We have learned a lot living in Uganda for nearly a year and a half. I think one of our biggest lessons learned is that size really does matter here, at least in terms of road hierarchy. Driving our boda-boda around the busy streets of Kampala has definitely hastened our learning curve on this lesson. Essentially, the largest vehicle on the road gets the right of way, from big semi-trucks and coach buses down to pedestrians. And let us not forget the goat grazing on the side of the road. Poor goat. He is low man on the totem pole.
Similar to most places in the world, the biggest vehicles here are semi-trucks and coach buses. The trucks here don’t have the nice sleeper cabs like seen in the States. Even with mostly snub-nosed single cab tractors, you still see big tanker trailers and container trucks driving down the road. And, there are big coach buses flying down the road carrying passengers everywhere. We rode a coach bus to Mbale between Christmas and New Years (Holiday Adventure). And I do mean they fly. You really want to stay out of their way if you see one coming down the road. They don’t exactly stop on a dime. Robert saw one on its’ side coming back from one of his trips to Lira.
Next in the roadway pecking order are the lorry trucks. Without a fifth wheel, these smaller transport trucks don’t seem to have as much road status. Lorry trucks come in all shapes and sizes. Some have enclosed container type beds, while others have an open bed with short sides. Some of the open bed trucks have a framework which I assume was meant for a canvas top, but any sign of the canvas has long since disappeared. You often seen these driving down the road stuffed with people as a mode of mass transit. We haven’t dared to try this mode of transportation.
The matatus, or bus taxis, tend to rank next. These Toyota vans can carry about 16 passengers when fully loaded. I don’t think Toyota has actually rated these vehicles for 16 passengers, but that is what gets stuffed in them here. More if you’re in Kenya. Matutus rank slightly higher than larger passenger vehicles simply because they are typically operated by annoyingly aggressive drivers that think they own the road. They are a very affordable way to get into town which we have used on occasion.
Next in line are the passenger vehicles. But, there even seems to be a sub hierarchy within the passenger vehicles. The bigger, cleaner, newer, nicer your vehicle looks, the more right of way you have. Of course, if you have tinted windows, official flags and a police escort, you have the ultimate right of way. Police with flashing lights are generally given more right of way, but not always. Sometimes, you can’t tell who are the police and who just have fun lights on their car.
Finally, we find our rung on the road hierarchy ladder. Boda-Bodas rank just a little higher than bicycles, mostly because we are heavier and actually have a motor. If arriving at an intersection at the same time as other vehicles, we usually let the others go first. However, we do have one advantage over all the other modes of transportation. When traffic is at a standstill, we can always just zip along the shoulder or down the center line past all the parked cars. Robert has even been known to hop on the sidewalk (it is done here, although I don’t know how legal it is). We rate the difficulty of downtown traffic by how many sidewalks Robert had to hop to get around.
Of course, there are all sorts of people walking along the sides of the road as well. Walking is probably the primary mode of transportation here as it doesn’t cost anything. Most Ugandans do not own a car and many cannot afford the fare to hire a boda-boda (not quite $3 from our neighborhood to downtown) or ride a matutu (not quite 50 cents). And you see people walking everywhere, not just in the neighborhoods. I am always amazed at the number of people I see walking along the road even out in the countryside on major road trips. And I find that I walk a lot more here to do my errands.
Remember the goat I mentioned in the first paragraph? He does have one saving grace. People try to avoid hitting a goat because they have to pay the owner for their loss. I can’t remember the going rate for a goat these days, but it is quite a bit of money and more than people want to spend on something they wouldn’t even be able to eat. So drivers tend to be pretty careful about avoiding goats.