Christmas is often a busy and hectic time.
Despite being known as laid-back this can also be true of Africa. The over-used phrase ‘No hurry in Africa’ is definitely not true on the roads in general as people that have experienced the traffic in Nairobi or ‘Jam-pala’ know from frustrating experience. At Christmas, many people are traveling back to the villages to visit family. So much so, that Kampala, Uganda’s capital, is known to be a lot quieter with fewer traffic jams due to this migration outwards. Due to the increased demand, bus fares increase in price and it is hard to get a seat.
Unfortunately, it is also well-known that traveling around Christmas is more dangerous too. There are increased incidences of vehicle crashes and people intensify their prayers for road safety, praying against the ‘spirit of accidents’, whatever that means!
In general, our area of Africa is known to have poor roads and high road fatalities. Uganda, for instance, has 27.4 traffic deaths per 100,000 people compared to 2.9 in the UK (WHO, 2015). Road surfaces are often dangerous being pot-holed and narrow and many road users are untrained. Cattle, goats, chickens, bicycles and children are wandering near the main roads and straying onto them. Police can be more interested in getting their ‘Christmas money’ rather than maintaining safety standards such as overloaded vehicles. It is an unfortunate fact that 90% of the world’s road fatalities occur in low to middle-income countries, despite these countries having half of the world’s vehicles (WHO, 2015).
I am therefore always more nervous and prayerful when making long journeys in the car and especially by bus or boda boda (a motorbike taxi).
With these thoughts at the forefront of my mind, I nervously and prayerfully begin my long journey to Kisumu, Kenya where I was hoping to organise a new birth certificate for Amelie, our first-born who was born there in 2010. At that time, we worked with REAP for a year, a Christian agriculture and development organisation. For some reason, Amelie’s original birth certificate was missing at the Government Registry so they wanted me there in person with evidence to get a new one processed.
I took an over- night bus out of Arua to Kampala with KK Traveller, paying the extra money for a ‘Comfort’ bus. My thinking was that by paying a few pounds more, I would be traveling with the more affluent customer and be less likely to get robbed. Being near the back of the bus, I kept feeling the awful ribbed humps that regularly came up on the highways. They really jolted me and kept me from falling into a good sleep. Although I don't like night-buses, they are very popular since people feel they don't lose a day by traveling, but because of the lack of rest, my body grumbles against it and I feel groggy.
We reach Kampala at 6 in the morning. I have lots of jobs to do in Kampala and so use my trusted boda-boda driver around town. In my experience, this is really the only way to get around Kampala to schedule if you have limited time, as you don't know when the jams in town will keep you from moving. Jams seem to happen anytime, and have known to last 4 hours, crawling through just a few kilometres.
On my boda in Kampala
Riding a boda-boda in Kampala feels like an intense adrenaline rush, similar in feeling to an extreme sport, I expect, probably because you are taking your life in your hands. (Living in Africa itself often feels like living in a perpetual extreme sport, hence there being no need for paying for these experiences). As you dodge around cars, trucks and matatus, there is only marginal time and space for any mistake. I always marvel at the skill at the way the boda driver manoeuvres, his eye-hand co-ordination seems incredible. Despite the fear and worry I feel inside, I keep as still and relaxed as possible so as to not put my driver off and so make a mistake.
However, it is also a well-known fact that the highest causes of accidents and injuries is through riding a boda-boda, especially since most riders and passengers don't wear helmets. Peace Corps, an American volunteer agency working in Uganda, for instance, does not allow its workers to ride boda-bodas at all. In 2010, a study on the “Impact of Bodaboda Motor Crashes on the Budget for Clinical Services at Mulago Hospital, Kampala” found that 75% of all road traffic accidents involved boda bodas. (Mulago government hospital is the largest hospital in Uganda.)
Thankfully, I am able to get my work done safely. In the meantime, Emma has sent round a message to friends on WhatsApp asking for prayer for my travels as the morning brought news of 2 buses colliding on the Arua-Kampala route.
The bus to Kisumu, Kenya on Modern Coast is early the next morning and my boda-boda driver weaves expertly through congested roads to get me there on time. Carrying my small suitcase and backpack on the back as I ride makes it an even less comfortable and potentially risky ride.
