Tuesday, February 15, 2011

We are sorry to announce that the 10.37 to Kalangala will be delayed by indefinite minutes

Have you ever complained about a bus that didn’t turn up or failing to get a seat on a long distance train during peak hours? I know I have, but since living in Uganda all my quibbles regarding British public transport are forgotten. Not until you have been crammed with another 22 people in a minibus made for 14 or spent 48 hours travelling on a bus with no toilet or refreshment facilities can you truly appreciate just how good you’ve got it back home.

The first rule to public transport in East Africa is to forget about personal space. Even on the buses where you have your own seat it’s not uncommon for someone to be perched on your arm rest, another sat near (on) your feet and for a roll of mattresses/shopping bags/chickens to be jammed in the aisle next to you… and that’s luxury. In the public minibuses (matatus) more people are squished inside than you ever thought possible: legs go dead, arms are draped out of windows or around strangers’ shoulders, bodies are contorted in weird and wonderful ways and it’s not uncommon to have some chickens and even sometimes a goat share your journey with you. On a recent journey from the Ssesse Islands we fitted 12 people into an Ipsum, (including 3 people and the driver in the front) which according to its manufacturers should hold just 7. 

There's always room for one more package/person/chicken
 In Rwanda the situation is slightly better as their regulations are tighter and so they tend not to overcrowd their public taxis. However, this comes at a price. I recently got into a minibus at Katuna heading to Kigali, about 2 hours away. As soon as I got in I realised why the row I went to sit in was empty. The seats in front were so close to mine that in order to have been able to fit my legs in comfortably I would have had to have had them amputated around mid thigh. So whilst I think it’s great that in Rwanda they are more strict about how many people are allowed to sit in a minibus taxi, after all no-one enjoys being crammed in like sardines, if the price of having less people means that I only have enough leg room for a short child, I’m not sure which I’d prefer.

In addition to buses and minibuses there are the ridiculously useful boda-bodas (motorbike taxis). Need to get up a steep hill, travel at night, have a lot of shopping, travelling a relatively short distance? Then bodas are a god send. Seriously, I wish we had them in Britain. No more worrying about how you are going to get back from the pub/ that house party, just head to your nearest boda stage (they’re never far away) and voila! problem solved.

Luckily in Kabale bodas are pretty safe, there isn’t a lot of traffic and as long as you have your regular drivers you eliminate the chances of taking one at night who has also been enjoying a beer or two. Kampala bodas are a whole other experience though, they tear through the traffic jams narrowly dodging cars, trucks, pedestrians and each other. They attempted to enforce a rule whereby all boda drivers must wear a helmet and have one available for passengers, but this fell short.

Holding the strap to keep the helmet on... not ideal
 Unlike Kampala, Kigali has successfully enforced this rule. Of course one part of me knows that it’s logical to have a helmet and a lot safer too. However, I can’t help but think of all those other people who have worn them before me, sweating in to them, maybe with nits, lice or skin infections. Then there’s the fact that many of the helmets don’t really fit, in fact half the time you have to hold the chin strap to stop it from flying backwards off your head. In reality what good is that going to do in a crash?

So the next time you’re cursing the 7.47 train for being 15 minutes delayed or the 58a for failing to show up again, just think. You could be waiting for an indefinite period for the bus to fill up before even leaving or be sharing your commute with double the people and half a farmyard.


  1. I love this. We had to ride boda bodas to church when we were there. We had three people on one. So funny.

  2. Yeah, it's not uncommon to see whole families including a little tot sitting in front of the driver right near the handlebars. It's also incredible the things they carry on the back of both motor and push bikes - my favourite of recent times was a live pig lying down on the back of a bike wrapped in a banana leaf blanket - every time they hit a bump you'd hear a squeal of protest!

  3. Amazing! I particularly like the pig comment. I think we should definitely have boda bodas here in the UK.

  4. I know they would be amazing at the end of a night out, no more costly taxis and no knobheads thinking drink-driving is a wise idea!