Rid­ing Uganda’s roads aboard a boda-boda

These lightweight mo­tor­bikes are part of daily life in Kam­pala, nav­i­gat­ing the city’s traf­fic

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - THOMAS FROESE Thomas Froese writes about news, travel and life. Find him at www.thomas­froese.com

So I was re­cently sit­ting around do­ing noth­ing, an ac­tiv­ity I’ve al­ways found deeply sat­is­fy­ing, when I re­al­ized, “Hey, man, you’ve just writ­ten your 300th news­pa­per col­umn.”

Next thing, my wife and kids were serv­ing me cake with ice cream and singing “Happy 300th.” (Do you know how dis­con­cert­ing it is to hear “Happy 300th”?)

I then ru­mi­nated on all these col­umns, and so many from Africa, and there’s my mo­tor­cy­cle hel­met in my closet for all these years, just sit­ting there, (but that’s an­other story), and in these 300 swings of the bat, not once (not once!) have I shared about the lowly boda-boda.

Yes, it was one day long ago when I first swung my leg over the back of this hum­ble death ma­chine. As a pas­sen­ger. They’re good for that lit­tle ride to the bank. Or the pool. Or my favourite café. Or any­where when I ab­so­lutely must beat Kam­pala’s no­to­ri­ous traf­fic. I bet I’ve rid­den a boda-boda 300 times too.

To my wife’s wide-eyed dis­may, I’ve oc­ca­sion­ally put our kids on a boda-boda. (To my wife’s greater and un­ri­valled dis­may, I’ve even got­ten her on a boda-boda.)

It’s been a gas, be­ing tax­ied on these light mo­tor­bikes that dot East Africa’s land­scape. If you were fly­ing over­head they’d look like, as my vis­it­ing cousin put it, a swarm of march­ing ants.

Boda-bo­das ar­rived i n Uganda i n the 1960s, not long be­fore I dreamed of get­ting my first minibike.

Kam­pala alone has up to 300,000. No­body knows their ex­act num­bers be­cause these taxi-bikes aren’t reg­u­lated. Laws for registration or safety aren’t fol­lowed or en­forced. Just like no­body knows how many peo­ple are maimed or killed af­ter fly­ing off one.

Few driv­ers are li­censed. Or trained. Driv­ers’ hel­mets com­monly stay perched on han­dle­bars. But the Cana­dian-style tuque, of­ten with a win­ter wind­breaker, comes out if temps dip be­low 20 C. Driv­ers of­ten pair this at­tire with, nat­u­rally, the steady and sturdy African flip-flop.

Boda-bo­das are called “mo­tor” in nearby Rwanda. There, traf­fic is more civil. But in Tan­za­nia, the term re­mains “boda-boda.” That coun­try im­ported 185,000 last year, from In­dia and China where they’re made.

And that un­pre­ten­tious name? Some claim its et­y­mol­ogy is from “bor­der-bor­der,” that boda-bo­das cross with­out ef­fort be­tween any and all bor­ders. (Bor­ders oth­er­wise known as trucks, cars, men, women, boys, girls, goats, cows and such on East Africa’s roads.)

I don’t buy it. I think “boda-boda” comes from some anony­mous three-year-old point­ing his fin­ger at one. Like “br­rm­brrm.” (In Uganda, if you’d like some­thing now, you’d say “now-now.” One “now” means any time be­tween din­ner and next week. But just one “boda” is re­quired in speech by those of us so very con­ver­sant with all this.)

Of course, with all these boda rides it’s a won­der I’m still alive. Then again, I’m some­how more alive. That’s the thing about cer­tain risky be­hav­iour. It can put more zest in your day.

Money, as ex­pected, is be­hind the boda’s wild suc­cess. Where there’s de­mand, sup­ply tends to pull up to say “hello.” A boda driver, with­out ed­u­ca­tion or any­thing else, has an in­stant job. The boda’s owner, of­ten not the driver, has an in­stant busi­ness. Owner and driver split the profits, which can eas­ily hit 500,000 Ugan­dan Shillings, or about $180 Cana­dian, monthly.

My wife and I have helped sev­eral Ugan­dans make the in­vest­ment. Think of Uber. With­out the smart­phone. And a lit­tle more dust. “We go?” is what the driver will ask when you hop on back. “We go.”

Uni­formed school kids stacked sev­eral deep get rides to school. Women sit sidesad­dle. (With­out hold­ing on, but of­ten clutch­ing a baby.) And the Paris Ac­cord on cli­mate change and fuel emis­sions? What’s Paris?

“I love it best with mul­ti­ple pas­sen­gers plus live­stock,” is what my Amer­i­can friend told me yes­ter­day. Think thin African chick­ens, feath­ers blow­ing in the breeze. Then there’s fur­ni­ture of all va­ri­eties and sizes strapped and car­ried, some­how. Last week, my wife saw the ul­ti­mate load, one boda car­ry­ing an­other boda.

Yes, this is a faith­ful don­key of a ma­chine. It’s not any stal­lion. This, I sup­pose, is why I’m so fond of it. And why I’ll miss it so much when I leave Uganda.


A Ugan­dan driver rides off with a dan­ger­ously large load of fur­ni­ture on the back of his boda-boda, while a verse painted on a wall be­hind him ex­horts him to have courage. In Uganda, boda-bo­das carry ev­ery­thing from live­stock to fur­ni­ture to other bo­das.

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