There is an old saying in Uganda about the beauty of a storm that fells a huge tree that you have been trying to figure out how to cut.
The tree has not only been an obstacle to your plans but it was also harbouring nasty pests including monkeys that destroy your crops. But every time you looked at your small axe, you estimated it would take you months to cut the damn tree down. Then one morning you wake up when the night storm brought the tree down without damaging anything, leaving you with a couple of years’ supply of firewood.
The Ukraine crisis looks like it is going to be the storm that will solve Kampala’s sickening traffic jam. Literally sickening, for the dirty vehicular exhausts that enter the lungs like the coronavirus are believed by public health experts to be behind 20 times more deaths in Uganda in a year than Covid-19 caused in two years.
Anyway, since the Ukraine affair started some four months back, the fuel pump price has almost doubled, now at Ush6,000 ($1.6) a litre. And for the first time since the oldest Ugandan (wo)man can remember, diesel costs more than petrol.
And thanks to the Ukraine storm, there are signs, still weak but apparently promising, that the jammed streets of Kampala are easing up. Yes, you heard me right, there is a slight but steady decline in the jamming of our roads as the price of fuel rises. And we are told it is because of Ukraine.
Mind you there are some roadworks going on in the city with several lanes blocked, which should have made the remaining lanes further congested. But believe you me, the madding jam is easing. If it isn’t due to the rising fuel prices, then maybe some supernatural power is telling Ugandans to drive cars less and walk more, or stay in one place.
There is also the possibility that since the Covid-induced lockdown, many of the people who learnt to work from home using digital tools generally called Zoom even if it is Google- or Microsoft-based, have continued staying home and no longer drive in the rush hour.
Finally, now there is a glimmer of hope. The merciful gods have sent the fuel prices rising and the congestion that had proved beyond our planners’ intellectual capacity to remove is being sorted out by fate.
It could have been the divine inspiration that stopped us from the invasion of Ukraine. Now as the invasion donates to us the high, unprecedented fuel prices, there is a real hope that our respiratory health is set to be restored. In effect, the skyrocketing fuel prices are imposing a second lockdown on the economy.
But even if we get clean lungs, being social animals, we shall still have to move when the fuel price hits Ush10,000 ($2.7) a litre. Since we have wonderful climate and soils, maybe we shall produce hay and rear horses to ride around Kampala. We can get more rational and reduce the school days from five to three per week, and then promote home learning exercises.
Inevitably, we might start using alternative means of powering our movement around dusty but soon-to-be-smokeless Kampala.
If we start thinking outside the box and stop borrowing to pay others to think for us, we shall start seeing the possibilities.
Have our engineers ever checked, for example, whether gravitational force cannot run trams on cables connecting places in this city which is a series of hills and valleys?
Have they established by what ration the downward trams should outweigh the upward one for movement with such pulleys?
Ancient Egyptians used the shadoof to deliver irrigation water over a distance. Can we transport people across the city using the electricity which we generate but half of which we do not consume even as we keep paying the loans that were used to install the generation capacity?
Answers will come more easily when the fuel prices reach Ush10,000 a litre.
Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:[email protected]