The Boda Boda Less Traveled

By July 24, 2014 Africa No Comments

My first full day here in Africa, I found myself on the back of a boda boda heading towards my hotel. For those who don’t know,  a boda boda is a thoroughly African thing to do. It consists of a motorcycle, a driver, and a first time passenger holding on for dear life and settling his sins with God. Luckily for me, Jackson was kind enough to tell the boda boda man to take it easy on me as this was my first time.


Unsure about the whole situation I climbed on swearing to myself not to look too terrified. I am sure I did not accomplish this but I did not put us at a bigger danger than we already were by putting my feet down at huge divots and dips in the road. I am sure our slow speed annoyed the boda boda man to his wits end, but he kept his promise and took it slow. This is not an easy task either, with little traffic laws and even fewer people obeying them slow bodas are forced to be on guard at all times of passing vehicles. Being passed by a semi on a boda is a truly religious experience. The massive vehicle flying by you at top speed whips the wind and exhaust straight into your face. Again I cringe only because I know the boda man can not see me.


There is a company infiltrating the boda boda market in Kampala knkwn as Tugende. It is a for-profit institution which leases bodas to these drivers. Eventually after 18 months these boda drivers will own their own boda lifting the landlord and rental fee burden. Lifting the burden allows drivers to invest in school fees, housing, or livestock for their family. Some sell their bike and enjoy about a $700-800 USD boost to their personal economy. They will then reapply with Tugende for another bike and start all over again.


Apart from the terrifying semis and mzungos (white people) attempting to drive in Africa. The countryside is beautiful and truly can only be absorbed as a passenger on a boda boda. As we approached Jinja I felt comfortable enough and discovered I had truly enjoyed my experience. That even includes the time spent lost in Jinja side streets.


Tugende is searching for new markets and hopes to expand from 1000 bikes currently to 10,000 bikes in the next 5 years. They have started doing market evaluations in Jinja. If I was to offer a piece of advice to Tugende it would be to ensure their drivers knew the streets well and all major destinations within the city.


You see, Jackson had told the driver how to return to my hotel and so I was not worried about getting lost. However, the driver must have forgotten because we stopped and asked for directions where I would later find out was only a short 5 minutes from my final destination. After the couple of Africans we asked either didn’t know or pointed us back the way we came the driver was obviously tired of his time with me and tried to convince me to get off the boda and wait for the next one who knew jinja better. I refused and he conceded after I told him I knew how to get to my place (which was a lie). Luckily I have a great photographic memory and was able to eventually lead him the proper direction after a couple of missed turns. Once arriving at my beloved place of rest I asked how much I owed for the drive.


Boda drivers do not necessarily own their own bikes. They rent them from a landlord and pay him a certain percentage of daily profits or set amount at the end of every day or week. Since the bikes are the landlords can demand the bike back at any time it leaves the drivers in a perpetual state of panic that any morning their way to make a living could be gone in an instant. This forces drivers to haggle with passengers over prices and drive recklessly at all hours of the day.


In Uganda everything is negotiable. Which leads to the next part of this story. The driver started out by asking for 100,000 shillings which is a little lass than $50 USD. I remembered my ride was 150,000 from the airport to Jinja in a private taxi so obviously the driver was trying to cheat me. I said heck no and called him a thief and we haggled back and forth. He argued about how slow he traveled for me and the time spent lost made him lose potential customers. I argued it was not my fault the got lost and he should have listened better. In the end, we settled at 50,000 shillings and thought I had won my first haggle battle. Only, the next day Jackson asked and when I told him he called the boda a thief and deleted his number from his phone. I found out later that boda drivers are lucky to make 30,000 a day from all their drivers combined. Oh well, TIA (this is Africa).

The moral of this story and the purpose of the juxtaposition within this story is to show how a for-profit institution can bring great change to the way an already established yet dangerous practice like the boda-boda. Financially incentivizing boda drivers through eventual ownership of their own bodas is integral at increasing safety in Africa. The boda-boda will always be dangerous and even Tugende wishes to see them phased out with public transport and better road infrastructure but in the meantime working with how Africa currently operates is most important.


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