Martha has referred to the driving in Kampala on a couple of occasions. Driving in the city requires two mental shifts. First, you must learn to drive on the opposite side of the road and shift gears with your left hand. This is an easy mental sift to make. The second one takes a little more time, however. You must stop thinking of driving as a means to get from point A to point B in as short a distance as possible and start to thinking of driving as an obstacle course to overcome, or a race car video game. I would like to illustrate this by using a method used in the “choose your own ending” books I read as a youngster…
Here is the situation. A taxi-bus has pulled over with no turn signal or warning of any kind to let off a passenger. Since there are no bus stops, the bus still covers two-thirds of your lane. The opposite lane is packed with cars, because the number of vehicles in Kampala has grown much more quickly than the number of roads. A boda-boda (moped or motorcycle used as a taxi) is coming toward you, weaving its way your lane and the opposite lane. At this point, what do you do? Do you choose to try and squeeze in between the stopped taxi-bus and the oncoming traffic? Then go to line “A” below. If, however, you choose to stop and wait for the taxi-bus to start back up before proceeding, go to line “B” below.
A. You have chosen well. The fact is that in Kampala you are expected to maintain your forward momentum except in extreme situations. The boda-boda manages to slip by you, even as you push out around the taxi-bus. The finely balanced dance that is Kampala driving is maintained.
B. You cause mild consternation among the drivers following you. The car immediately behind you swerves around and in between the lanes creating a more dangerous situation than before. You quickly learn that when driving in Kampala you should try and maintain forward momentum if at all possible – which it somehow usually is.
Some might refer to Kampala driving as lawless, as complete disorder. But the fact is there are rules, just not the ones you might be accustomed to. We have been given to understand that this is due to the fact that driving lessons or licenses were not required until just recently. I don’t know what is taught in the newly formed driving schools, but if they are preparing people for driving in Kampala, they probably look something like this:
1. Don’t stop your forward momentum if at all possible.
2. Your brights are to be used to flash people and drivers when you are on a collision course with them.
3. Turning your lights on before complete darkness sets in will cause other drivers to think there is something mentally wrong with you. And if you don’t have lights… that’s okay.
4. Turn signals are called “indicators.” And don’t forget that the turn signal is on the right and windshield wipers on the left. Some Americans have trouble remembering that and it’s pretty funny.
5. Even though you probably won’t do anything besides read the newspaper when you get to work, you should drive like mad to get there.
6. Two-lane roads can fit three cars, a motorcycle, and a bicycle easily.
7. Sidewalks, etc. are part of the roads and can be used at will.
8. Try not to breathe while driving. Only one out of a hundred cars would pass an emissions test.
Common things in Kampala to try and avoid hitting:
1. Goats and cows roaming the roads
2. Pedestrians not aware that they can die if they walk out in front of the road unexpectedly
3. Big pot holes and even bigger speed hills (bumps) at completely random locations
4. Taxi-buses that stop without any warning whatsoever.
5. Boda-boda mopeds carrying up to two passengers.
6. Bicycles carrying plywood, large stacks of brooms and buckets, very large wooden trunks, chickens, or several people.
I suppose that if I were Luke Skywalker, I would nonchalantly say, “it’s just like the races at Beggar’s Canyon back home on Tatuine.” In my case, though, I’m mostly just glad that we will be leaving soon for calmer roads in Arua. The interesting thing about this whole driving phenomenon in Kampala is the fact that the Ugandan culture is, by in large, extremely laid back, gentle, generous, and welcoming. I was asked once what kept me coming back to Africa. My reply was short… the people. My experience in Uganda so far has confirmed this sentiment. Indeed, it is a joy to be able to walk along side and serve the Ugandan people.