Saturday, February 21, 2009

Getting around in Uganda

Getting around in Uganda is definitely an experience. In our first day in Kampala we quickly learned that traffic (mostly) drives on the on left side of the road. Even in Kampala there are few lane markings, so if no one is coming in the opposite direction you can drive in the middle of the road. The right of way is generally determined by how big you are. Cars and trucks tend to be in the middle of their 'lane' and motorcycles and bicycles drive along the side of the road or between the cars when they can fit. Pedestrians do not have the right of way (sometimes even the sidewalk isn't safe when motorcycles are concerned). Watching traffic in Kampala is like watching an ant farm or a beehive at work. Everyone clearly knows where they are going and how to get there, but it boggles my mind how Ugandans manage to get where they are going in one piece without our rules of the road. Getting around in Toronto seems like a piece of cake in comparison to driving in Kampala. I'm certainly glad that neither of us will be getting behind the wheel any time soon! Mind you, when I describe Toronto traffic to Ugandans they have been similarly astonished that we are still in one piece!

Now that we are settled in at the Mothers Unions, Michelle and I tend to walk to most places nearby. It's an easy half hour walk into the town of Bushenyi where we get most of our food and supplies. The Diocesan Offices are also about a half hour walk although I usually get a ride from one of the diocesan drivers. Outside of the major cities there are no sidewalks so pedestrians, motorcycles and cars all share the road and can pass quite close to each other. This means we have to be very aware of traffic around us. On our first day I almost stepped in front of a boda boda (a motorcycle taxi) when took a small step sideways to try and avoid a hole in front of me!

Most Ugandans are surprised by our desire to walk places. Although few people own a car, people who have the means usually don't walk. Unlike rural areas in Canada there is almost always an affordable way to get where you want to go regardless of distance. For those on a budget, a boda boda will allow one person to travel short distances in and around town for about 200-500 shillings (less than $0.50). These are small and simple motorcycles with a flat seat in the back and a place to put your feet. For safety reasons we've avoided using the boda bodas, much to the chagrin of the friendly boda boda drivers who congregate outside the Mothers Union.

Although by law both the driver and passenger are supposed to wear helmets, this is rarely enforced outside of Kampala. The quality of the ride really depends on the driver. The drivers are generally young men, who hope to make enough money to one day buy a taxi or a taxi bus. So some simply want to get you to where you are going fast so they can pick up their next passenger. Others are quiet accommodating and will make the ride as smooth as possible. We are lucky that in our one experience where we had to take a boda boda the drivers were of the latter kind.

For those with a little more money or who are going further distances (like Michelle is on Wednesdays and Thursdays) a taxi or a taxi bus are the means of choice. There is usually a place in town where taxi drivers congregate, but they can also be flagged down standing by the side of the road with little difficulty. If you are having difficulty the boda boda drivers will flag one down for you for a modest commission. The taxis here tend to be similar to Toyota Corollas and the taxi buses are vans with 4 bench seats. Again the quality of the ride depends largely on the driver.

First the driver gets to decide how many people will be in the taxi with you. Although there are legal limits to how many people can be in a taxi (2 in the front and 4 in the back I think) or a taxi bus (4 across) they are rarely enforced outside Kampala and major centres. Some days we have a taxi nearly to ourselves, but we have had taxis with 8 passengers (5 in the back and 3 in the front) on occasion. The first taxi bus we took had around 28 people in it (even the Ugandans thought that was cramped). Second, the driver gets to decide how they drive. Most drivers drive quickly and pass much closer to things than we are used to, but they are generally safe. Our Ugandan friends have been quite good about letting us know what is a fair price. Michelle started off paying 3000 shillings to get to Kabwohe, but the women at AWIST have told her to insist on paying 2000 and the drivers have obliged.

For longer trips, Ugandan's prefer the bus, which are about as comfortable as a greyhound bus, but without a bathroom in the back. They are not over packed like the taxis. However, like the taxis, they don't leave until they are full and I've been told it can take an hour or more depending on the time of day for that to happen.

On Sundays and for most official functions that the Bishop invites us to we have been spoiled by having a diocesan vehicle and driver. These are always far more pleasant than public transport and we are very thankful when get to use them as they feel just a bit closer to home.


Allison said...

:) similar stories in Kenya... I personally loved the public transit options there... you never had to wait for a vehicle (though sometimes you did have to wait for vehicles to fill...). Boda-bodas in Kenya were bicycles... have you seen any of those? I took one or two every day, but like you would never go on a motorcycle. Luckily there was always a bicycle or matatu (bus) to ride instead. The best thing about bodas was that you never actually had to know how to get places... if I was ever concerned about being lost, I would flag one down, tell them my destination, and they would carry me there. Like a fairy godmother (father?!?) :)

For prices, I'm sure you have figured this out by now, but I always asked a friend, a shop keeper, or a fellow rider what the cost should be to go somewhere. Then I would hand the money without asking. I found that most people didn't like to see a mzungu being cheated, so they would tell us the price that we should pay.

Have fun!

Jeff said...

I've seen two Ugandans on a bike before, but no one has ever offered us a ride. Bicycles are also used for transporting matokee (6 bunches worth!) and sugar cane. It never ceases to amaze me what you can fit on a bicycle or motorcycle.

The bodas appear to be primarily motorcycles, which is unfortunate for us because the boda drivers do know where everything is here. I asked for directions once to walk somewhere and the man just told me to pay 500 shillings and take the boda!