with our security guard in the morning sunshine. When I emerged onto the street he abruptly broke off the conversation and smiled at me, flicking his head back in a half-nod, half-twitch – a gesture that would soon become familiar.

Lorna and I moved out of our flat in Mengo just after Christmas of this year. The noise of the nightshifts at the waragi factory next door was unbearable. Neither of us were sleeping much. We’d wake regularly during the night to the sound of their generator or the stacking of boxes of booze in the yard. I’d look up in the darkness at some indeterminate hour to see Lorna sitting up and hunched over waiting for the latest tranche of noise to pass. I devised a system of blocking out the noise whereby I would insert my earplugs and then put on my headphones and play a relaxing classical playlist at full volume. It was not sustainable. I knew we had to go when I downloaded a decibel level app for my phone and tested the noise levels at various times of the day. It generally averaged out at 65 dB throughout the day and night. Illustratively known as the volume of laughter or washing machines, it is a noise level associated with heart circulation disease when one is chronically exposed to it.

We were given the chance to move into the country club in Makindye where we go to boxing training twice a week. A fortnight later we moved in. Not the authentic Mengo experience, but who am I trying to impress? I am not a twenty-one year old gap year student rebelling against their sterile suburban existence in the UK. The downside is that we can longer walk to work and have to commute to Mengo. This has opened up the world of boda-bodas to us.

Every morning Johnny picks me up. He follows the same script of conversation and yet appears spontaneous and sincere each time. In many ways he is the most sincere person I have met in Kampala.

“Morning Sebo. H-h-how was your morning?” he usually opens with as he pulls on his helmet, refreshingly unconscious of his stutter.

“Very good Johnny. How was yours?”

“Yeah. It was OK. Are you ready to go?”

I right myself on the back of his bike and clip together the chinstrap of my helmet. He pulls out into the cluttered flow of morning traffic with bodas, cars, and taxis. At this point I appreciate of the cooling air of the wind; already I feel the heat of my helmet and the tight padding around my head.

“It’s going to be hot today.” Johnny loves talking about the weather. He likes to update me on either the heat, the dust, or the rain. It’s usually the heat.

For the first part of the journey we drive north along Mobutu Road, a dusty thoroughfare lined with shops, stalls, bars with outdoor plastic seating, and markets. Over stalls and trees I can see the hills of Kampala covered dense green trees, exposed patches of sandy-red earth dotted with rusted iron roofs of shacks and red tiles of houses, and topped with radio masts. A chalky blue haze permanently lies over the city. At around this point I see a third-person image of myself on the boda and ask ‘How did this happen? How did events in my life conspire to mean that I ride a motorbike to work in Uganda?’ I evaluate the possibility of realistically turning into another African road death statistic that very morning. This feeling usually subsides and I start daydreaming and planning my workday ahead as is the way with commuters across the planet.

A few minutes into the commute begins the infamous Kampala traffic or ‘jam’ as it is know locally: lines of cars and minibuses at a standstill which could move in minutes or an hour. It’s impossible to predict. “Yeah, it’s the jam,” Johnny will often comment if it is particularly congested. Drivers sit in their cars with their windows down looking nonplussed and resigned to the delay. Bodas negotiate a way through the traffic, winding through stationary cars and driving on the opposite side of the road. In a car my commute would take up to two hours, on a boda it takes about fifteen minutes. A car is nevertheless considered the aspirational mode of transport. I get curious looks from Ugandans for being a mzungu on a boda; expats suck their teeth and remonstrate patronisingly when I tell them how I get to work (‘The number of admissions to Mulago Hospital due to bodas…’).

At the end of Mobutu Road we cross the Kibuye roundabout, where traffic flows into the city from Entebbe Road and the suburbs of Kampala around a central rectangular concrete clock tower painted red and white and emblazoned with an ‘Airtel’ logo. The traffic is a ceaseless whirlpool of cars and bodas; giving way is an alien concept, but somehow it works, like a shoal of fish that mysteriously swims as one. We turn off the roundabout at Kibuye Market where the traffic slows to walking pace, even for bodas. Women stand behind piles of mangos, plantains, and pineapples selling their goods. Cages of filthy chickens are piled six feet tall. People and stray pieces of fruit overflow into the road beside a row of minibus taxis. A mildly putrid smell blending petrol fumes, rotting fruit, and ubiquitous wood smoke rises with the morning heat. Johnny weaves through the throng, often with the engine off walking the boda along with his feet like a bicycle.

