On the road with the boda-boda, the Uber of Uganda

February 24, 2017

(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, February 24, 2017)

KAMPALA, UGANDA ✦ 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 unrivaled 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 in Uganda in the 1960s, not long before I dreamed of getting my first mini-bike. Now 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 any old boda.

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

Boda-bodas are called “motos” 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 “brrm-brm.” (In Uganda, if you’d like something now, you’d say “now-now.” One “now” means anytime 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 Cdn, monthly.

My wife and I have helped several Ugandans make the investment. Think of Uber. Without the smart phone. 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 side-saddle. (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.

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February 24, 2017 • Posted in ,
Contact Thomas at [email protected]


3 thoughts on “On the road with the boda-boda, the Uber of Uganda”

  1. Hi tThom, just read your body boda article; so true and so humourus. I rode them as well when coming from the market with all my produce. But certainly didn’t;t have a love affair like you did with them.

    We also just read your latest column, on waiting for Advent. Great insights always and so well written. Keep up the good work, and that you are able to put it in a secular newspaper is such a gift to your community.

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