The Modern Coast coach really surprised me with its comfortable large reclining seats like armchairs that you sank right into and small TV monitors. Unfortunately, the TVs didn't work, but the overall look of the bus was very impressive.
The interior of the Modern Coast coach
People trafficking warning at the Kenya/Uganda border
Kisumu is like a walk down memory lane for me as Emma and I lived there 7 years ago while working for REAP. It is also where I was hoping to get Amelie’s new birth certificate organised within the few days I had there, the main reason for traveling 780 kilometres across East Africa.
It was also really good to connect with old friends and colleagues. The founder and director of REAP is the impressively bearded Dr Roger and we had co-ordinated so we could catch up there. As he drives by, local youths call out ‘Jesus!’ or ‘Saddam!’, 2 very different people! REAP’s work serves to support the materially poor with relevant teaching on managing land and homestead. It is very interesting.
Unflattering selfie at REAP demonstration farm
One of my old REAP colleagues, Sam, lives about 70km out along Lake Victoria near a fishing village called Asembo. Sam was once a fisherman himself before fish stocks grew too scarce. (Environmental problems like low fish stocks are growing issue on Lake Victoria). I had stayed out at his village home a couple of times before, and he invited me there for another overnight to meet his 2nd wife, a Ugandan lady he affectionally calls ‘Matooke’ after the famous Ugandan food, and eat tilapia fish, the food the Luo people, like him, love.
So it was that I ended up traveling on a ‘Matatu’, the ubiquitous white van that serves as an affordable transport for local people over longer distances in towns or between towns. These white vans are notoriously bad road users that don't follow any traffic rules, stopping when and where they want without using any signals. In Kisumu, they are often pimped up with bright paint-jobs and stickers emblazoned over them and music pumping. On our matatu, the music was mixed by dj big, vig or fig, I couldn't quite get his name whenever his tagline was mentioned in the music: ‘dj big, the mixmaster’.
The ubiquitous matatu...
The matatu waits until it is full of passengers before leaving. There is a bit of haggling needed before accepting to enter as the ‘conductor’ has quoted a high price, likely because of my being a ‘Mzungu’. As we sit waiting, the matatu passengers are bombarded by sales people (walking shops) selling a whole range of items despite the ‘No Hawking’ sign behind them: sunglasses, watches, drinks, vests, mirrors, padlocks, necklaces, bracelets, torches, reading glasses, belts… The sales person uses various tactics to sell their product including dropping the item on your lap or hanging around and explaining just how much you need to buy it or looking at you longingly. I end up getting a newspaper and a lollipop.
Selling watches to matatu passengers
Selling juice to matatu passengers
The matatu leaves when all available space is taken up. This means that there are 4 people per row instead of the intended 3 maximum with the conductor himself hanging outside of the open door or standing up and leaning over the passengers. On many levels, the matatu is a typical African experience. There is no personal space so is great If you like things cosy. It’s definitely not a British way to travel… Bodies are pressed together and where they meet, it gets sweaty within the hot metal van. Without seat belts, the pressing together makes me feel a bit safer somehow. However, manoeuvring in and out of your seats takes some contortions, especially if you are of a wider and ‘traditional’ build.
Tightly packed in
We pass police at the roadside and the conductor has his 50 shillings rolled up in his palm. The exchange is subtle and unnoticeable.
There are signs stuck within the matatu to remind us that we are traveling in another dangerous African machine. They tell passengers that they need to speak up to tell the driver to slow down if they are driving too fast. Road accidents are a nasty problem in Kenya as well
. Since being in Kenya for the last few days, I had already heard about 2 nasty crashes on a notorious stretch of road leaving many dead including some up-and-coming musicians
. Pictures of crushed vehicles and road carnage was being played over the Kenyan TV news. Very comforting.
Avoid accidents, tell the driver to slow down.
Thankfully, I do not become a grim statistic and my time with Sam is a good memory with very tasty fried fish and a visit Sam’s local fishing community. I return safely in another matatu to Kisumu.
Sam at his fishing village, Lake Victoria
Another overnight bus to Kampala and then onwards to Arua on KK Traveller again, I am relieved and happy to be home to see the family to celebrate Christmas.
Christmas with family
Driving home for Christmas in Africa is not something any of us here takes lightly.
Christmas with friends