I’ve realized that, looking back at my previous blog posts, I haven’t done a great job of really explaining the day to day life in Uganda. So I’ve come up with a way to do a better job helping you understand and really feel what it’s like to live on the ground here. So, without further ado…
A new series that will occur on this blog from time to time. And the best part is, it’s totally interactive!
So here goes our first Recreating Uganda experience.
Congratulations on wanting to know more about the everyday Ugandan experience. Understanding the boda-boda experience is crucial to understanding Uganda. You can’t have Uganda without boda-bodas, every Ugandan ever said (laughing at us after we tell them we can’t take them… ANYWAY…)
Boda-Boda Stage in Uganda (not my picture)
A boda-boda is a motorcycle taxi that is used in literally every city, town, village, and hodunk collection of shacks next to a road/muddy path in this country. The name boda-boda might make you think you’re learning your first bit of Luganda, but you’re not. It’s just a mispronunciation of border-border, as the motorcycles used to be used to ferry goods across the border between Uganda and Kenya. So really you’ve learned your first important lessons about Uganglish – drop all ‘r’ sounds and double a lot of words.
Anyway, boda-bodas are how basically everyone moves here. You need to get to your nearest trading village which is a 45 minute walk from your house at a PTC (hey… that sounds like my situation!), you ride a boda-boda (or walk if you’re a Peace Corps member…) So here’s the interactive part of this experience. First, obtain a motorcycle that has some space on the back. Doesn’t need to be much. To make this as accurate an experience as possible, maintenance of the motorcycle is highly frowned upon. Please choose one of the following options and get the listed members together in your group:
A) One man (if you’re a man… ey-yo, you’re in luck!), one woman and one infant
B) One man, four children between the ages of 6 and 10 and one toddler
C) Three men
D) Two men
E) Two men, a woman, and a live goat or two live chickens
Note: This reenactment is best done on a humid, 80+ day for accuracy.
As you’ll note, all of these situations include at least one man. That’s because only men get to drive the boda-bodas. Sorry ladies, but we all know you need to be at home cooking for your husband. So, amongst the group (if necessary) determine who will be the boda-boda driver. If you’re stuck, important qualities are assertiveness, adventurousness and sheer lunacy. Now that you’ve chosen the boda-boda man he needs to get in proper wardrobe. Full pants (shorts are only for children!) and a 90s windbreaker/winter coat are required. If you have an old Starter jacket, you’re in luck! (You might be questioning this as I told you to do this reenactment in 80 degree weather, but in Uganda apparently wind has the ability to kill so button up!)
If you’re a woman taking part in this reenactment, you must wear a knee-length or longer skirt. Anything shorter and you might attract attention to your knee caps and hoo-buddy, you don’t want to do that.
Anyway, the rules for each situation are as follows:
A) Boda-boda driver will obviously be driving. The woman will be perched on the rear of the seat, holding the infant in her arms. This is crucial here: the woman must be seated side-saddle style. If you don’t know what that means (and clearly this implies you haven’t seen enough Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman for my tastes), it means that both of the woman’s legs are on the same side and she’s precariously balanced sideways with no good grip. While holding her infant. On a speeding motorcycle.
B) The boda-boda driver will cram 4 of the children behind him, each of them clutching at the one in front of them. The toddler will go where it naturally goes – in front of the driver on the metal part between the handlebars and the seat. Holding onto the handlebars. (Perfect way for your tot to learn the feel of the road years before they should ever really be on a motorcycle, am I right?) If you’re the parent of one of these lucky kids, go ahead and go back into your house. Parental supervision is not required for this. In fact, it’s probably better if you only have a vague sense that your children aren’t in your home. Maybe. Or maybe they’re somewhere around here…
A boda boda representative of scenario B. Not my picture, but also completely unsurprising.
C) Not too many rules for this one – one of you will be the boda-boda driver and the other two are passengers. Get cozy close. Real close. You can even hold hands with your best male friend. That’s fine. Just don’t go violating any laws, if you get my drift.
D) Ha! You chose this one because it sounds the easiest. Well have I got news for you. The boda-boda man will be driving while the passenger balances either an entire full sized bed frame or an entire car windshield (whichever is easiest for you to find) in between himself and the driver, with just two hands. Driving will continue at full speed. You might say this sounds impossible, but my friend, impossible is nothing. Adidas told me so. Also I’ve seen both done. So figure it out.
