Gridlock with multiple effects

Teargas, minor and major transport in Kampala

by Andrew Byerley

’Kampala turns into a battlefield as police and the military fire live bullets and tear gas’ announced the Daily Monitor on the front page of its Friday edition (21 June). I had the misfortune to be perched on the back of a boda boda motorcycle taxi in the midst of the turmoil in downtown Kampala on Thursday morning. A tear-gas canister exploded like a huge fire-cracker some 20 metres away causing the assorted crowd of demonstrators, traders, shoppers and passers-by to disperse in quite remarkable unison; somewhat akin to the effect of a magnet being suddenly prodded towards a pile of iron-filings. Indian shop owners hurriedly pulled down their shutters and the air was filled with the sound of the Robocop-sirens of police and army vehicles approaching, or trying to approach through the standstill traffic on Kampala Road.

To be true, the Monitor’s headline was somewhat exaggerated and any danger to my own well-being derived more from being on the back of what I quickly learned to be a very novice Boda Boda than from any fallout from the ‘battlefield’. Kampala’s boda boda’s, which can be numbered in their thousands, offer the only reasonably quick means of moving along the city’s otherwise choked and antiquated transport arteries. But relative speed comes at a price however. They operate in what is essentially a parallel road-space to the one in which four-wheeled vehicles move; or more correctly don’t move. Boda Boda road-space (‘Minor transport’) comprises the ephemeral and ever emergent / ever closing ‘bits in between’; it involves moving side-ways, diagonally, sometimes backwards, if possible across pavements, potentially on either side of the road – all the bits of road which at any given moment are not taken up by ‘Major transport’: the processions of mutatu’s (mini-buses), cars and vans grinding and shunting along rather like an old train. This parallel space, this ‘minor traffic’, is also immune to red-lights and other would-be ‘formal’ traffic signals; indeed a red-light simply opens up vast new vistas of open tarmac – for a second or two. Of course, mastering this parallel space requires considerable experience, skill and, despite what many of them say, not a little luck. Accidents invariably transpire when the ‘formal’ road space and the ‘informal’ boda boda road space collide. One common cause of accidents are the side-ways manoeuvres of boda boda’s across the fronts of momentarily stationary vehicles only to hit by the previously stationary vehicle or, more often, by boda boda’s coming up fast on the inside curb. The other usual cause is becoming wedged between two vehicles either through misjudging the widths of openings or as four-wheeled vehicles slowly converge as they grind forwards. It is interesting to note that the use of narrowed handle-bars by motorcycle taxis in Lagos have not yet arrived in Kampala. Watching these flows of ‘minor’ innovations would be an interesting research enterprise.

The gridlock has multiple effects – social, economical, political and not least environmental – and impacts on urban rhythms. Socially, one can for example venture that expensive cars as status symbols fail to work in their strictly functional sense in the context of central Kampala. I watched with interest and not a little amusement as a darkened-windowed government Mercedes stood stationary in the snarl-up outside Parliament Avenue despite the incessant Robocop siren of its preceding police escort fruitlessly endeavouring to clear the way. Social intercourse was also made possible by the jam. In one infamously crowded road branching off from Kampala Road towards Owino Market where even Boda Boda space closes down, various passengers and drivers chat, laugh and gesticulate; I had time for a lengthy discussion with a fellow road user about the pro’s and con’s of ‘regular’ contra ‘red-tab’ Blundstone footwear which I happened to be wearing. Economically the impasse means many hours of ‘lost time’ spent moving from A to B. For others this ‘lost time’ becomes ‘gained time’ and opens up earning time; informal street-traders receive a constant flow of slowly moving potential customers to which they sell belts, sunglasses, drinks and assorted knick-knacks. Other sectors simply re-schedule to avoid the standstill; huge lorries carrying matoke (cooking banana) now arrive at the 24-hour matoke markets in central Kampala in the depths of night. Some even attribute the growing boda boda sector with causal power for rural-urban migration; young men supposedly move to Kampala to take up Boda Boda work which is relatively easy to enter as most bikes are hired out by their owners. Politically, finding a solution to the gridlock seems gridlocked itself – political interests in the transport sector and the mismanagement of city planning and maintenance of urban infrastructure by KCC (Kampala City Council) have lead to stalemate for decades. The effects of the recent overhaul of KCC in 2011 and its relaunch as KCCA (Kampala Capital City Authority) are still too early to assess (my first meetings with them are next week) although initial indications on the ground seem to suggest a patching up of past neglect rather than new ‘solutions’ per se. This is not to say that Kampala’s urban space is unchanging. Kampala Road is somewhat darkened these days by the skyscrapers lining the road in various states of completion.    

   And so, as a result of a novice Boda Boda who had not yet mastered parallel Boda Boda space, we found ourselves lost in the thick of it; unsuccessfully seeking an exit from the clogged rabbit-warren of streets and side-alleys along Nakivubo stream trying to escape exploding teargas canisters, jets of pink coloured water being shot from a water cannons, charging police and Robocop sirens. The reasons for this particular ‘riot’ or ‘demonstration’ –

depending on one’s political stance – in which we were caught up, and the ones at Kiseka Market and several other places in central Kampala are complex, multi-faceted and not entirely divorced from transport and urban planning issues, especially as these connect with political issues. Indeed, the past week seems, in retrospect, to have been particularly conducive to an interpretation akin to what Tom Goodfellow has usefully termed a ‘politics of noise’. Last Monday’s budget saw the introduction or raising of tax’s on essential consumer products (fuel, paraffin, water etc.), the introduction by the Minister for Kampala of a monthly 120 000 shillings tax (50 dollars) on taxi drivers and operators, a guilty verdict on the former principle accountant in the office of the Prime Minister for multiple cases of corruption, and charges that both the Kampala Lord Mayor (Erias Lukwango) and the former FDC president Kizza Besigye were inciting disorder by attempting to address their supporters. The former was injured when a teargas canister was hurled into his car and the latter, who had just returned from the US, was arrested. These seeds for discontent – for ‘noise’ – were thrown on fertile ground. The fertility of this ground is not least evidenced by the ‘black Monday movement’; a civil society mobilisation protesting against misuse of tax money which has manifested itself in the wearing of black clothes on the first Monday of each month. It can also be added that the 2011 walk-to-work protests over fuel and commodity prices are still fresh in people’s minds.

The paradox is that the ‘failings’ of, for example, ‘major’ transport space open up for ‘minor’ transport space and the income earning possibilities this enables. My own research concerning competing notions of ‘the good city’ will continue to explore the friction zones pertaining to differently situated understandings of what constitutes the ‘good city’.

Afterword. For those wishing to move relatively safely and relatively quickly around Kampala it is perhaps useful advice to find a master of this parallel road space and use him regularly – especially one who spontaneously offers you his helmet.

To the top