Traffic in Kampala

How to describe traffic in Kampala… it’s not the craziest we’ve ever seen (that would probably be Bangkok or Phnom Penh) and it’s probably not the most aggressive we’ve ever seen (that would be Turkey) but there’s something special about it… it might be the matatus – the white vans (much like ours) packed with passengers that stop pretty much anywhere they darn well please and just zip back out into traffic whenever they feel like… they’re basically the public transit system of Kampala. There’s a driver and a conductor. The driver drives and the conductor entices/encourages passengers to get on and collects the money. They don’t follow a schedule or any particular route… basically you pays your money and you go where it takes you… you and a dozen or more passengers… they’re a big part of the reason nothing ever starts on time in Kampala and while they’re a necessary service, they clog up the traffic pretty bad…

And then there’s the bodas… dear lord the bodas… they’re everywhere… they’re not quite scooters… not quite full blown motorbikes… they’re some sort of time-bending, warp drive enabled, space folding vehicle of the future… they squeeze between vans, zip in front of trucks, dodge buses… if we had a dollar for every time we thought someone was going to be squashed and somehow emerged unscathed, we’d all be very rich… and they’re not just hauling people… we’ve seen them piled with mattresses, pineapples, construction equipment, recycling, and an endless variety of families, babies, tourists and whatnot. Sometimes they where helmets. Most don’t… probably so they can see and hear everything around them so they don’t get smacked… there are some companies (Safe Boda being one of them) that have standards, follow the rules, wear helmets and make their passengers wear helmets but they’re definitely in the minority. Most seem to just say “screw it” and let ‘er rip…

Now add in full size buses, four wheel drive safari vehicles, construction equipment, potholes capable of swallowing tanks, police trucks loaded with heavily armed officers, Royal convoys, guys selling vegetables and fruits, people zipping to and fro, dogs, goats, cows and the odd mzungu looking forlorn and lost and it’s a wonder Patrick’s hair isn’t snow white and falling out… there are few (we’ve seen maybe 3) stop lights, virtually no stop signs, no street signs to speak of, the traffic police wouldn’t dare stand in the actual intersection so they mostly just whistle and wave in random patterns (I swear one guy was just swatting flies) or write tickets… and then a military or police vehicle comes roaring through the seemingly impenetrable wall of vehicles and everyone gets the heck out of the way… there are no sidewalks… few zebra crossings (crosswalks) and it’s every person for themself…

Probably the only saving grace is that the drivers are all pretty chill about it all… they’re aggressive sure but only because if they weren’t, we’d still be at the airport waiting for a break in the traffic… maybe it’s more accurate to say they’re assertive because we haven’t seen much actual aggression… mostly they cut you off, lock up the brakes and then everyone smiles and laughs… and lays on the horn of course… once in a while they might make a gesture or make a comment (their window is only inches from yours at times) to show that you went too far or someone might do something particularly stupid and others will let them know, but for the most part it all actually works… insofar as we haven’t seen any accidents or road rage… which is good, because it would probably take a tank to get to the scene of the accident because there’s no room for the drivers to move over and let emergency vehicles by…

When you leave the city and start driving, say to Masaka, the potholes get bigger. The trucks get bigger and slower… the bodas are joined by tuktuks and assorted other vehicles (most of which are built like tanks). The dust is everywhere… and police checks… in the 4 hours we were on the road, we passed through at least 15 of them and were pulled over (for absolutely no reason we or Patrick could discern… except perhaps to be lectured by the traffic cop on what his hand signals mean)… these stops include full-on spike barriers and lots of machine guns…

And on top of all this, they drive on the wrong side of the fecking road!!! All in all, you would be quite literally out of your mind to try and drive in this country. Save your sanity. Save your hair. Your marriage. Your hopes and dreams for the future and hire a local driver… and update your will…

Kampala to Masaka

This morning we were able to sleep in a little as it’s something of a travel day as we will be making the 3-4 hour drive south to Masaka where we’ll be connecting with a number of social enterprises and NGOs.