E) This one I like to imagine is the family situation. One of you will be the driver, and our lovely husband and wife duo will be the passengers. It is of utmost importance that the husband and wife never hold hands or show any kind of intimacy, genuine affection or knowledge that the other one exists. (Hold hands with your same sex friends, not the person you’re spending all eternity with, got it?) If you’ve chosen to bring along a goat, the best option here is to have the side-saddle woman hold it in her lap. If it’s fighting, she better hold on tight. If you’ve got two live chickens, the woman could hold them or you can decide to strap them down to the back of the bike with a long rubber cord. Your choice. It’s going to be noisy either way.
Rule for Everyone: Roll a 12 sided dice (or use a random number generator if you’re not a nerd who has one of those…) If the number that comes up is 8, you’re in luck. The driver is wearing a helmet! If not, the driver doesn’t need to worry. I’m sure he’ll be fine.
Other Rule for Everyone: Roll a regular dice (you have to have one – go open up that dusty box of Yahtzee that you definitely have somewhere in your basement). If the number that comes up is negative, the passengers get a helmet. Oh shoot… looks like you’re all out of luck.
Now, to determine the playing field go ahead and flip a coin. Bonus points if it’s a 50 shilling coin – those things are crazy hard to find. Anyway, if it’s heads (shield side for my shilling peeps, represent!) you’re going to be our cityfolk. If it’s tails (steer in front of a mountain? side), you’ll be our village dwellers.
Cityfolk: Take your assembled crew (and any necessary props) and your motorcycle out onto a busy road at rush hour. For my C-bus group, I vote either High Street or Polaris Parkway at around 4:45pm on a Friday. For those in the Bay Area, El Camino between San Mateo and Mountain View would work great for this (same time, except in PST). If you’re not in one of those areas, just think about that one street where if you mention you were stuck on it at rush hour everyone at the table will groan and start sharing their war stories from there. That’s the road you want.
Now your goal is to make it about 3 or 4 miles in the shortest time possible. Remember that laws are only words, and words bounce off me and stick to you or whatever. What I’m trying to say is that laws are a mere suggestion of how the weak would do it. Do whatever you damn well please. Also make sure to ignore any painted lines, as those are only for conformists. Also ignore: right of way, pedestrians, traffic police, common courtesy, posted signs, and all traffic lights. (Those barely exist here anyway.) Since we drive on the left here, and no one really feels it’s necessary to stick with that anyway the entire road is yours. Feel free to make use of the space given. Look at how many things are available to drive on when you don’t feel constrained to stay on the road. Bonus points if you hit someone on the route.
Village Dwellers: Well no lies here, you drew the short end on this one. It’s important that you wait for a day after it’s poured raining all day. (Or heck, why wait? Just go on ahead and carry out your plans the second it stops raining.) Now, take your assembled crew, props and motorcycles to the nearest dirt bike track. If you don’t know where that is, trust me some dude smoking weed outside of the nearest high school at around 11:30am will definitely know where it is. If you still come up dry, ask them where they go ‘muddin’ and you should get some kind of similar venue. If you still, still come up dry then go to the nearest large farm field. It’ll have to do. Should have been a cityfolk, shouldn’t you?
Your goal is to make it about 10 miles in the shortest time possible. Imagine you’re going to a introduction ceremony for your niece who lives in the next closest village. I wonder how many cows she’s worth!! Since you’re out in the village, no need to worry about laws. I haven’t seen a single cop patrol my village road in the past 4 months, and even if you saw them you’d blow buy them on your motorcycle anyway. Feel free to really become one with the road. The best way to do this is to take every twist, turn, hill and large crevasse as fast as possible. Now, there will be people living along side your route, so just go ahead and make sure to hold down the horn the whole route so that they won’t get in your way. And if they do, that’s fine. Because there’s no stopping a boda-boda once it gets going. Bonus points for any village children you take out.
To finish the scenario, the passenger must shout ‘stage’ when he or she reaches the destination. (Stage means stop in Uganglish, obviously.) After you finish your scenario, congratulations! You’ve just recreated a bit of authentic Uganda for your very own!
