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The boda drivers of Uganda

I wouldn’t be the first to write about them. The Ugandan newspapers mostly write about their dangers and I’m almost sure every foreign person who travels to Uganda mentions something about them after their trip; boda bodas. So maybe this post is full of clichés. But I also cannot not write about them. When I had a car, I barely used boda bodas. Now I don’t have a car anymore, I am back to using them every day. And although I get scared as hell in Ugandan traffic sometimes, I still love sitting on the back of those crazy motor cycles too.

Some people only use the word ‘boda’ once, others always say it double; ‘boda boda’. In Swahili they call them ‘piki piki’ and I’ve also heard people talk about ‘taking a Bajaj’. (This is apparently a good boda brand and when you want to get a Bajaj, you basically say that you want to sit on the back of a fairly expensive and fast motor cycle while someone drives you to where you want to go). The word ‘boda’ actually comes from ‘border’. I heard a story that in the 60s and 70s, at the border of Kenya and Uganda, smugglers would transport people without valid documents from one side of the border to the other. They would have to hide in half filled coffee bags and this boda trip wasn’t anything like the comfortable rides I experience these days. Other people say that smugglers didn’t actually illegally transport people but that it was all about the coffee, which would bring in a lot of money. In any case: the word ‘boda boda’ is derived from a bicycle without an engine that went from one side of Ugandan-Kenyan border to the other. I was told that nowadays, in the whole of East Africa, bodas are used as a means of transport.

Nowhere do bodas seem as unmanageable as in Kampala. In Kampala, bodas are everywhere. You cannot walk for longer than a few seconds without seeing or hearing a boda. At the biggest crossroads, every few minutes about one hundred to two hundred (if not more) gather together in front of all the cars to launch off as fast as lightning when the traffic lights turn to green. (Or when the traffic controller allows them to move when the traffic lights don’t work, or when the boda driver sees another possibility to move). I wonder if Kampala has more bodas than Amsterdam has bicycles. I also wonder what percentage of Kampala’s population actually works as a boda driver. Such numbers are almost impossible to estimate.

As far as I understand, there are no real regulations for boda drivers in Uganda. You could just wake up any morning and – if you have a boda or have money to buy one – decide to start driving people around and make some money off of it. I personally love that about Uganda; anything seems possible here. Uganda has so many entrepreneurs and a lot of people have even more than one business. Although the rules are unclear, the Ugandan government obviously does try to put regulations in place. It seems more than logical that a boda driver should pay a fee for using the Ugandan road system, for instance. But I also understand many boda drivers’ comments against it: barely anything is done to improve the road network (which looks like a Swiss cheese at times, full of potholes everywhere) – so why should they pay? Something else the Ugandan government tries to get a grip on, is the safety of boda drivers, their clients and their fellow road users. I believe that officially you’re not allowed to sit on a boda with more than two people (one driver, one passenger). However, a lot of people share a boda (one driver, two passengers) and once in a while, a boda with three, four, five or even six people passes you. Not only do bodas transport people, they also transport stuff. Bunches of bananas, construction materials, jerrycans tied together, spare parts for other bodas or cars, boxes with food, chickens (both dead and alive), goats (mostly alive, with their legs bound by a rope), chairs, cupboards, matrasses and even beds and coffins. I’m surprised how many boda drivers in Kampala still don’t use a helmet. The police will stop you if they catch you driving without a helmet but the problem is that boda drivers shoot away like mice once they see a police officer about to catch them. Clients (including myself) rarely wear helmets and police also won’t force them to. I guess that the mentality is that you never know when and where you’ll catch a boda and then you have to carry your big heavy helmet along with you all day.

A lot of boda drivers are members of a ‘stage’. A stage is a place where boda drivers usually start and end their day. It's the place from where they work. With the other drivers of their stage, they come together as a team and discuss their business (or their women or other vital matters). I picture some stages to be very close groups where they also organise events or save for repairs together – while at other stages, drivers are more like dormant members. Most stages seem to have about ten to fifty members. But I may be wrong about that, as I often think to see things in Uganda and later find out that they are very different from what I saw in the first place. What I do know for sure is that it’s safer to take a boda from a stage if you want to go from A to B because it means the driver is being watched by his fellow stage members. As a passenger, you are therefore being watched too. Because of the lack of regulations and enforcement for boda drivers, someone who says he is a boda driver could pick you up while he’s driving a stolen motorcycle and plans on robbing you too. People tell each other stories of people gone missing because they’ve taken the wrong boda guy. I shiver at the thought of what must have happened to these people.

There are two guys from the boda stage around the corner of our house who usually drive me to work in the morning. I have their phone numbers too and sometimes they even drive Nyla home from school for free. (Which is literally 500 meters and I just walk next to the boda then – but Nyla loves this when she’s tired after school and the guys seem happy too to have that funny little girl on their boda when they have no other customer anyway). On my way home, I don’t always use bodas from a stage. If I think about this long enough, I find myself stupid not to do so. But I guess life just goes pretty fast sometimes and I feel like I don’t always have a choice. It would mean a whole lot more organising, it would be more expensive (because I would have to call someone instead of use the first boda that comes up to me on the streets) and sometimes I just want to go somewhere quick. I’ve learned to use all my senses in order to decide on which boda to take. The moment I leave a place where I’ve been working, bodas may whistle, raise their arm, drive at me with full speed or stop right next to me when they’ve approached me from behind. I’ve learned to stay calm, observe them, look at their boda, the way they look, the way in which they greet me, even take in the way they smell and then negotiate the price. If something doesn’t feel right, I don’t take the boda. I walk on and wait for another boda guy to stop. All of this usually happens in less than a minute. It can be stressful and annoying but it’s always quite an adventure too.

