How Ugandan Roads Work (at least, according to me)

Having recently had my first proper car crash (not too bad and no injuries, but still an eye-opener) I decided I would make up for the lack of recent posts by writing a big one on the subject of cars in Uganda. I moved approximately 800km a week when shooting, so driving was a major part of my week, and now that I live in Kampala I spend a lot of time sitting in traffic jams. There is a whole different way of driving here, much more of an offensive rather than defensive strategy.

The city centre is totally gridlocked twice a day, six days a week, so in order to get anywhere you must obviously prepare routes which avoid major jam spots (which is very complex in a city this irregular) but, more importantly, seize every single opportunity. If you can drive down the wrong side of the road for a bit, do it. It doesn’t matter if you block the oncoming lane because that will force somebody to let you back in. The other day I was going towards Ntinda when the driver started down the wrong side of the road. He rounded a corner and screeched to a halt inches from an oncoming landcruiser. The car refused to go onto the hard shoulder to move around him, so without blinking my driver reached down, picked up a magazine and began reading it while he waited for the car to get out of the way.

There is a sort of road food pyramid here. The pedestrian is like krill, scattered and harassed by wheeled superiors. Its immediate predator is the bicycle, which has evolved here into a beast of burden capable of carrying hundreds of kilos of goods, or a few strimmers, or an 8-foot saw blade (seen that), or even a sofa (yes, saw that too) so pedestrians are forced into the ditch as these swollen old creaking things go past.

The bicycle bows before the motorbike, which is used in a similar way. Up to four passengers, or goats carried in little slings, or a pig tied to the parcel shelf, or really anything at all will be hooked on using bungies and transported at breakneck speed. The bakeries use bikes to deliver their bread, and they fit them with six-foot-wide wooden boxes which make them as wide as cars and much more unwieldy. In Kampala the most popular way to move is by boda-boda (motorcycle taxi), which is a hair-raising experience. Nothing is out of bounds to the bodas- they zip through the gaps in jams, tear down the dotted line, mount curbs, jump lights and generally clot the already-awful traffic. However be warned- knock a boda driver and it is automatically your fault. There are many incidents of mob justice being meted out to drivers, and the official advice is that in the event of an accident you should not stop, but instead proceed directly to the police for safety’s sake.

Above the bodas are the family cars. Old Toyotas brought from Japan, they are used as taxis with 10 or more passengers fitting into a five-seater. They drive fast and with little care, having given up long ago on dodging the potholes because their suspension is already shot. Pickup trucks are the next stage, holding twenty or so people sitting in the flatbed.

Hot on their heels come the big 4x4s, the NGO trucks and the private cars belonging to wealthier people. These travel as fast as they like, using horns and lights to scatter the inferior. They are second only to buses in terms of aggression, and are treated with caution by most people. They are raced by the matatus (each bearing the hollow legend “licensed to carry 14 passengers), minibus taxis which do circular routes or short hops between cities. The matatus stop frequently to pick up and deposit passengers, which makes them very awkward. However they are driven in-between stops at full speed and with absolutely full loads, and their engines are run into the ground faster than their bodies.

Above the matatus are the lorries. From the small trucks to the artics, the police say the recommended load of 4 tons per wheel is often exceeded by up to four times! They carry anything and everything, and then garnish their groaning burdens with passengers who sit atop the swaying load and chew sugarcane as long as the rain holds off. The lorries and matatus often have slogans above their windscreens. Some threaten (“Repent”), some state (“Save time”), some pay homage (“Puff Daddy”) and some instruct (“Grow More Cocoa”). Many have a bumper sticker saying “Covered in the blood of Christ” as though they have recently perpetrated a biblical hit-and-run.

And above all, reigning supreme, are the buses. These foul monsters, decked out with fairy lights and blaring klaxons, stop for nothing and nobody. Brutal bull-bars ensure that no skulls will dent the bodywork, and instead of slowing down as they pass through towns they simply hold the horn down and keep going. There’s no incentive for them to do otherwise really, because if they go fast they get a reputation for getting there fast, and if they get pulled over a small bribe puts them back on the road in no time at all. As they sweep past, the suck is so strong that even landcrusiers are pulled towards them violently and left rocking in their wake.

“Might is right” is still the rule here. My crash was caused by being forced off the road by a lorry, but despite clearly seeing the crash he drove on. But might is challenged by agility, and while the country’s roads might be owned by the lumbering trucks and buses, the cities and towns remain firmly the domain of the motorbike.

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About Muzungu

I’m a Uganda-based freelance photographer (and occasional writer) working for a broad range of clients including NGOs, newspapers and magazines and development agencies. My work has taken me across East Africa, South America and Europe, and previous clients include USAID, the World Bank and the East African. I also work on personal documentary projects in my spare time. If you’d like to hire me or to know more, please feel free to get in touch.
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11 Responses to How Ugandan Roads Work (at least, according to me)

  1. The Emrys says:

    nice article, really interesting but the ” Old Toyotas brought from Japan, they are used as taxis with 10 or more passengers fitting into a five-seater” part, i disagree with. they are actually 14 seaters thought admittedly they will carry more than 14 passengers.

  2. tumwijuke says:

    Great analysis of our roads.

    The first time I drove a car outside Uganda … Well, let’s just say it took a re-education. Coming back to my dear old Entebbe Road was traumatizing.

    • Muzungu says:

      I actually learned to drive in Uganda. I don’t trust myself here in the UK, the flow isn’t fluid enough. If you mess up, people hit you because they aren’t expecting it!

  3. Barney says:

    Hollow legend… lol.

    Considered the possibility of writing a travel guidebook on my little, disorganised beautiful country? I’d be the first to buy it!

    • Muzungu says:

      I am actually considering it, but it will be small and called “The Misanthrope’s Guide to Uganda”, and co-authored by my friend ‘Champagne’ Tim Morris. Expect it in about 18 months, once I’ve been to Murchison Falls (never had enough money) and to Karamoja (was previously banned from going for insurance reasons!).

  4. Ian Anderson says:

    My first driving experiences in rural Uganda involved playing a kind of chicken.

    The roads were heavily cambered (for the rainy season) which meant that everyone wanted to drive….yup, you guessed it. Smack bang in the middle!

    If you showed even the slightest indication that you were going to ‘yield’ or move over a little, that was the sign for the other vehicle to accelerate, literally forcing you into the gully!

    It was a hair raising task learning to ‘hold, hold, hold, HOLD, brake, brake, swerve around each other, phew, back into the middle and accelerate up to cruising speed again’.

    Love the photos, great work. I miss Uganda to this day and its been more than a few years.

    Stay well
    Ian

  5. Ian Anderson says:

    p.s.

    Are the Bujagali Falls still there? I heard that they were building a power station when we were there (1997-2000).

    Awesome falls with crazy local kids riding them on jerry cans!
    Cheers

  6. Muzungu says:

    Thanks for the comments, Ian! Bujagali is still there but the dam is almost finished and I think the falls will be closed to the public pretty soon which is a huge pity. Lovely place, one of my favourites. You’ll be glad to know though that driving hasn’t changed in the slightest- it’s still terrifying and while a good number of the roads are much improved, there are still a lot which really aren’t. I think my favourite is the Hoima-Fort Portal one, best done on a motorbike just after a heavy downpour. However even that monstrosity’s days are numbered- they found oil, so the tarmac’s going to be there soon!

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