Up first, though, is the Gaddafi mosque at the top of Old Kampala Hill. Started by Idi Amin during his time in power (1971-1979) and finished with funds from Gaddafi in 2006, it can hold up to 35,000 worshipers and is the National mosque of Uganda. The interior blends African, European and Arabic elements and the minaret provides a spectacular 360 degree view of Kampala. We started by properly covering our female students (pants needed to be covered by a wrap and heads covered with a scarf… the girl helping our students robe up was quite taken with Marie’s head scarf (it was purchased in Morocco for our trip into the desert). After that we removed our shoes and headed inside for a brief tour of the interior of the mosque and a reading (singing) from the Quran by our tour guide – Fatima – who quite literally has the voice of an angel… Hearing the verses of the Quran sung rather than read was quite beautiful.

After that it was time to make the short (but steep) climb to the top of the minaret and a brief history lesson by Fatima. The name of the city is apparently derived from a British camp that used to be located at the top of the hill during colonial times and from the impalas that used to roam there but the C in camp is pronounced differently so it became Kamp + Impala = Kampala). She also pointed out interesting and historical features on the surrounding hills. In all, it was a well received tour and, for most of our students, their first time in a mosque.

After the mosque we made our way to Buganda road and a craft market. We all bought a few things… for most of the kids this was their first experience with bartering and some definitely got the hang of it pretty quickly from their reports. Marie and I have been to a lot of markets and the prices at this one were definitely reasonable and the sellers very friendly. After the market we crossed the street to 1000 Cups – a local coffee shop known for their variety of coffees from around the world and their own ethically sourced Ugandan coffees. We all stocked up on beans and enjoyed some of their concoctions – Marie’s was definitely the winner… whatever it was, it tasted just like an orange creamsicle… the coffee floats were a close runner up… after the market we headed for a restaurant for a quick lunch and then hit the road to Masaka.

The ride to Masaka was long. And bumpy. And hot. We stopped briefly at a spot along the way (I forget the name) that straddles the equator to snap a few photos. Then it was back in the van to finish our journey. We arrived in Masaka about an hour later than Patrick had predicted (6:30) and as soon as we arrived Marie and I sacked out in our room (quite luxurious with a king size bed and our own toilet and shower this time) while the kids (and Craig) jumped in the pool for a quick swim. After that it was off for dinner at Frickadillen (it’s owned by the same people who own the Banda Overland Lodge where we are staying.) We had all placed our orders while we were still in Kampala so dinner was more or less ready when arrived at 8 and we all chowed down on a variety of western and local dishes. After dinner it was time for a quick debrief and discussion of the day and then back to the lodge and off to bed…

Some random observations and bits of knowledge from the past couple of days:

  • The average life expectancy in Uganda is 58 and the average age is 19 with almost 50% of the population under 14…
  • A common car wash consists of driving cars/trucks part way into a creek and tossing buckets of water at them…
  • In more than a few parts of Kampala we’ve had to make sure our windows are up and the doors are locked to avoid people reaching in and grabbing phones or bags. Given how often traffic comes to a complete standstill and how close people are riding/walking by the van, this is a wise precaution.
  • There are about 40,000 boda drivers in Kampala… so many that the government is apparently reluctant to do much to regulate them for fear of them rising up
  • Many banks apparently charge interest rates that can add up to 80% – one of the reasons micro-lenders are so important to helping lift people out of poverty
  • We haven’t seen many people smoking but apparently everybody smokes…
  • The average wage in Uganda is 2USD per day. At Sawa, the employees are paid $150USD per month and the women at Afripads are paid about $6 per day
  • Hundreds of people each day go to hospital as a result of boda accidents
  • There is a type of stork called a Marabou Stork (also known as Undertaker Birds) that are basically the garbage collectors of Kampala… they are tremendously ugly and look like pterodactyls in flight…

Kampala – Day 2

We were all up pretty early this morning (everyone’s still feeling the jet lag) and ready to go by the appointed time… but our driver was later, caught in the snarl of Monday morning traffic as he drove across town (actually from Entebbe) to meet us. Breakfast this morning ran the gamut from the $2 lemon pancakes to yoghurt and granola ($3) and bacon and eggs… all were deemed excellent!

After our morning briefing and a few extra minutes of R&R before Patrick arrived, we were piling into the van and heading for our destination for the day – Sawaworld – (http://sawaworld.org) an NGO founded by a Vancouver woman and focused on finding solutions from within to extreme poverty and other social ills.

