Before Kampala became the city it is today, it was a royal hunting reserve of the Baganda kingdom, inhabited by herds of impala. The hunting ground, called akasozi k’empala (hill of impalas), later gave its name to the city.
The impala genus type Aepyceros which were fast driven out by human settlement, were so integral to the city’s history that at one point appeared on the city’s emblem.
In December 2012, the impala on the emblem was replaced by a clock mast with a rising yellow sun behind it. A boda boda in the foreground would have been fine too. Boda bodas, one could argue, have since replaced impalas in Kampala.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) recently entered boda boda into its 9th edition as “a type of motorcycle or bicycle with a space for a passenger or for carrying goods, often used as a taxi.”
These two-wheeled taxis are to Uganda’s urban centres what yellow taxis are to New York.
The Police Directorate of Traffic and Road Safety says there could be as many as a million of them.
Estimates by different studies and sector sources however put the number at between 200,000 and 300,000. This means boda bodas are the second highest source of employment after agriculture.
Depending on the model, the motorbikes cost between Ush3.5 million ($957)and Ush4 miliion ($1,094), and most riders either own them under hire purchase arrangement or are employed by the owners.
Each boda boda makes at least Ush40,000 ($10.8) a day, which comes to at least Ush8 billion ($2.17 million) daily. Few sectors generate this much money.
Nevertheless, the money they generate cannot mask the reasons boda bodas dominate urban transport. They started as bicycle transport in the 1970s in Busia on the Uganda-Kenya border.
Ugandans used them to cross over to Kenya for essential supplies like fuel following the prolonged state of civil unrest in the country that wrecked the economy.
They later became a primary, albeit loathed, means of urban transport in the early 1990s with the collapse of the national public transport system that hitherto was characterised by buses and trains, according to Dr Tom Goodfellow, a senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield, who researches on the politics of urban development and planning in sub-Saharan Africa.
The origins and rise to dominance of boda bodas therefore coincided with bad economic times.
This belies Uganda’s often praised development trajectory, according to lexicographer Bernard Sabiiti, who is also a development economist and currently the partnerships manager and engagement advisor at Development Initiatives, a non-profit organisation.
“The attraction to boda bodas is a consequence of gross absence of gainful employment. Almost 93 per cent of university graduates in Uganda cannot find jobs.
“But more, there are only 20 per cent of the population with post-secondary education. So, boda bodas provide a livelihood to a lot of unemployed and unemployable youth,” said Mr Sabiiti.
“Whereas the population has continued to explode, no corresponding investments in public goods like transport have been made. Rail was cool back then because there were fewer people and the government was serious about investments in the transport sector.
“But today public transport has been left on its own just like any other public services such as health and education,” he added.
The boda boda explosion followed the economic recovery in the early 1990s and were concentrated around Kampala, occasioned by “the lack of a good road infrastructure, collapse of the national public transport system from the 1980s, deregulation of transport services
“Increased congestion as the city expanded and the large number of minibus-taxis contributed to traffic gridlock,” noted Mr Goodfellow, who has done a comparative study of boda bodas in Uganda and Rwanda.
As a matter of fact, the current “government initially cultivated the sector as a means of alleviating poverty and unemployment, allocating funds to credit schemes for motorcycle purchase and persuading banks to provide loans to prospective boda boda riders,” according to Mr Goodfellow’s 2015 analysis titled Taming the Rogue Sector: Studying State Effectiveness in Africa through Informal Transport Politics.
Boda bodas are today so common place, they are used for every imaginable scenario. Criminals use them as a means for a quick get away from crime scenes and equally, spouses are known to use them to trail and spy on cheating partners.
Security agents too are known to use them for surveillance.
In Uganda, boda bodas are hired to popularise political meetings with the riders moving around in huge convoys causing quite a stir with their hooting.
In the 2001 presidential elections, President Yoweri Museveni famously rode on a boda boda to present his nomination papers.
In a country where public transport is erratic and taxis out of reach for many, boda bodas come in handy in case of emergencies as they are used to ferry the sick to hospitals and health centres.
And just as well, if you’re late for a date, business appointment or even a job interview, a boda boda will take you there faster than you can pronounce the letter A, the eminent risk of death in an accident notwithstanding.
Just as the swift antelopes that once roamed Kampala crisscrossed the hill, boda bodas now crisscross the traffic jammed roads and streets like bees on steroids. They penetrate offroad suburbs at breakneck speeds, in complete disregard for all rules.
Boda boda riders are a law unto themselves, and swear by mob injustice. They have what one observer has called a “secret brotherhood with a code of honour.” To touch one is to touch all.
They charge in droves at their “enemies.” Not a week passes in Kampala without news about boda boda riders either fighting amongst themselves or attacking someone deemed hostile to one of their own.
“The first thing you notice when you arrive in Kampala is boda bodas and the dust, no matter where you are from or how you entered the country. And the chaos and disregard for anything that you instantly recognise characterises them is soon revealed everywhere else you go,” said Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva, a poet and convener of the Babishai Poetry Festival (BPF).
“Boda bodas have in some way become the mirrors of our societies. In Rwanda, for instance, you find that they are highly regulated, neatly organised and clearly identifiable, which reflects the highly organised state in which they operate. Those guys there fear even the slightest breach of the law because the government has made the consequences very clear,” said Ms Nambozo.
In 2014, BPF sent out a call for poems describing Kampala, from flattery to dismay. Ms Nambozo says they were surprised that boda bodas were the dominant subject in both things bad and ugly that people chose to write about Kampala.
A number of submissions reimagined the city as a beautiful bride blemished by all manner of plights top of which was boda bodas. Little wonder then that some were not coy to conclude that it had all but become a city of boda bodas.
“Someone tells me I should proudly chant: Kampala, City Yange! Sincerely, I ask, Kampala City Y’ani? There are no Boda Boda rules, so Boda Boda rules, hitting people and pavements, snatching life and limb,” writes Richard Kiiza in his poem Kampala Y’ani? (Whose city is Kampala?),
one of the entries in the anthology Boda Boda Anthem and Other Poems which Ms Nambozo published featuring poems submitted.
The title of Kiiza’s poem is a play on the first initiative named the same, bankrolled by the current city administrators. The administrators were appointed in 2011 when the central government took over the running of Kampala.
As well intentioned as the idea was — to promote a sense of ownership of the city by mobilising the public who live and work in it to be actively involved in its reorganisation — it was grossly undermined by the overzealousness of its backers.
They unleashed a frightening ruthlessness commonly associated with rogue security agencies as they went about their self-appointed mission to “clean up” the place and transform it into a “futuristic metropolis.”
Yet when it came to reining in boda bodas, about which majority of people called for urgent regulation, they watched on impotently as the two-wheeled taxis took over the roads and streets and became one of the most powerful constituencies in Kampala by sheer numbers.
The public’s overwhelming desire to have the riders controlled was out of the latter’s reputation as the leading source of road accidents and deaths in Kampala, according to year-on-year records by the police and the National Referral Hospital at Mulago whose Orthopaedic Trauma Ward is occupied by boda boda accident victims.
“The case for regulating the sector was clearly strong by the early 2000s. Widespread consensus existed among both boda boda leaders and city authorities that numbers urgently needed controlling, and the sheer danger to health and life posed by their proliferation was indisputable,” Mr Goodfellow noted in his 2015 study.
As it is, boda bodas are a genie out of the bottle.