The Wild Wild South – Transport in Uganda

After much positive feedback for my first blog entry, I have decided to follow up with another article but this time more specifically focusing on one particular aspect. So, my decision fell to transportation in Uganda because I have daily experience with it and it is something that lives from participation than simple statistics. It might sound boring in the first place, nevertheless bear with me, it is seriously one of the most adventurous features of life in Uganda. I will start off with the main topic, namely boda bodas (check my previous post on that) and then continue to speak about Uber, taxis, overland taxi drives and simply walking on foot. When I speak about prices, keep in mind that 1 Euro is worth around 4000 UGX (Ugandan Schilling) and 1 Dollar is worth 3300 – 3600 UGX (depending on how valuable your bills are that you bring to the currency exchange office).
As previously mentioned, boda boda are motorcycles that can carry up to two people additional to the driver. They are literally abound in the whole city (and everywhere else) and I assume that they constitute the employment ability no. 1 for the thousands of (uneducated) people without jobs here in the city. To get a feeling how populous they are, imagine that if I walk 250-300m to my closest supermarket, I am generally asked between 4-8 times by passing boda boda drivers if I need their service. Sometimes they stop and ask you, sometimes they raise their hand when you have eye contact or sometimes they just shout at you. Normally it is enough to shake your head, sometimes you even have to explain that you do not need the boda. The most pervasive places are at junctions inside the city or at remote places where you happen to be the only customer. It happened that while waiting for an Uber for five minutes over 20 boda boda drivers made their quick request and some did not want to understand that I really did not need them. I had cases where they even blocked my path over the street so they can talk to me. The most intense experience was in Jinja, a city 70-80km away from Kampala, where I dropped off with a friend at a gasoline station and within seconds we were surrounded by 6 boda bodas that appeared like some gang. But they only wanted to make a buck and almost competed with each other who can drive us.

Once you agree to a boda boda ride, the bargaining process starts. You always have to keep in mind that it is buyers market. Supply outstrips demand by a huge magnitude. So you have a lot of bargaining power as a customer. Typically, you should have the price in mind beforehand. A typical conversation follows like that:

Me: “Hey, Ggaba Road, Shell gasoline station, 5000 UGX”

Boda boda driver: “8000”

Me: “No, 5000, I know the road”

Boda boda driver: “6000”‘

Me: “No, 5000, or I go to another boda boda”

(10-15 seconds silence)

Boda boda driver: “Let`s go” or “Please, take a sit”

Now the real fun parts begins. Boda boda drivers here have no sense of traffic rules and are masters in finding small spots between cars. If you are an European that gets angry when motorcylists squezze themselves between the cars during a jam on a highway, you will get a heart attack here. Boda Boda drivers use every little centimeter they can find between cars, trucks, and other boda bodas to get through the traffic. I have seen boda bodas to circumvent jams by driving on the neighbouring lane in the wrong direction. There is no traffic light that bounds them anyhow, no obstacle on the street they do not dare to overcome with their cunning driving skills. This leads to frequent accidents (in which I was almost involved). So no surprise, but here in Kampala is a hospital only dedicated for boda boda accidents. I witnessed one accident with my own eyes while I was in the front seat of my Uber. On 6th Street a boda boda driver with a passenger hit a pedestrain crossing the street directly with around 20-25 km/h. The front parts of the motorcycle were spread all over the street, the driver rested for some minutes and then stood up again, whereas the pedestrian was holding his probably broken leg while lying on the ground.

In order to mitigate these instances, there is an application for smartphones called “Safe Boda Boda”, in which registered boda boda drivers carry a helmet for the passenger and drive with reflective vests. But their driving skills are no different.

Due to these kind of experiences, I almost only drive with Uber now. For long distances, it anyway does not make any price difference and the risks are to high to justify 2000 UGX savings per ride. Uber here works fantastically well. You just enter your departure point and destination and after some time the driver picks you up. Sometimes, it is hard for the driver to find you, even if you send him you live location, so you have to either call or text message him the details. Prices for Uber are really cheap, typically ranging from 6000 – 10.000 UGX depending on traffic, distance and time. However, there are also negative sides on that matter. First, I am not allowed to use my smartphone while having an open window. There were numerous cases in which boda boda drivers just grabbed the phone during the ride of a passenger. Second, the Uber driver immediately locks the door if he sees that you are a White since there were instances in which passengers were robbed while waiting at a junction or during high traffic. 

Third, traffic is really intense during rush hour, so it takes sometimes really long to drive even one kilometer. I was several times late to appointments because of that. Fourthly, while standing in jams often people come and want to sell you at your window almost everything, from chewing gum to oversized world maps. Sometimes children come to the window, knock and beg for money. Lastly, the prices are way too low for Uber drivers. They almost all complain that the prices only allow to go break-even with their expenditures. However, fares are determined by Uber, so their complaints do not have any substantial effect. For car experts, the main brand driven in Uganda is Toyota. Basically every Uber ride I had was with a Toyota.

This brings me to overland “busses” and taxis. Here are many cheap in-town white taxi vans with blue stripes that ride on predefined routes. However, they are so cramped and full of people that I have actually never taken them. Often you find some Chinese sings on them, or some slogan written on the front window like “God is great”, “Allah is almighty”, “Jesus is our savior”, etc. I took one overland bus to the town of Jinja for 6000 UGX. It was full of people (otherwise they do not start) for a 3 hours ride. In my row were four people supposed to sit, we ended up with five. Forget about European safety standards. All cars and busses that are outdated and not allowed in the EU or US are here. This also pertains in particular to environmental matters. The exhaust pipes have no filters or catalysators. It usually occurs that when you ride a boda boda you can be unlucky and enjoy the fragrance of an exhaust pipe of an old van for a long time. I assume lung cancer will be here a big problem in 15-20 years. 

Last but not least, you can of course walk here on foot. It is not really recommended because outside of the city center and some better quaters, there are virtually no designated pavements for pedestrians. You basically just walk on the streets where boda bodas, cars and trucks pass you. This is pretty dangerous at night, when you walk and thanks to no street lights in some parts you do not see the 30-70cm ditch alongside the road in which you can fall (especially when car lights blind you and you walk at the edge). By the way, you also should not take a boda boda at night because there were instances of White people being driven to remote places and robbed. Not happened to me, but I refuse this challenge. Another precaution is that you should not use your smartphone openly on the street while walking, a boda boda driver can quickly snatch it. But overall, if you know the rules of the streets (and you realize them very quickly), it is perfectly fine to travel here. Going tomorrow on a nice, 5-hours overland bus trip to Fort Portal. 

2 thoughts on “The Wild Wild South – Transport in Uganda

  1. I was using matatus, boda boda’s and Ugandan „taxis“ (minibuses) on daily basis in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda for 6 months. It was quite an adventure and it happened to me several times, that I had to ask the driver to slow down – not always succesfully. However, the worst nightmare are night long travel coaches. I took them four times to save money for bed and it was always horrible experience. And little advice – if you are going to go to Kabale, do not take minibus to get there. It was the craziest downhill (no matter the speed bumbs) I have ever experienced. I was expecting death any second.

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