Drivers of Death: A Roadtrip through Kampala

The other day I found myself staring into a car’s headlights.  On my side of the road.  And I was heading straight for them.

“I’m going to die,” I thought.

But the panic lasted only a moment, because after approaching the car a bit closer, I realized it was actually not driving toward me.

It was being towed.

The funny thing was, the car being towed as an explanation for the curious direction of the car’s headlights did not even occur to me – while it would have been my brain’s default reaction on a more sensible roadway.  The FIRST thought that raced through my head was, “hmmm, a car is driving on the wrong side of the road directly at me.  That’s not good.”

Because in Uganda, anything can happen on the road.

Uganda’s road fatality rate is nothing short of horrifying.  At 1.5 deaths for every 100 motor vehicles, Uganda has the 23rd most dangerous roads in the world.  To put that in perspective, that is 110x the road fatality rate in the United States. Some of it is certainly due to the poor condition of the roads themselves.  Some is due to old, poorly maintained vehicles.  A good portion is because vehicles carry more people than they do in the West; a 67 passenger bus, 14-passenger matatu taxi, or a truck carrying passengers sitting atop its goods will kill more people if it wrecks than a station wagon with a family of four.  But it is mostly due to the way people drive—the reckless, logic-defying, suicidal way they drive.

This is why I don't take matatus upcountry anymore.  These things carry 14 passengers plus the driver and conductor.  No one survives.

This is why I don’t take matatus upcountry anymore. These things carry 14 passengers plus the driver and conductor. No one survives. source: http://kfm.co.ug/news/14-perish-in-motor-accident.html

When I’d first written this as a journal entry, I’d been riding a motorcycle in traffic here for about 3 weeks.  And man, were those first 3 weeks were stressful.  After all, I’d never ridden a motorcycle at all before, much less tried it on the anarchic streets of Kampala.

I wasn’t on my own, though—I took riding lessons from Walter, Uganda’s most famous boda driver, who today owns a successful and growing tour company.  The first two lessons were tough.  I don’t even know how to drive a manual car, and this was a manual bike: a 125cc second-hand Bajaj Platina that I’d bought from Walter.  On more than one occasion the motorcycle accelerated into the bushes as I shifted into the wrong gear or mis-coordinated the clutch, gas, and gear shift, Walter all the while shouting desperate commands uselessly from the back of the bike until being thrown into the grass.  Making matters more difficult, finding a place to practice riding a motorcycle in Kampala is nearly impossible; the good roads are full of traffic, and the empty roads are either made of loose dirt, built on steep slopes, or wind narrowly around corners such that if a car ever DID come, it would not see you until you were under its tires.  Not a positive learning environment.

But despite those difficulties, Walter was a good teacher, and after around 3 lessons, I got the hang of it.  Sort of.  My housemate even convinced me once, over my protests, to carry him home on the bike.  It was only about 1 km, but we almost fell three times, and by the time we reached the main road, I realized I could not cross it; he had to get off and take another boda.  You only learn from experience.

Finally, after about another 3 weeks of driving around the neighborhood, it was time to cross town for the first time.

You don’t fully appreciate the chaos of Kampala’s streets when you’re in a car, or even on the back of a boda boda.  It’s only when you get behind the handlebars of a motorbike that you grip the sheer extent of the streets’ lawlessness.  And I’d picked the worst time to venture out into them: Friday afternoon rush hour.

Kampala’s streets are a jungle clogged with all manner of moving objects: Land Cruisers, smaller cars, matatu taxis, boda bodas, bicycles, pedestrians, goats, drunks, stray dogs, Ankole cattle, etc.  These all move at different speeds, in different directions, carrying objects of varying degrees of danger, and with varying predictability in their movements.  Matatu taxis stop suddenly to pick up a passenger, and pull back into traffic just as suddenly.  The car in front of you may swerve to the right, and you immediately find yourself face-to-back-of-the-head with a sweaty pleb laboriously pushing a bicycle laden with steel pipes up the hill, leaving you with mere seconds to avoid a pipe through your helmet visor. Once I found myself behind a boda boda carrying a coffin on the back; always drive prepared I supposed.  Cars move more quickly than bodas, while bicycles move more slowly (although they pedal frantically to avoid being mowed down from behind), so you often find yourself threading the gauntlet between vehicles of different sizes and speeds.

