Riding boda boda in Uganda

Most of us seemed to be enjoying the journey half asleep. It was lovely being able to doze considering we were travelling in a 14-seater minibus carrying 18 passengers, packed in like bags of maize in a lorry. The mud, potholes and meandering cattle and goats did not interrupt our journey.
A mechanical breakdown did.

The driver slowed down, as if he was about to dodge another pothole, but this time he stopped. The turnboy—as the conductor is known—got out of the minibus and wriggled under the van to take a look. After about five minutes I heard him telling the driver in Runyankole, a local language, “it’s died again”.

At this point I was almost in the middle of my journey from the western Ugandan town of Mbarara to deep down in Mbuga, my home village and the centre of cattle keepers in Kiruhura district. I was on my way to visit my Old Boy (best friend) to sell the two cows he gave me when I graduated. We’d travelled about 16km when the bus broke down and I had another 20km to go to reach Mbuga.

After the “death” of the minibus, as the turn-boy called it, there was nothing else for it but to find a boda boda ride to reach my destination. Luckily we broke down in a small market town, Itara. A boda boda is the local name for the motorcycle taxi service available throughout Uganda. They are uncomfortable and accident-prone and there are hardly ever helmets for passengers, or even the drivers.

In Kampala and my hometown, Mbarara, I use boda bodas all the time, so I am used to the discomforts. In Itara there were only four boda boda cyclists. I carefully inspected their motorbikes and discreetly checked out the drivers to see which one looked the most reliable and the least likely to take my pocket for a ride. I chose to go with a man who looked a bit older and more trustworthy than the others, and whose bike was slightly cleaner. He greeted me humbly and asked me where I was going. I told him.

“Mbuga — ?” he appeared to be in deep thought for a moment, then told me the charge would be 20 000 shillings (about R100).

It is not wise in Uganda to accept the amount specified by a boda boda cyclist before bargaining, lest you pay twice as much as the actual the fee.

Using tricks acquired since childhood, I haggled him down and we agreed on 15 000 shillings. I placed my bag in front of me, on the cushions provided behind the driver’s seat, and sat myself firmly on the carrier as we took off.

We had hardly driven a block down the road when the boda boda man asked me whether I had seen any petrol stations in their small town. It might come as a surprise to some, but in rural areas in Uganda there are often no petrol stations. He then asked me where I expected him to get the petrol from and started demanding the original fee of 20 000 shillings.

I could tell this was going to be a tiresome journey.

As we continued on our way, he answered the questions he had posed about petrol. He told me boda boda drivers get fuel from black markets and at higher prices. He lamented that because of the increased price of fuel in Mbarara, black marketeers in the area had also raised their prices. He seemed unaware that fuel prices had soared worldwide. I tried to ignore him because his breath was not appealing, but he continued talking—like taxi drivers everywhere he never shut up—and eventually I just gave in to his bad breath and ceaseless chatter.

After only another 2km he rode slowly towards some building in another trading centre and stopped, lowering the stands of his motorbike. He told me to step down, but I didn’t trust him not to drive away, so I stayed put on the motorcycle. He asked me to give him 10 000 shillings. Seeing little choice if I was to reach my destination, I gave him the money, but the driver could not have failed to notice my frowning face.

Perhaps that’s why he left his keys in the ignition—as a sign that I could trust him, at least after he’d got my money. In a few minutes he was back with a five-litre jerrycan of petrol, which he poured into the tank before throwing down the jerrycan and telling a young boy loitering nearby to pick it up. He started the motorcycle and, in a wink of an eye, we were flying along the road.

Now it seemed we were well and truly on our way, I felt more kindly towards the bike man and asked him his name. John Biryabarema told me he had dropped out of school when he thought that his future would be bleak. But now, at the age of 29, he had distinguished himself as a self-made man with a host of stunning achievements to his name. Within five years, he said, he had managed to transform himself from high school dropout to respectable citizen with property and prospects—an iron-roofed house and a farm with more than 50 Ankole long-horned cows, all provided by his motorbike taxi trade. He told me he makes between 20 000 and 30 000 shillings a day and is married with two sons.

John is typical of hundreds of thousands of boda boda drivers that ply their trade all over Uganda, including in Kampala, driving like crazy in rush hour traffic jams and running red traffic lights. Like many young men at the mercy of unemployment, self-employment as a boda boda rider is often seen as the only liberator. It’s better than hanging around the villages with no money, getting up to no good.

Before long two white men, crammed on to one motorbike with a driver, flew past us. This prompted John to ask me whether, like them, I was a researcher. He said he’d often given them lifts on their way to do research on the Ankole long-horned cattle.

I told him I was travelling to Mbuga to the home of my Old Boy to sell two cows. John took this opportunity to warn me that cow prices were low, though meat prices were high in butcheries. Like taxi drivers everywhere, he knows everything—or at least has an opinion on everything.

By now we were nearing a big pond of stagnant water in the middle of the road. We had covered 13km and it had taken us an hour and a half. By now I was tired and sweating.

As my cyclist braked to find the string-like path on the side of the water, another boda boda cyclist approached from the opposite direction with a goat on his carrier. He dashed past, soaking us with huge drops of muddy water. “Hold tight,” John shouted as, wet and muddy, we started the long climb up a hill.

The driver and I had bonded by now—we were in this together, and I had long ago stopped worrying about his smelly breath.

John turned off the ignition and we free-wheeled down the other side of the hill. This is a popular method among boda boda cyclists to save on petrol. But when bikeman tried to reignite his machine by kicking the ignition pedal, he instead kicked my right foot so hard I felt like hitting him with a fist. Maybe we weren’t so bonded after all.

As we made our final approach to Mbuya the swampy path blocked us from riding further. Folding my trousers up to my thighs to avoid soiling them, we pushed the motorbike into town.

John stopped the bike under a big acacia tree. He pulled out a brown handkerchief and wiped the sweat off his face and cleared his throat. The sun was setting. I was also wiping the dust off my shirt and mud off my trousers when my Old Boy came towards me with his brothers. Before hugging them in greeting, I paid the boda boda man the rest of his money and watched him ride off on the long and bumpy road back to Itara. “Thanks very much,” he said in a voice thick with dust and exhaustion.

Fredrick Mugira is a journalist with Ugandan Radio West FM and reports for Africanews.com. He lives in Kampala

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