Getting Through the Mess

Chaos and Complexity in an East African City

Kampala traffic on a hazy morning. The East African metropolis is known in the region for its out-of-control traffic snarls and crumbling transportation infrastructure. Credit: weesam2010, Creative Commons.

Kampala comes alive on the road — especially during the morning commute. Matatus, boda bodas and private cars all jostle for supremacy of the right-of-way. Hawkers sell everything from toilet paper, to household tools, to 70’s era gutfat-busting fitness equipment between the vehicles. Street preachers shout fire and brimstone for your salvation from the median. And it’s totally unpredictable. You might reach your destination in record time, or you might be caught in a vicious traffic snarl, waiting an hour for the white-clad traffic police to bully enough cars and trucks out of the way for you to get through. Each morning brings a new journey with its quirks and frustrations.

Out of necessity, most people walk the streets of Kampala. But nothing is designed for pedestrians. Walking is a constant game of pothole-and-puddle hopping, zig-zagging across open drains and broken manhole covers. With few sidewalks, pedestrians are left to dodge traffic and market vendors, winding their way up and down embankments. In place of sidewalks, informal pathways have been worn into the dirt.

Like walking the streets of Kampala, working here frequently requires that you make do with the best that you have. Many of the basic services we take for granted back home — reliable electricity, modern printers, plentiful office supplies — are just not available. Instead, getting your work finished sometimes calls for a cheerful ability to jump over unexpected potholes as they appear. I’m reminded of one night in particular; a looming deadline, pages of research and important emails left to complete — and the power fails. Instead of throwing up our hands in defeat, we kept working by candlelight, scribbling out emails on a pad of paper to be typed up later. The carefully paved sidewalks might be missing, but if you keep walking there’s a way around, usually through the informal pathways worn into the dirt.


Next are the matatus, or just taxis as they’re called here. They hurtle back and forth playing chicken with each other, screeching to a halt at the sign of any prospective passenger. The taxis get many people to work in the morning — and also cause many of the impenetrable jams paralyzing the city. Plastered with perplexing slogans — “Respect ur boss,” “Pray Until Something Happens,” “Big Daddy” — the taxis are a decent way to get around if you know your route well. The downside of travelling by taxi is that you have to wait, sometimes for what feels like a lifetime. Either trapped in a jam or just waiting at the taxi stage for the vehicle to fill up, the sweaty, crammed metal box filled with a dozen other people can quickly feel like a prison.

Thinking of taxis, I’m reminded of one working Saturday we spent at a sector retreat for the newly-launched Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. Meant to be a half-day session, the audience sat through the presentations and interactive dialogues in anticipation of a closing address by the guest of honour — the President of the Republic, Yoweri Museveni. Following the conclusion of the official agenda at 1pm, the audience was kindly asked to take lunch and await the guest of honour’s arrival. He was travelling from a nearby town, and expected to arrive at any minute. By 5:30pm, the honourable Deputy Prime Minister arrived to represent the President, and proceeded to deliver a sustained hour-and-a-half lecture on the history of Uganda. Finally leaving the retreat venue six hours after the official close of the agenda, I was struck by the similarity to matatu transport — you might eventually get close to where you were going, but it will require the patience of a monk.

Taxis, boda bodas, and pedestrians crowd the downtown commercial area of Kampala. Credit: Tim Abbot, Kampala Traffic, Creative Commons.

Boda boda’s, or informal motorcycle taxis, are the people’s transport of choice in Kampala. With their unofficial political clout, boda boda associations have until now successfully crushed any attempts at regulation. Able to weave in and out of jams, over sidewalks, through barricades and parks, boda bodas embody the spirit of improvisation. Instead of sitting for hours in an intractable jam, boda bodas adapt to the challenges before them, and find a way through the mess.

In many ways, boda bodas are sort of like the mobile money system, something unheard of in North America. The majority of Ugandans don’t hold bank accounts. A variety of structural impediments, such as poor banking infrastructure in rural areas and the requirement of holding an official job with regular paychecks, effectively blocks the majority of Ugandans from the banking system. Instead, innovative companies have spawned a system of mobile money. By loading cash onto my sim card, I can pay my electricity, water, and internet bills. I can purchase goods in convenience stores with mobile money, pay my taxes (if I lived here full-time), and even hire a worker to cut my grass or clean my windows. Like boda bodas manoeuvring through jams, mobile money offers an improvisational way to bypass official obstacles and arrive at your destination.


Undoubtedly, the best way to get around Kampala is as a government minister. In a brand-new Mercedes with police escort and hazard lights flashing, you whip through the centre lane of traffic, bypassing pedestrians, taxis and boda bodas. As traffic opens effortlessly in front of you, the normal frustrations and delays of ordinary life are forgotten and you cruise easily toward your intended goal.

During my second week in Uganda, we were struggling to plan and organize a forum launch. We had secured a modest venue and the presence of at least one relevant minister. But when we met with the professor co-chairing the forum launch, he was unsatisfied. He wanted the launch to be a big deal, attended by the top echelons of the power structure. Conveniently, this same professor happened to know the Prime Minister’s private number. He dialled away while we sat in his office, and 10 minutes later we had a new venue triple the size of the old, and the PM secured as guest speaker for the event. If you travel with the right retinue in Kampala, have the right vehicle, and flash your lights a little, you can breeze right through traffic that would have usually kept you tied up for hours.


There’s no shortage of troubles to point out in Kampala — from poverty, to poor service delivery, to political corruption. But living and working here gives you an appreciation for the internal resilience necessary to just keep pushing for improvement in the face of seemingly intractable complications. At the end of the day, there is always a way through the traffic, if you bring enough innovation, perseverance, and gumption to get you through.

Originally published here: http://www.munkgc.com/internship-diaries/the-uganda-national-academy-of-sciences-kampala/
Three children play in a wheelbarrow in Kampala. Credit: Brian Wolfe, Three Children in a Wheelbarrow, Creative Commons