« Arab Culture - And I don't mean yougurt | Main | Guerrillas in the Midst »

Boda Bing Boda Boom

November 2nd

If you were looking for a place to build an inland city, you would probably choose Kampala.  Here at the base of a huge lake, nestled among the hills there is an inherent charm to the terrain that offers the potential for being ranked among the great cities of the world.  The elevation is about 4000 feet, so although it canbe very humid, the temperature rarely exceeds 80 degrees.  From a hilltop the panarama of the city and the lake in thie distance is breathtaking. But then, if you actually were looking for a place to build a city, I'd ask you to put a little more effort into the infrastructure.  - Oh, and it isn't just the view that affects your breath, it's also the air. 

 Most estimates say there are around a million and a half people in Kampala, but it's pretty near impossible to be precise.  At times it seems like there are a million and a half people in the road in front of you.  About 20% of the city streets are paved, the rest are narrow swatches of clay dirt.  When it is dry they there is a ubiquitous red dust which settles onto buildings, cars, and of course your lungs.  In public buildings you will see people continously dusting and mopping in a losing battle to control the dust.  When it rains the air clears out, but the streets turn into gloopy rivers of mud that stick to shoes, bumpers and just about anything else.

 There is a huge gap here between the 1% and the 99%.  There are some huge mansions here, although not that many in Kampala.  Many of the rich people prefer to escape thenoise and smoke and live in the smaller cities of Entebbe or Jinja. Along the sides of any maor street are hundreds of open air businesses.  In a small space a man welds metal gates, beside him are several furniture builders, small retailers cobblers and just about anything you can imagine.  On one street a man and his family build wooden coffins which they proudly display in their space between a bicycle repair shop and a vegetable stand.

 If you saw the movie "Hotel Rwanda," I should acknowledge that yes, there are places here that are that elegant.  But they are tucked away behind huge walls.  The entrance gates are guarded by machine gun totiing police and private security.   You will occasionally see land cruisers and escort vehicles zipping mzungus to and from these compounds.  It is entirely possible to visit Africa while seeing very little of it.

 But there is also a lot of stratification among the general population.  There are some pleasant single family homes on the outskirts of town.  A lawn and a couple of bedrooms, smaller than most American homes, but pleasant.  Home maintenance is a major challenge with all the dust and weeds.

Far more common are the little barrios which aren't much different from such places in any developing country.  Jumbles of high shacks built into one another to form large pockets of very high dennsity housing.  These are penetrated by dirt roads, sometimes not much more than a foot path.  Electricity is very expensive here, so many of these homes are lit by oil lamps, while others utilize free range electricity.  That's where you illegally tap into the overhead powerlines in order to run your electric stove.  These little neighborhoods are poor, dirty and ugly.  But the people that come out of them are fashionable and beautiful.  Appearances matter in this culture, particularly for women,  and you will see absolutely gorgeous young women wearing crisp dresses, and perfectly coifed hair walking from a hovel then sitting side saddle on the back of a motorcycle to go to work.

The motorcycle, or boda boda as it is known locally, is the most versatile and useful invention knwon to man.  Their prmary function is as a taxi. although they also function as pickup trucks family vehicles and wheelbarrows.  For a dollar or so you climb onto the back of the seat, state a destination and hold on for dear life.  While cars get stuck in serious traffic jams, a boda boda can zip between cars jump over curbs and take short cut through very narrow passageways.  There is no faster, or more dangerous, way to get around town.

The drivers are required to wear helmets, of course, but not the passengers.  Safety is important, but then so is fashion.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>