November 21

John and Dayna in Uganda – Boda Bodas

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In past posts we have written about the challenges with driving here in Uganda. We decided that one aspect, the motorcycles called boda bodas, were worthy of a more in-depth analysis and discussion.

It turns out that the term “boda-boda” comes from the Busia border of Uganda where innovative entrepreneurs provided bicycle taxis for bus passengers who had to disembark on one side of the border and walk a long distance to the other. These bicycle taxi operators would advertise their transport by shouting out “boda boda” and since then the term “boda boda” has become synonymous with motorcycle taxis.

Bodas add to the many challenges of driving here, but they also serve a purpose. For those who can’t afford a car or use a car taxi, bodas provide an inexpensive way to get around.

If you have never seen the spectacle of TONS of motorcycles here, it is quite something to behold. Besides the sheer number of motorcycles on the streets, what is on them and how they are ridden is often amazing and exasperating. We have seen entire families on one boda (including very small children). Animals, produce, furniture, and just about anything else you can imagine will be attached to the front, sides and rear of these motorcycles which then weave in and out of traffic (often with little regard to any rules of the road).

They snake through gridlocked traffic. Every day we see bodas traveling the wrong way on major roads! They often ignore what few traffic signals that exist here. They will turn directly in front of you when you have the right of way (an ignored concept in Uganda to begin with). Passing you on the right while you are making a right hand turn is commonplace. It is unbelievable….

However, the bodas can maneuver around stopped traffic, a definite plus in downtown Kampala.

The motorcycle’s flexibility can serve as a lifesaver in an emergency if you can’t afford an ambulance and the traffic is bad. Bodas (like bicycles) are seen as the easiest and fastest means of transport in many parts of the country, including areas where vehicles are unable to reach.

The bodas as a taxi also provide much needed employment for young people. We read one recent study that estimated that 62% of young people in Uganda are jobless.

Unfortunately, there is a serious and major downside to bodas. The number of bodas has grown exponentially since they were introduced in the 1960s. One recent report we examined estimated there are more than 300,000 bikes operating in Kampala alone. This has increased the number of accidents tremendously – one regional hospital in Kampala has reported up to 20 boda-related accidents each day.

As one can imagine, these accidents are straining the country’s limited health budget. It has been estimated that 40% of the trauma cases in the hospitals are due to boda accidents, costing huge money each year in terms of direct healthcare costs and loss to the economy, including post trauma care and family income disruption.

We learned that the death toll on Uganda’s roads in general is twice the average of other African nations. Some are concerned that if action is not taken, the death toll from Uganda’s roads could be higher than from malaria and HIV.

Measures are being taken in an attempt to reduce the problem. Kampala is looking to introduce regulations on the boda drivers, including mandatory registration, first-aid training, reflector jackets and helmets, and a monthly fee of 20,000 Ugandan shillings to reduce rogue boda drivers (about $8).

The Global Helmet Vaccine Initiative is trying to train drivers on road safety and convince them to wear helmets. Uganda passed a helmet law in 2004, but it doesn’t seem to be enforced and it is really rare to see motorcycle riders wearing a helmet. GHVI has also mounted a billboard campaign in Kampala. We’ve seen the billboards – they show the effects of wearing and not wearing a helmet in a split image. It should make one think about wearing a helmet!

Hopefully, these initiatives will make boda travel safer so that boda riders, pedestrians, and cars can enjoy the road. For now, when we are driving we keep a sharp lookout for any and all motorcycles near our car since you never know which direction they will go.