However, if for some reason you couldn’t pull a group together and you’re a man… you’re still in luck. I’ve come up with a simple way for you to experience the fun of being a boda-boda man on your very own! (Again, sorry ladies. But when we get to the recreating drudgery part… you’re going to be our stars!)
Anyway, take your motorcycle to a busy street corner where there is a good amount of pedestrian traffic. If you have a bunch of buddies who want to get in on this too, they should bring their motorcycles along too. If you think you might be working this corner a lot, feel free to erect a bench and a kind of wall with pegs to hang up your jackets when you’re not on the road. Nothing fancy here – I’m talking scrap lumber. Now you have your ‘stage’. (Stage also means end of a route in Uganglish, obviously.)
Now, you’re not bringing in any shillings just standing around. You need customers. Take a look around. Try shouting out “You first come” to any of the men walking around. If any come, well done! You’ve got a customer. If not, continue on.
If you spot any women, try to draw them in by shouting things like “Sister, you come we go!” or “Sister, we go!” or “Sister, come come!” Really any combination of sister + some form of come that would not be recognized as grammatically correct can do the job. If this still hasn’t netted you a customer, fear not.
If you spot anyone of Asian (or potentially Asian-like) descent, get yourself ready. Go ahead and shout things like “Chinese! Chinese! Chinese!” or “Ni hao!” or make ‘ching ching chong’ sounds as they walk by. For every tenth person of Asian descent (or not, no need to actually be accurate on these things) go ahead and scream “Japanese! Japanese!” and “Konichiwa!” at them. If they look offended, don’t worry. They’re just not used to being received with such accuracy and excitement. Probably. Just keep trying, it’s bound to work sometime. But in the meantime…
If you see a white person anywhere nearby… DROP EVERYTHING. A white person is your holy grail. Your whatever is opposite of kryptonite for Superman (I ran out of metaphors.) Anyway. Every good boda-boda man knows that white people have endless money supplies and are just waiting to drop it on a ride. If you see a white person, immediately yell “MUZUNGU MUZUNGU” at them as loud as you possibly can. If that doesn’t work, feel free to rush up to them and grab their hands or arms saying something like “Yes my friend, we go” or “Hello friend, come come” or “Sister, first you come”. Ask how Obama is. If they’re holding bags, make sure to helpfully try to carry them to your boda even if they’re not interested in a ride. It’ll work like a charm. If it’s a white woman alone, remember that you’re a highly sexually charged man and it’s your job to let her know. Feel free to shout “my size” (I’ll let you figure out the implications of that one) or “Let me put my baby in you” or “let me ride you” (that actually just means let me give you a ride… maybe…) at her. Let her know that you want to marry her and that she is so beautiful. Her body is yours, so go ahead and pinch, slap or punch her as she walks by. That’ll definitely get her. Feel free to quote all muzungus a price four to five times higher than you would anyone else. They’re all shillingaires and love to drop that paper.
If all of this has failed, you’re not trying hard enough. Drive your motorcycle up to every single person walking and rev the engine next to them while giving them some grammatically incorrect form of ‘You come with me’. Even if they just passed up a few boda-bodas a few seconds ago, or you witnessed them say no to someone else. They might just change their mind!
Once you’ve got your customer, and by this point I’m sure you have them just lining up to get a ride, go back to the point where I said ‘flip a coin’ and go from there. Congratulations! Even you can feel the boda-boda experience properly.
Now, if none of those scenarios work perfectly you can recreate the boda-boda experience of a Peace Corps volunteer. Just set out on a hilly walk that will last you anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes. Make sure that it’s sunny (just like in Philly, it’s always sunny here!) and at least 80 degrees. Since this is the equator, humidity should be at “dripping off of you before you get out of bed”, just for accuracy. Your scenario is pretty simple. Just watch all the boda-bodas drive past you as you walk. Some might have passengers, but there’s always room for one more. But not you. You can’t ride them. So you’ll glare with increasing jealousy as you continue to walk. Soon, your entire back will be soaked in sweat and you have dust all over your face. A boda-boda will drive by, slow and the driver will shout “We go?”. No, you respond back sadly. We don’t go. Congratulations. You’re a real Peace Corps volunteer now.
Our regularly scheduled Rwanda post will occur once I’ve edited the pictures! Gotta work on those curves.