Maybe Uganda's anti-gay bill is compensating for something... source: http://www.newvision.co.ug/article/fullstory.aspx?story_id=633340&catid=387&mid=53

Maybe Uganda’s anti-gay bill is compensating for something…
source: http://www.newvision.co.ug/article/fullstory.aspx?story_id=633340&catid=387&mid=53

This is compounded by the absence of any force regulating the movements of these objects other than sheer will. The traffic pattern more resembles the flow of water around rocks than any organized system of motion, each individual in the stream reacting not only to the shape of the road and the obstacles in it, but to the reactions of all the other actors in the vicinity, the reactions building on each other and cascading through the streets until you have nothing but chaos and jam.  Traffic police are ubiquitous, but their commands, when they choose to issue them, apply only to vehicles of more than two wheels—bodas wantonly drive past them.  Lanes?  That’s just another word for sitting still: if you see a spot, take it, even if it means driving on the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic.  And traffic lights?  Oh, you better believe these are not obeyed at all!  Laws do not determine when vehicles cross the street: drivers go as soon as there is a physical window—and that window is often impossibly small.  Bodas negotiate intersections even through cross traffic, sometimes forcing the other cars to swerve or stop to avoid hitting them.

And it’s rare indeed when someone stops; swerving impulsively is the preferred reaction to danger.  It’s as if drivers don’t know their vehicles have brakes—or think the brakes are in the steering wheel.  If an obstacle moves in front of a driver, or if a car slows down in front of him, the driver doesn’t brake to slow down—he simply swerves to go around the obstacle, I guess hoping that no one is coming the other way?  Cars, trucks, and buses overtake recklessly, even when going up a hill or around a blind corner.  The scariest place to be in Uganda is driving toward a slow-moving truck coming the other way on an upcountry highway; best to slow down and stick to the shoulder in case a maniac driver is trying to overtake that truck.  Indeed, traffic can be a blessing: at least no one can go fast enough to kill you.

Not even the basest self-preservation instinct can be counted on as a reliable regulator of traffic.  Once behind the wheel, even the basic impulse to stay alive ceases to determine behavior.  All empathy and awareness are lost, the desire to avoid harming others while preserving oneself fading into a single motivation: just GO.  Bodas drive at night with their headlights off and brakes that don’t work.  Trucks overtake blindly around corners where they can’t see what is coming the other way.  Pedestrians pop out suddenly from behind cars without so much as peeping around the edge first.  Sometimes they run across the street, but at other times you are simply amazed to see how nonchalantly it’s possible for someone to stroll in the face of a 3-ton Land Cruiser hurtling toward them, showing absolutely no urgency to get out of its way.  Last week I was driving a car through rural Rwanda, when a ball rolled across the street.  My instinct to “slow down, a ball usually means a kid running after it” kicked in—and not a moment too soon, for sure enough, a man darted across the road after the ball.  I slammed on the brakes, having already slowed down as a precaution, and even then only narrowly avoided splattering the person across the highway.  But when I looked back at him, you would have never known that his life had almost just ended; he was smiling and waving, trotting blithely around with his ball.  Did HE know?

Traffic accident outside my old apartment.  How do you enforce traffic laws when even the laws of physics do not apply on Kampala's roads?  How does this even happen?  Look at how the car rear-ends the one in front and damages its BACK.  How does the car in front spin at that angle??

How do you enforce traffic laws when even the laws of physics do not apply? How does this even happen? Look at how the car rear-ends the one in front and damages its BACK. How does the car in front spin at that angle??

Perhaps the only other force that offers some degree of predictability to the roads is status: the craziness of a driver increases in direct proportion to the size of his vehicle and his bank account.

The first is perhaps obvious.  On Ugandan roads, with no Big Government to tell drivers which side to drive on, when to stop, or who has the right of way, might makes right: smaller vehicles move out of the way of larger ones.  If a bigger vehicle is bearing down on you from behind, it may honk, it may swerve, but it will certainly not slow down—it is YOUR job to move.  The pecking order is very clear:

  • Buses run over everything
  • Land Cruisers and matatus run over smaller cars
  • Smaller cars run over boda bodas
  • Boda bodas run over bicycles
  • Bicycles run over pedestrians
  • Pedestrians shoo goats and chickens out of the way
  • Goats eat grass

The only vehicle that doesn’t fit neatly into this hierarchy is the truck/lorry.  A truck’s danger to other vehicles depends mostly on its condition and its load. On the one end you have overloaded, lumbering lorries just struggling to keep their decrepit wheels turning under the weight.  Ancient dump trucks full of sand and dirt, semi trucks dragging two 40-ft containers behind them: these can move as slow as 5 miles an hour if going uphill.  Though they themselves pose no danger, the temptation to overtake them CAN, especially if you’re stuck behind one in a windy mountain passage and just can’t wait to stop breathing in its black diesel fumes.  On the other hand, an empty or lightly-loaded truck—a fuel tanker that’s just offloaded and speeding back to Mombasa, a tall truck absurdly laden with foam mattresses stacked 20 feet high—these can spell doom for unwary motorists.