Now the rainy season has started, I often wonder how boda drivers do it. On the better roads, they can still drive in the rain. But many roads get muddy and some even become inaccessible. A lot of people don’t leave their houses in the rain. So, during the rainy season, a boda driver must have less clients. Will they prepare themselves for this, like farmers prepare their land for the rain? As a boda driver, it must be hard to get by already. For most rides, I give them 5000 Ugandan Shillings, the equivalent of about €1,25. Deduct the costs of petrol and the maintenance of their vehicle and I wonder what a boda driver is left with on an average day. When I recently asked one of the guys who usually drive me to work if the rain didn’t affect him too much, his answer was that the rain disciplines him. It seemed like such a positive approach to me and I decided I also need to be more disciplined and still leave the house when it rains (because on those days, I mostly decide I will work from home).

I often have funny conversations with boda drivers and if my Luganda was better, I am sure I would overhear many more funny conversations of boda drivers at their stages. Yesterday, a boda driver without a helmet took me home. I didn’t actually want to go with him but he insisted and I somehow felt a little sorry for him. He promised me to pick up his helmet on the way. I was 99% sure that was a lie but I still hopped on and told him we could go. (‘Tugende’, in Luganda). As we were driving, I asked him if the police were not going to stop him for not wearing a helmet. He answered that they couldn’t. We were driving pretty fast, had to shout to hear each other and I decided to leave the conversation at that. A few minutes later, he started again. ‘My dad is a military man, you know’. I started to understand him better. Because his father was in the military, he thought that no police man could really fine or harm him. He would just tell them he was the son of so-and-so or call his dad if they didn’t believe him. For me, it also explained why I had felt a little sorry for him. It must be hard, thinking like that. Thinking that you have a status, yet you also have to work hard to earn a bit of money as a boda driver and your way of thinking prevents you from making the smartest decisions for your health and safety. It must be confusing. ‘No other driver can see that your dad is a military man so whenever you get an accident while driving without a helmet, you’re still in trouble’ – I could not not say it. He just grinned. He had initially asked me a price that I knew was way too high but after our negotiation, had dropped his price to a too low amount. I had hopped on and decided to see what I would give him once we arrived. We had to go quite a distance. When we finally got home, I gave him something extra. It’s funny how I thought he was a bit of a coward and I wanted to help him at the same time.

Another boda driver that I have known for a while now, invited Nyla and me at his home a couple of days back. We were on our way to a friend and he ‘kindly requested’ if we could make a short stop at his home. I said it was ok. We met his wife and two young children (plus a lot of kids from the neighbours) and I was allowed to flip through their book with wedding pictures. This boda driver was an ambitious guy and told me many stories about how he wanted to work hard to make money and buy a car. He would then become an Uber driver. He said he was serious and hated it about Uganda that so many people are not serious enough. How would the country ever move forward? This boda driver worked hard, often seven days a week, went to church before work on most Sundays and did not drink any alcohol. His boda was clean like a newly constructed shopping mall and he drove very well, stopping at red traffic lights and at times waiting for people to cross. I felt a lot of respect towards this guy.

So, I do travel on bodas with my 2-year old daughter, which may sound extremely dangerous to everyone in the Netherlands (and to some people here too), but again I feel like I don’t always have a choice. If I want to have a bit of a life and take her to other places than her preschool, it’s our main means of transportation. Nyla actually loves traveling by boda. Not every Ugandan would allow their young kids to travel on a boda but a lot of people do it – even one day old babies wrapped in a huge number of blankets are taken on the back of a boda by their mothers and aunties. Some bodas pick up five kids from school at once. The little ones usually sit in front of the driver while the slightly bigger ones get a seat at the back. I find the idea of Nyla sharing a boda with other kids very scary and will not allow her that until she’s much more grown. And I still prefer to not travel long distances on a boda, especially not with Nyla. But well - I guess I try to integrate too.

What I actually should and will do after finishing this writing, is get the Safe Boda app, especially for my rides with Nyla. I stopped being interested in getting this app when I read that Google and Shell have shares in it but that doesn’t mean the app doesn’t work well. Next to being part of a stage, drivers have to have a couple of years of experience as a driver before they can become a Safe Boda driver. When you open the Safe Boda app, you can look on the map and see if there’s a Safe Boda closeby, then confirm if you want to order him to come pick you up. You can easily recognize the Safe Bodas by their orange jackets and helmets. I believe that the idea was once that a Safe Boda also has to have a helmet for his passengers but sadly I’ve never seen this. Nevertheless, Safe Bodas are better than most other bodas and very necessary too. I don’t want to end this piece with a negative message but the number of boda accidents are incredibly high. But that's something the newspapers already write about, as I started with, and a lot more can be written about bodas, as I just did. Because bodas are amazing too.

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