RSS Feed (xml)

Powered By

Skin Design:
Free Blogger Skins

Powered by Blogger

Monday, January 7, 2008

The bicycle has transformed the lives of many ordinary Ugandans

The bicycle invented in 1816 has transformed the lives of many Ugandans today. Some people say the bicycle is their lifeline, without it their future would be bleak. Thanks to Baron von Drais who invented it well before the 19th century, writes Dennis D. Muhumuza

When in 1816 Baron Karl von Drais, a German, invented the bicycle, perhaps none thought it could turn out to be a source of livelihood for countless people especially in the developing world.

Today, the bicycle is considerably used in most of Africa to carry heavy loads of goods to and from the market. And because the standard bicycle with its locally made and cushioned carrier is arguably the friendliest means of transport, it has become a money-minting machine especially in towns where it is used to carry passengers. It thus complements taxis and other means of transport.

In Kampala, bicycles used for transport have come to be known to many as boda-boda, the same name that applies to motorbikes doing the same business.
19th century incident
Recently, the Minister of State for Works and Transport, Mr John Byabagambi, told the Parliamentary Committee on Physical Infrastructure that in order to decongest the city and regulate traffic flow, boda-bodas have to be relocated to the city outskirts by January next year.

There is fear that many will lose out. Kenneth Katusiime, 24, who lives off his boda-boda bicycle, doesn't want to even talk about it. "This bicycle is my life," he said. "I would be lost without it."

The short but muscular young man is based on 8th Street in Industrial Area, and has been living off his Eastman bicycle for close to two years. Katusiime said he completely concurs with some unknown author who said "it would not be at all strange if history came to the conclusion that the perfection of the bicycle was the greatest incident of the nineteenth century".

The orphan, whose father Yosam Kanyima, a former KCC worker, perished in a road accident shortly after Katusiime was born, transports bags of cement, crates of soda and beer for business people as well as bunches of matooke and other foodstuff to various homes within the city. He said the bicycle is the king of the road because it cannot get stuck in traffic jam, will drop your goods at your doorstep, and transports you promptly and cheaply.

Pointing to his bicycle parked a few feet away, the P7 dropout said with a shine of satisfaction in his eyes: "I didn't reach far in class but I can eat, dress and sleep well because of my bicycle."

During the interview, three of his colleagues chipped in now and then. They said all that is needed is to know someone who owns a bicycle and ask to use it - then you are in business. Indeed, most boda-boda operators don't own the bicycles. They hire them for Shs1,000 a day.

Katusiime, who hails from Rukungiri, joined his mother Jennifer Binamuka in the Kamwokya a city suburb in 1991. In 2004, his mother died, living him to steer his own way through life. Luckily, he had Shs130,000 stashed safe on his Stanbic Bank account and used the money to buy his "Dorotia" [bicycle].

His alarm clock goes off at 5:30 am. when he stirs and mumbles his prayers. At 6 a.m he arrives at his Namuwongo stage. Business is very good at rush hour, he said, when people are hastening to their work and later from work. After 11 he breaks off to check on his most rewarding customers - the business people who assign him to buy supplies for their businesses.

During this 'break,' Katusiime gets his meal of kawunga and beans and a glass of passion fruit juice. This invigorates him with the energy he so needs as pedalling goods and customers is a very physical activity. At most, his lunch goes for Shs700. By 5 p.m., the jolly Katusiime is back at his stage to offer service to whoever comes his way. He retires at 9 p.m.

The other side of the coin
While the business pumps in between Shs5,000-7,000 on a good day, Katusiime said the life of a boda-boda operator is not as rosy. Some passengers reach their destinations, jump off and vanish while others have abused and slapped the cyclists. Say it is early morning. You just ferried this gentleman to wherever he directed you. He dips his hand in his hip pocket and pulls out a sleek Shs50,000 note and tells you to deduct your Shs300 fare. You have got no change, “Couldn't the gentleman have Shs1000,” you ask politely. "Do you think am stupid," he blurts and before you know it, slap, slap.

This, Katusiime said, is how most boda-boda operators are sometimes treated. But woe onto him who errs in the presence of other boda-boda riders - not only will he lose all his money, but also will lucky if he is not beaten up.

Also, to be able to be accepted at a certain stage, you pay a goodwill sum of Shs50,000 which is a hell lot of money for most of these cyclists, especially those just starting the business. The money is then shared among members.
Taxi drivers are unhappy that boda-bodas 'steal' their potential clients, so along the road cyclists are pushed to the edge where they sometimes lose balance and fall off.

He hates it in the rainy season. He looked at the sun and said also, that, he rues it when it's very hot. He talked of the dust that blinds eyes on a windy day, accidents and the bad roads that wear out the tyres in a week. Bicycle tyres cost between Shs3,000 -6,000 depending on the quality.

Aside, some people have accused boda-boda bikers of causing trouble by ignoring traffic lights and riding on roadside pavements expecting pedestrians to make way for them.

Police accuse them of conspiring with criminals, perhaps the reason they are banning them from the city centre. In the meantime, boda-boda cyclists toil on hope and appeal to the mayor of Kampala, to intervene for them.

As for Katusiime, he has half a million shillings in savings and wants to buy a Digi (a fancy motorbike) by the end of the year though he's scared of what might happen if it's true they will no longer be needed in the capital city's centre. He shares his fears with girlfriend Fiona Twinomujuni, an S4 student of Kololo SSS.

In all, whether it is banned from the street or not, the bicycle remains "the most civilised conveyance known to man", as English novelist Iris Murdoch once wrote. Because "other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish, only the bicycle remains pure in heart"!

Lira situation
One doesn't have to be a statistician to know that Lira is one of the key bicycle districts in Uganda. Everyday the town gets choked with a sea of them, making it difficult for pedestrians and other motorists to manoeuvre their way through the streets. Little wonder the commonest accidents registered here are bicycle-related like cyclists running into each other or felling down pedestrians. Cars here are far from each other.

Boda-boda bicycles with their shouting red, blue and yellow cushions are ever present and the order of the day. In Lira, bicycles are no longer status symbols. Every household has at least one or more in its stable. Children seemingly learn to ride them by instinct as scores of them can be seen peddling away with ease to the markets carrying heavy loads like sacks of potatoes, iron sheets, cassava, sugarcane etc. The skill with which they dodge potholes with creaky bicycles and flit in and out of traffic is commendable. The women are not any different.

Sometime back, the bicycle had replaced cattle as the source of pride, treasure and wealth among the Langi and they wouldn't sell it even in the event of a crisis like famine. As years wore on, the cattle were demystified. Now Lira is a bicycle galore.

There are various types of bicycles here, for instance, Road master (the most common brand), Hero, Laurel, Gazelle and City Bike. The latter is synonymous with women because of its unique design that suits their feminine body. Its carrier is small and frail and therefore cannot accommodate a person, only documents, a file or groceries. City Bike, at least, is the in-thing among women yuppies here. And because of the appeal that goes with it, they are a bit more expensive than the usual lot.

One sound reason that can help explain the multiplicity of bicycles in Lira is the unfortunate situation of internally displaced peoples’ camps caused by the LRA war over the past two decades. Owing to this, people lost their homes, property and unemployment was rampant especially among the youth.

So with the little income they obtained through doing manual jobs like digging pit latrines and garden work, they saved and bought bicycles before joining the boda boda industry. Many continue to join the business on a daily basis and are not complaining because they are assured of a daily income that translates into food on the table.

By and large, bicycles are an integral part of thousands of lives of people in Lira.

Additional reporting by Stephen Abili

Published in Sunday Monitor, September 17, 2006.