But it’s not only size.  More interesting is how wealth and social status seem to affect driving style. Much like American celebrities, rich Ugandans take to the road to display their status and sense of entitlement.  The more expensive the car and richer the driver, the more they seem to disregard everyone else on the road, driving as fast, dangerously, or drunk as they want.  It doesn’t have to be the driver’s own wealth: it may be a wealthy organization—drivers for NGOs and the government are some of the most reckless.

Most dangerous of all is anyone with rank.  Top officials get their own motorcades, and they drive at whatever speed they want (ostensibly to outrun any would-be attackers).  Clearing the roads for such officials is not done by giving prior warning and setting up roadblocks in advance; this is Africa, and here they do it Big Man style.  Big Man style means that the first car in the motorcade drives ahead at 150 miles per hour literally forcing all other traffic off the road, in order to make way for the VIPs who follow; if you’re in the way, you die.  They fly by at a terrible speed, hazard lights flashing to confirm that they have no intention of turning left or right but only of blazing straight ahead, the bumper often adorned by a badge announcing the rank of the person inside, as if the car were wearing a lapel pin: MS for “State Minister,” CM for “Cabinet Minister,” or PM for “Prime Minister.”  The attitude that “I have right of way” trickles down. These days even wealthy businessmen think that if they just put their hazards on, they can plow through traffic however they want!

These are the roads I found myself furtively driving on 2 years ago, that first trip across town from Bukoto to Muyenga and back.  It’s about 30 minutes each way by boda, but at the time it felt like an eternity.  Still, I was making it: weaving in and out of chaotic roundabouts, braving the other heedless bodas pushing their way through intersection cross-traffic, dodging Land Cruisers and matatus.  By the time I was approaching the street that led to my apartment, I was feeling positively proud.

I turned onto my street, a little farther left than I’d intended, onto a section of the road that slopes up sharply … and forgot to shift down into the stronger gear.  The bike stalled, unable to climb the slope, and before I knew it I was falling into the ditch next to the road, the bike on top of me.

I could not move, pinned under the bike.  At least it had not rained that day, so I was saved the ghastly prospect of burial in a ditch of garbage-filled urban runoff.  That’s when I heard a commotion, and within seconds a team of boda drivers from the nearby stage was working together to hoist the bike off of me and out of the ditch. I got up and tried to thank them by offering a few shillings as a token of appreciation, but they refused the money.  “Now you are our brother,” they explained.

Africa’s roads and drivers are the roots of most of my complaints about the place, but here at least was something positive.  In Kampala, all who endure the dust and grit and chaos of the streets from the vantage point of a motorcycle, perpetually beset by bigger vehicles who pay them no mind, are brothers.  If only they would treat everyone on the road that way!

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by cfp on August 11, 2014 at 2:53 pm

    Lol, I love how you justify buying a motorcycle as a safe alternative to the other modes of transport. Neatly done.

    It is kind of amazing, though, that orderly traffic on roads is pretty much the exception. Like, how does one even begin to imagine implementing the kind of system we have in the U.S. more broadly.

    Ride on, Biker Kent!

    Reply

    • Yeah it’s kindof ironic but I sometimes feel safer on a motorbike – it’s easier to get out of the way. In the city you’re definitely better off in a car since you can’t really go fast enough to get killed as long as you have the armor of the car around you, but on the rural highways a motorcycle can easily pull over onto the 2 feet of shoulder to get out of the way of a truck that’s overtaking in your lane (or not “lane” rather, but your side of the road), whereas a car will have a collision. As for implementing a US style road system, I think that will be a future topic

      Reply

  2. Posted by Paul Kent on August 12, 2014 at 11:49 pm

    Great blog. Loved the ending. Now we r brothers. That was a great closing.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Reply

  3. […] « Drivers of Death: A Roadtrip through Kampala […]

    Reply

  4. […] slope fairly steeply to assist with drainage).  A driver less safe than I, especially one with the inclination to swerve away from obstacles at a high speed instead of using brakes, might roll it on an uneven […]

    Reply

  5. […] to status is important in Africa, and the car is an unrivalled status symbol; in contrast, motorcycles fall somewhere in the middle of the automotive pecking order, as I’ve written before.  Plus it’s a nice power trip for the security guard, who doesn’t often get to be the one […]

    Reply

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