The Kampala Commute
by Andrew Huelsenbeck, K16 Kiva Fellow, BRAC Uganda
Many Kiva Fellows have some pretty crazy commutes. This is a post about what it’s like getting around town in Kampala, Uganda.
When it comes to rush hour chaos, New York City- even with its road-raging bridge-and-tunnelers- has nothing on Kampala. From about seven to nine thirty in the morning and five to eight in the evening, the city center’s tight, dusty roads transform into parking lots packed with big rigs carting petrol or bricks or other cargo; coach buses coming from or going to Kenya or Burundi or various other East African countries; all kinds of family cars; and shoddy white Chinese-made passenger vans called mutatus.
Matatus (also known as taxis) seem to be the preferred mode of transportation for the Kampala commuter for a few reasons: they are bountiful, they have routes to all corners of the city, they are cheap, and they will make pickups almost anywhere along the roadside. The second-hand vans have a lot of room—there are 3 rows of seats in the back, the front two of which have extra seats that fold down to take full advantage of the space. Usually, the seat by the sliding door in the back is occupied by a conductor, who yells out to potential passengers and collects fares. The maximum number of passengers is legally 14, but I’ve seen up to 16 or so commuters packed into a van. Many of my colleagues at BRAC use taxis to get to and from work. I use them mostly for field visits and for traveling to other cities near Kampala.
Zipping through all of the taxis and other larger vehicles are motorbikes called boda bodas, the second most popular way to commute. Drivers usually hang out together and pick up passengers from “stages” that are close to where the drivers live. The boda bodas have long, leather seats behind the drivers that can usually fit one, two (or if you’re Ugandan, three) commuters or some cargo. Boda drivers are fast, fearless and often furiously zigzag along the paths of least resistance, regardless of how precarious. This kind of driving makes commuting on a boda boda quick, but very very dangerous.
Everyone here has a boda story, and quite a few Kampalans can substantiate their tales with scars that span halfway up their arms or legs. A German friend that worked at a local hospital stopped riding boda bodas after discovering how many patients were admitted because of one bad move by a boda boda man. Despite all of this, I still ride bodas every day to get to work and to get around town. I just make sure to wear a helmet.
Besides the hand signals of a few traffic police and the loosely-adhered-to notion that cars should stay to the left, any maneuvers to hasten the commute are fair game. These include but are not limited to driving on the shoulder, driving in the wrong lane, cutting people off, “love tapping,” and good ol’ trailblazing. There are also no emissions requirements. It took me a while, but I’ve finally gotten used to the dust and the thick, purple clouds of petrol smoke that often hang above the roadways.'
Kampala’s dusty roads struggle to support all this hectic traffic. They have begun to erode from constant use and frequent heavy rain, and they are now covered with potholes. The problem is so bad that some Kampalans have begun to jokingly refer to their city as “Kampothole.”
Last year, a research group actually attempted to count all the holes in the road, and discovered that the city center alone has almost 2,500 of them. Some of them are like the potholes we are used to—small enough that cars can pass over relatively unscathed; many others, however, occupy half the road and require drivers to swerve onto the shoulder or into oncoming traffic so as to avoid ruining their rides’ undercarriages.
Efforts to fix Kampala’s streets are led by the Kampala Capital City Authority. A few months back, the organization requested 345 billion Ugandan Shillings from the national government for repairing the potholes and other damage sustained by Kampala’s 900-kilometer road network. They were only granted 45 billion though, which is still a step up from the 15 billion they were working with last year.
Andrew Huelsenbeck is a Kiva Fellow currently working in Kampala with BRAC Uganda. To learn more about BRAC, please visit their Kiva Partner Page. If you are interested in helping to empower one or more of BRAC’s many wonderful entrepreneurs, you can join the Friends of BRAC Uganda lending team or check out new BRAC Uganda loans on Kiva.org. Happy lending!