A question for the Ministry of Works, Housing and Communications

Q: How many Ugandans does it take to get a matatu (shared minivan taxi) from Kampala to Entebbe?

A: Two to maneuver your friend’s suitcase into the front seat; another to charge her 225% of the fare because she’s bringing luggage (I’m sorry, isn’t everyone else?); three to load the back of the vehicle with bags of grain and sacks of live chickens; two to strap foam mattresses to the top; one to yell at those strapping mattresses to the top about the way in which they’re strapping mattresses to the top; six to get in, properly position (read: cram into every available nook and cranny) their baggage, get settled, then change their minds, extract their belongings and leave; one to roll his eyes at the six indecisive ones; two to press water, biscuits, handkerchiefs, newspapers and other assorted, unwanted goods on the passengers; one to beg for money as you finally roll out of the taxi park; one to run over a roadside plasticware stand two blocks from the taxi park; and three to re-pack the grain and (possibly no longer live) chickens when the back comes open after running over the plastics.

A friend and I have joked about a Frequent Matatu Rider Program. I would totally cash in my kilometers for a conductor who would adhere to the little sign painted on the side of every van that reads, “Licenced to carry 14 passengers” instead of cramming 23 people and their assorted poultry into one vehicle. A guarantee that you’ll never have to sit on the crack between the bench and the fold-down seat? What about a VIP lounge at the taxi park? Front door pick-up service? Air conditioning? Waragi-and-tonics on trips longer than thirty minutes?

The program could take its cue from KLM’s Flying Blue. I can see it now:

Riding Dirty

Do you think the government could get Jay-Z (as long as he’s on his charity kick) to convince Chamillionaire to let them his track as a theme song?

romance in k’la city

After six weeks in Kampala, I’ve come to the conclusion that those involved in public transportation – namely boda drivers and matatu conductors – learn basic English questions in the following order:

1. You, where are you going?
2. Muzungu, how are you?
3. Do you have a boyfriend?
4. What’s your phone number?

This phenomenon often extends beyond drivers and conductors to other passengers, who frequently inquire about your marital status before even learning your name. These men have no shame – even if your hair is a mess and your eyes are bloodshot and you’re stumbling through the taxi park at six in the morning, they still see something desirable in you and give it their best shot. It both appeals to your vanity and disgusts you. If you happen to be a single white woman in Kampala, it also leads to the creation of a wide variety of excuses to avoid sharing any actual personal information with them, which can range from “I’m sorry, I seem to have forgotten my own number,” to “Yes, my husband is a professional Norwegian lumberjack, and we raise pit bulls together with our three lovely children” — both of which have come in handy.

Living in Kampala as a white female requires a certain amount of humor and resilience to deal with the constant barrage of redundant pick-up lines. And then there are the times you fail, your mind falters and all excuses desert you, and you’re left having given your phone number to a blue-helmeted boda driver named Edward who will call you every thirty minutes between 6:30 AM and 8:00 PM for the next three weeks.

Edward and I spent a miserable 90 minutes on a boda one drizzly Tuesday morning in a sorely misguided attempt to return to my village from southeastern Kampala. Despite my frantic arm-waving and my emphatic commands to “Stop. This is Bad. We turn around. We go back,” Edward sojourned on to Kawempe, a good 10 km from where I live. When we finally reached my home, he was so apologetic that he knocked 2000 shillings off the price and offered to give me a ride whenever I needed it. Finding a boda willing to take you cross-town and then some for a reasonable price at 6:00 AM can be a challenge, so I accepted and we exchanged numbers. Mistake number one.

Though I’d done my best to explain to him when I needed rides, he began calling me just a few short hours after dropping me off to ask if I could use his services. I answered the first time he called out of curiousity (perhaps I’d left something on his bike?), and the second out of pity and mild frustration (“Thank you, I’m sorry you don’t have any other riders, but I’m not going anywhere at the moment.”). Mistakes numbers two and three.

Though I stopped picking up, Edward kept calling, and the situation grew so dire that I began keeping my phone constantly on silent. Rather than daunting his persistence, my refusal to acknowledge his attentions seemed to increase his determination to reach me. He began sending text messages of the sort that only romance-stricken boda drivers can send: “U wher r u I havnt seen u in so long plz call Edward” and “Hopping u r not sick want 2 see u call me plz.”

The messages eventually slowed and then, one blissful day, stopped entirely, and Edward faded from my consciousness until a couple of days ago, when I made the mistake of picking up another boda from the same stage. Immediately after hopping on the bike, I noticed Edward hunched sulkily over his handlebars, staring at the two of us. As we pulled away, he straightened up and yelled, as only boda drivers can, “MUZUNGU WHY YOU NOT LOVE ME?”

I’m sorry, Edward. My heart already belongs to a Norwegian lumberjack.