|photo© Julie Wang 2014|
" 'Shank’s Mare'--good old walking--is the only way for most people to go miles and miles and miles each day, usually barefoot, or wearing rubber boots or sandals. Every day rural Ugandans travel up hills and mountains, over rushing torrents on a single log or rotten boards usually over slippery, muddy pathways. To market and back is a round trip of about three miles for most, to buy eggs, bread, sugar, tomatoes, or simply to get to school or work, since there are few school buses and most are too poor to pay for transportation.
Next comes the bicycle, not as useful as you might think in the country, because roads are so rutted and uneven, hence a bicycle ride can be extremely dangerous. On paved roads, however, bicycles are used to carry heavy loads of sugar cane, matooke (plantain), wood, maize flour, building materials, etc and even quite small boys seem able to balance this kind of weight.
The next ubiquitous form of transit is the boda-boda or motorcycle, known in Benin as a Zem, the motorcycle has become the single most useful way to go short distances and a source of income for the fearless young men who wait at every street corner waiting for passengers. It is a hazardous occupation and deaths are all too frequent.
In Uganda, depending on what you are wearing, you either ride astride or side-saddle, with feet tucked tightly into the side of the vehicle to avoid losing a toe, usually with at least one other person in front or behind, all clinging to each other and to the driver to avoid falling off! In Benin, a half-Muslim country, touching the driver is unthinkable, you simply cling tightly to the metal carrier behind you and two people together is against the law. The only exception is for small children, who frequently ride to and from school, clinging to each other all the way.
The potholes in both countries are unimaginable. So boda-boda’s weave along the road, trying to hit the high spots that are the least rutted and muddy. In consequence, overtaking, especially when another car is coming in the opposite direction and the road is lined with pedestrians, can be a hair-raising experience. Best not to look. Praying is recommended.
Riding a boda-boda in Kampala is particularly anxiety-provoking because there are always traffic jams, so the motorcycles weave between cars, each of which is trying to cut off the car beside him, leaving the motorcycle passenger particularly vulnerable.
Yesterday, I rode double with my friend in Kampala to the street markets. They are numerous and varied, each market specializing in a different type of commodity – shoes, fabric, fruits and vegetables, electronics, etc. It is somewhat reminiscent of New York City in the 70’s, each street on the lower West side lined with small, dark, musty stores dedicated to hats, or furs, feathers, spangles, or jewelry, you name it. You could wander from one to another to get the best bargain, since stores selling the same specialty were grouped together.
So, too, in Uganda, where if the shoe doesn’t fit, your accommodating seller will rush to a friend’s stall on your behalf to bring back what he thinks you are looking for, hoping for a sale to a Mzungu, who will surely pay more than the average Ugandan.
Clutching tightly to each other, so that I wouldn’t fall off the back and my friend felt more secure, we wend our way down the side of the hill where our hotel was located.
After a hair-raising U-turn, crossing the road against a fast flowing stream of traffic, we advanced rapidly, especially at red lights when we had the advantage of being able to squeeze through tight spots between cars. Never have I more fervently regretted wearing open-toed shoes. This is not for the faint-hearted. It puts getting old in perspective. I feel lucky to have the privilege to do so, should I be so lucky as to survive this experience!
Next, for a truly jarring ride, there is nothing quite like the bush taxi or matatu, whose springs have certainly seen better days and whose seats are quite likely to be only semi-covered with some kind of cloth or fake leather. These vehicles are basically Toyota vans, with a seating capacity of 14 in 5 rows. Never have I ridden with fewer than 20 people crammed almost on top of each other, with chickens held tightly on people’s laps, a goat stuffed in the back on top of other baggage, and often a mother right next to you suckling her infant.
After a rainfall, getting over the deep quagmires of mud can be close to impossible, frequently requiring long detours on higher ground. Breathing room is so limited that if your cellphone rings there is no way you can reach into a bag and pull it out.
Yesterday, driving to Mbale early in the morning, we found ourselves in a matatu race – two drivers going hell for leather down a rutted, muddy road, racing to be the first to pick up the next waiting passenger. We overtook or were overtaken at least six times in less than a half hour.
On our way home, the matatu had to be pushed along a few feet in order to start the motor. Closing the door, the conductor accidentally pulled it off its hinges and then carefully replaced it so he would not fall out. About a half hour down the road the engine ground to a halt again and after a few fervent prayers and fiddling around in the engine we were pushed along the road until the engine eventually caught. We finally made it home safely just before nightfall, exhausted from all the excitement!
Moving up the transit totem pole is the Elgon Flyer, the relatively comfortable long-distance bus that takes you from Mbale to Kampala in about four and a half hours. Again, seating is tight and if you are not an “important person”, i.e. a man, preferably well dressed, you are likely to get bumped from your numbered seat to the back of the bus. I now know why riding at the front was always considered the white man’s privilege. Revenge must be sweet.
The bus makes frequent stops along the way. After about two hours comes a “short call” during which everyone tumbles out into the surrounding countryside to do their small business. “Long calls” require a pit stop at an actual latrine, but I have not yet had the courage, or the necessity, to find out how sanitary they actually are. I am not eager to find out.
When we stop for lunch about a hundred local vendors crowd around the bus, each waving sticks of barbequed chicken, beef, pork, bread, bottles of cold soda, samosas, chapatties, roasted bananas and corn on the cob, pineapple chunks, papaya, whatever they can lay their hands on and try desperately to make some money from that day.
On the day we went to Kampala the trip was also interspersed with someone lying dead beside the road following a motorcycle accident. We also experienced a near fist-fight when a passenger who wanted to get off early demanded his money back and was refused. Other than that, the trip was uneventful until we got close to Kampala and the heavens opened.
In equatorial Africa (Kampala is essentially on the equator) when it rains it pours, straight down in buckets. Of course, we all got drenched as we got out, struggling with bags and having neglected to bring a rain jacket, in the hope that it would somehow magically not rain once we left the elevated wilderness of Mt. Elgon. Fortunately, we had contacted Moses, a gentle, knowledgeable man with that rarest of commodities, a clean, well-kept Subaru, which he uses as a private taxi.
Ah, the luxury of a private taxi knows no bounds when you are stranded in a foreign city with no hotel reservation and no real idea of where to go to find a decent place to stay. Naturally, after nearly a month with only hot water in a basin in which to wash, we were longing for a truly hot shower under which we could relax for at least 20 minutes each.
Moses, our hero, almost literally parted the waters for us, negotiating the hilly streets of Kampala down which at least two feet of water were pouring unimpeded. He also drove us to two different hotels. One we had heard about wanted to charge us $310 a night (almost a year’s wages for the lucky employed Ugandans who make up only 20 percent of the population). The second was perfect, at $160 a night for 3 people in the room, and a view over the golf course to which we were given a free membership pass. Yes! As usual, fortune favors the brave (with a little help from our friends). Mind you, most of our friends were staying in rooms costing approximately $7 a night, so we were definitely splurging.
Finally, on the transportation spectrum comes the private car, of which the local Catholic priest in our village has three! So much for humility and compassion for the poor by the Catholic church. I would be hard pressed to justify even one private car for our little NGO. A bus, or even a van would be amazing, and our co-director finally has a motorbike which he proudly rides to our new construction site and back several times a day.
Right now, at the end of a long day of travel, I am tired and frustrated by the seeming uselessness of helping the people here see the need to work together to improve their lives. Unless they are willing to trust and help each other nothing will change and nothing can be accomplished.
I am reminded of a poem I encountered age about 18 which I copied down in my book of important things to remember:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore-- And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over-- like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
- Langston Hughes