Last month, I had to attend a speed awareness course. I left my morning seminar resolved to follow all traffic rules and contribute to road safety. A few days later, as part of an East African research trip, I arrived in Kampala, which I’d been warned has terrible traffic, and a road death toll twice that of most other African countries. The roads are jammed with cars, with the matatu 14 seater taxis, with some very heroic cyclists, and above all with the boda-boda drivers and their passengers. “Boda-boda” apparently derives from the word border. Originally, these small motorcycles were used to smuggle goods between countries. Now they are used by everyone, even tourists, to weave through the traffic. People use them to get to work, they send them off to the shops on errands, they take their children to school on them…often whole families seem to be wedged on the seat behind the driver, clinging on for dear life.
I was doing research with disabled people in Uganda. One of my interviewees, I’ll call her Hope, was a person of restricted growth, like me. She explained that she also took boda-boda everywhere. If she went on the matatu taxis minibus, all the other passengers stared at her or asked stupid questions. The motorbike taxis were both fast and anonymous. In fact, she had invested her earnings from a short term contract with an NGO into buying two motorbikes herself. Now, young guys were driving her bikes and paying her a cut of the earnings. This is a common story. Salaries in the public sector are very low. Jobs in NGOs come and go. So when you have some money, you invest it in some land, or a shop or small business, or else you buy some motorbikes and lease them to a young man so he can work as a Boda-Boda driver.
Because that’s one of the benefits of the Boda-Boda business. Youth unemployment in Uganda, like other African countries, edges towards 40 or 50%. But these motorbike taxis give young men a source of livelihood. In fact, these drivers earn extremely well. Passengers pay about 10,000 Ugandan shillings, just over £2, per trip. After paying his petrol and bike lease costs, a Boda Boda driver might earn $10 per day, in a country where a nurse or teacher earns about $200 per month. In other words, if a driver works 6 days a week, he would earn more than a professional. And unlike in Burkina Faso or Rwanda, there’s no regulation, no training. Drivers learn to drive on the road, ignoring all traffic rules. As someone said to me, ‘if the guy just knows how to kick start, he’s on the road’. No wonder there are now estimated 300,000 Boda Boda drivers in Kampala alone, a city of 2 million people which swells to three that every day, when people come into the capital to work.
Apart from the traffic jams and the pollution, the major downside of Uganda’s Boda-Boda boom is the increase in road injuries. Each year, upwards of 3,000 motorcyclists are injured. There has been an initiative to promote the use of helmets, and I would estimate that at least half of the drivers I saw in Kampala and Entebbe were wearing helmets. But almost none of their passengers wear helmets. Drivers do not follow the Highway Code, even if they are aware of it. Most of them are uninsured. As a consequence, the wards at Mulago Hospital are full of Boda-Boda casualties. Mostly men and some women with head injuries or with lower limb injuries, overloading the public health system and losing their livelihoods and sometimes their lives.
On my way back from a research interview, we drove past Kampala’s Namboole Stadium, built by the Chinese and opened by Nelson Mandela. It’s a very impressive site. But in the car park next to it, I was surprised to see a huge fleet of buses parked up. Surprised, because there are no buses on the streets of Kampala, except for the long-distance coaches that come in from other Ugandan cities. The last regular urban bus service stopped in 1975. Each of these brand new orange Pioneer Buses, I learned, has the capacity of 3 matatu minibus taxis, or maybe 40 Boda Boda. But they are gathering dust in their car park.
The Pioneer bus company started in 2012, after a strike by the city’s matatu drivers brought business to a halt in Kampala. Investors bought the distinctive Chinese Yutong buses and promised a new efficient transport system for the capital. But the lack of designated bus lanes meant that the buses could not guarantee any faster arrival than the minibuses or Boda-Boda. The Uganda Revenue Authority then grounded the buses in December 2013, on the basis of an alleged failure to pay tax arrears. In May 2015, the dispute was settled, and the buses were back. But by February 2016, they were off the road again, due to some other bureaucratic dispute, and they’ve remained mothballed ever since.
All of this is public knowledge. But there’s a bit more to the story, according to people I talked to in Kampala. While it is in the interest of workers and shoppers and tourists to improve public transport in Kampala, it is not in the interest of either the matatu drivers, or the thousands of Boda-Boda drivers. An efficient bus system would destroy their livelihoods. The President of Uganda cannot afford to alienate large numbers of young men who would otherwise be voting for him. ‘I cannot allow this, my people are complaining”, says President Museveni. So, I am told,, the investors in the Pioneer bus company were paid off by the President himself, getting back their original stake plus interest, at a cost to the (highly indebted) Uganda Treasury of 2.7 billion Ugandan shillings or £500,000.
Because of the nightmare traffic, which they make worse, the Boda-Boda boys are essential to everyone in Kampala, to get to school or to get to work or to get to the shops. Yet the Boda-Boda also contribute to the terrible threat to public health, both through the ubiquitous pollution, but also to the awful road traffic injuries and deaths which result every day. A healthier and more sustainable solution is possible, and would greatly improve the city, but it would not be in the interests of the Boda-Boda and matatu drivers, and the owners of these vehicles, and consequently the people in charge block it, in order to keep on the right side of their voters. As a result, there’s no regulation of the Boda-boda, let alone buses to ease urban congestion. For short term gain, the country suffers long term loss, and environmental degradation. Uganda’s Boda-boda story seems to me a striking metaphor for global free market capitalism. Individually, we all benefit from the system, even though collectively, the system is badly in need of reform.