Sights like these shape how I see Kampala. On a commute in the open air you have direct contact with the working lives of the populous: the smells, the noise, the clamour, the minutiae of a modern African city. The city is a palimpsest of images in my mind’s eye that I can no longer place in time: a foot-long fish handing off a boda wing mirror with its beady eye starting at me; traffic police in clean white jumpsuits, with black gloves, boots, belts, and berries, autocratically directing vehicles; an ashen faced driver nervously inching his car forward through a growing and incensed mob clamouring for justice after he knocked a boda driver off his bike; two spooked cows running down the wet clay road of a slum; hundreds of bats flying over the cityscape through the heavy purple sky at sunset. It is an impression of a bright dusty city imposed upon the jungle and hills on the shore of Lake Victoria.

Johnny takes a side street after the market and drives past a huge brown boxlike building with ‘XING XING FUNITURE’ in bright red letters displayed along its roof; two iron Chinese lions guard the entrance. Here we turn onto the ring road that the surrounds the grounds of the Kabaka Palace, the seat of the king of the Bugandan people, the largest tribal group in Uganda. The enclosure is an oval area about a kilometre in breadth comprised of fields, gardens, and small outbuildings for staff. From the back of the boda, all I can see is the surrounding battered brick wall and matooke trees poking over the top. Everyday I see the same homeless man sitting beneath the outside wall. His clothes are filthy, his hair is matted, and inexplicably he usually balances a small brown sack on his head, with eyes staring into his own world. Builders and stacks of long thin logs and small garages with oily piles of car parts and rusted chassis heaped in front line the other side of the road. Goats hop amongst the flotsam looking for food. The palace, a wide colonial-style mansion with a bronze dome, sits on the north end of the grounds at the top of Balange Hill. It looks directly towards the Bugandan Parliament, another white colonial-looking building with a central spire. Connecting the two is the ‘Royal Mile’, a wide avenue that dips down from the palace and back up to the parliament. The Bugandan king was allegedly so impressed by the Edinburgh’s own Royal Mile during an overseas visit that he insisted on having one of his own.  At the mid-point of the Royal Mile there is a small roundabout where recently a twenty-foot tall concrete drum was built in to celebrate the Kabaka’s sixtieth birthday. The drum is split in two so that instead of driving around the roundabout, the Kabaka, and only the Kabaka, can drive through it in a straight line from the palace to the parliament. Superstitious Bugandans will tell you ‘the Kabaka does not turn corners.’

Like its Scottish namesake, Kampala’s Royal Mile offers glimpses into its country’s past. Next to the county court halfway along the avenue there is a grassy field with four or five long-horned Ugandan cattle grazing. Further up the hill beside the parliament is a large plot of land where palms and creepers and unquelled jungle surround a small bungalow, like a square of rural life transplanted into the heart of the city. Under the trees women in long florid dresses and headscarves sit on stools in front of tables covered in a medley of used plastic bottles containing clear liquid. Johnny told me that these women sell homebrew. Scenes such as these are reminders that Kampala is a new city and Uganda is a new nation. What has taken over a thousand years of development in Europe has been shoehorned into a hundred years here. It is the continuing birth of a city, and perhaps more broadly, a nation, raw and striving. I saw a drawing online of the Kabaka’s palace at the time of itinerant journalist Henry Stanley’s visit here in 1875. The palace grounds and the Royal Mile resembled how they look today, but the surrounding area was dense jungle and towering palms. Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is virtually unchanged since then. I can’t help but wonder what changes have occurred over each Ugandan’s lifetime since then? What were Johnny’s relatives doing in 1875?

On the other side of the parliament we arrive in Mengo, a bright and leafy photo-4Bugandan suburb, with palm trees and matooke growing in gardens of steel roofed shacks and bungalows, among red clay roads and waste ground. You can walk along a road in Mengo and believe you are in a rural village. Johnny has to wind through another clot of jam before we arrive at the babies’ home. My commute is over.

“We have arrived sebo”, Johnny tells me with a flourish as we pull up to the security gate.

I take off my helmet and slap a couple of notes into his hand.

“Webale nyo sebo.” I reply, utilising about fifty per cent of my Lugandan vocabulary.

“O-OK.“ He smiles and flicks his head back. “I see you evening. You give me a call,” he says, scripted and sincere.

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