Our day started with a quick introduction to Sheila – the country director in Uganda – followed by an energizer and then back to their classroom for a history of the organization and the work they do… it is truly inspiring. Basically, Sawa acts as a hub for people with skills/talents/ideas that can be taught to others and that can help lift people out of poverty or reduce the spread of HIV or in other ways improve the lives of people in difficult straights. Their offices radiate positivity and their staff are young, hip and with it (technologically, socially, etc). One of the really interesting projects we learned about was a sexual health and female empowerment and economic independence program where they select young women to receive training and vlog (video blog) their progress… it’s captivating to listen to these young women talk about how being able to make money of their own by selling cookies or candles or paper bags translates not into economic independence but empowers them to stand up to their male partners to require condoms and HIV testing. Sawa presents this really effective mix of new age business approaches and boots on the ground work in the trenches and it’s really effective… had they asked for donations, we’d have emptied our wallets in a heartbeat but that’s not what they’re about. Sawa seems to embody the idea of a “hand up not a handout” and while they depend on donations ( to some extent for their technology and whatnot, their model is predicated on social enterprise (business with a social conscience) as opposed to charity.

After our introduction to Sawa’s approach and philosophy, it was time to get our hands dirty – literally! Our job for the day was to help rebuild their tower garden that provides food for the staff and serves as a model for people wanting to grow produce in very limited space or with poor growing conditions (ie. the slums of Kampala). Basically, a tower garden is a series of pipes driven into the ground in a circle about 8′ in diameter and about 3′ high… the pipes serve as the support for chicken coop wire that is wrapped around and around the circle created by the pipes and then secured in place. In the centre is a tower (hence the name) of rocks and pipes for drainage and water distribution… even in Canadian dollars the whole thing could be built for less than $20 and provides a huge area for growing produce, etc.

Our job was to mix the soil, sand and compost under the exacting of the “grandmother” who runs the whole farming operation. We started out a bit tentative… oh yeah, I forgot to mention we were also given cameras and asked to record our work during the day to create a 3 minute vlog of our experiences at Sawa… at first we were more focused on the filming than the working but eventually we put our backs into it and started to work up a sweat… Except Marie who basically kidnaped Sheila and peppered her with questions while the rest of us worked… some things are the same the world over… the workers work while the managers stand around talking 🙂

Eventually we took a break for lunch at a nearby restaurant that Patrick recommended. We ordered enough food for a small army (even our teenage boys were defeated) and chowed down on matoke (mashed plantains and a staple of Ugandan food) along with rice, fried pumpkin, g-nut sauce (ground nuts or peanuts), beef stew, chicken stew and yams… it was all delicious… although the meat did fight back a little… in the end we had enough leftovers to fill a bunch of takeaway containers that we brought back to the staff at Sawa…

Back at Sawa it was time to fill the tower garden with the soil we had mixed. Energized after our huge meal, we put our backs into it and the tower filled in no time. Then it was time to plant the spring onion and spinach seedlings, water it all and snap a few photos of our day’s work. Then it was back to the classroom for a debrief and a check-in and then it was time for us to learn a skill… how to make paper bags… they’re a lot tougher than they look let me tell you!

After learning how to make paper bags and a final round of questions, it was time for us to bid adieu to Sawaworld and head back to the Red Chilli… a long and arduous trip through soul-crushing traffic… Patrick was a marvel as he kept us moving through seemingly endless walls of cars, bodas and people… it took us almost two hours to get back to the hostel where we had about 1/2 an hour to cleanup and change for dinner… a fancy dinner in town to celebrate yours truly’s birthday… the traffic on the way into town was definitely better and we made decent time to a restaurant near Acacia Mall (the really upscale one we’d been to on our first day in Kampala) called Cafe Javas. We all dined on fairly typical western fare (quesadillas, tacos, sandwiches, etc) and fancy juices… we were also treated to the bulk of the restaurant staff singing happy birthday to me (definitely more energetic and rhythmic than the usual Spaghetti Factory style we get back home) and a piece of very yummy Black Forest Cake. We also got to have dinner with our daughter Caitlin and her friend Claire who are here studying and interning at local NGOs and to meet the in-country Insight Staff… a good time was had by all but by the time we were done heads were definitely nodding after the long day. So we made our way back to the Red Chilli and called it a night. Definitely a rewarding and enjoyable day and very pleasant way to celebrate my birthday!

Tomorrow we will be doing some sightseeing in Kampala for the morning before making the 3-4 hour drive to Masaka for the next leg of our journey.