An unfortunate incident involving an upset taxi driver, his cheapskate conductor, their violently drunken barker colleague at the boarding stage, and some typically corrupt police prompted me on last year’s research trip to reconsider my primary means of transport in Uganda. Up until then, it had been the matatu, a 14-passenger van that rarely carries fewer than 16 people and more like 24 or 25 up-country. On my first trip and a subsequent journey, the otherwise uncomfortable matatu rides had afforded me opportunities to chat with locals, flip Luganda flash cards, and generally learn something about the everyday lives of Ugandans. During the rest of that last trip and all throughout this one I have relied instead on a more efficient, quicker, and decidedly more fun mode of ambulating through town and country in Uganda: the boda-boda.
Meet Mark Kyaligamba, a.k.a. Marco: safest motorcyclist this side of Sub-Saharan Africa, loyal companion, and all-around boda concierge:
I met Mark last year on the recommendation of a colleague who had hired him on numerous occasions to do everything from running errands to transporting her safely wherever she needed to go, all without the unwanted romantic attentions commonly associated with many boda drivers. This is how Mark gets all of his business: he delivers people and goods safely and quickly to their locations, he charges a reasonable (read: not muzungu) price, and his happy customers recommend him to other clients. It doesn’t seem like this kind of work would be very lucrative, and indeed he’s not living in the State House, but at the end of the day he puts his two children in good schools and provides well for his family.
After six months plus of strict customer loyalty on my end and unfailing punctuality, safety, and general reliability on his, Mark and I have become very close friends. My host mother comes from his clan, making him my kojja (lit.: brother to my mother). As such, he calls me “son,” and he takes very good care of me. He carries an extra helmet all the time. He shows up five minutes early. He knows where to find good food, hard-to-find items, out of the way places, and quite a diverse collection of people. You never know how valuable this is until you need one or more of these things and Mark makes it happen.
Riding on the back of a motorcycle every day for this long makes for a particular kind of experience of Uganda. Matatus are great for talking to people, practicing Luganda, learning the polite manner of so many Kampalans even when we are all forced to sit on top of one another for the sake of functionality, and experiencing life as so many working people do. On a boda, however, the wise traveler gets to know one driver and maybe a few of his colleagues for the safety’s sake, and he sees so many things through the eyes of that small group of people. I have my own agenda in going places here, but going with that other person means learning a lot about the places we go together and the road along the way. For me, that person is nearly always Mark.
Hours away from the city though, things are different. Mark has other clients even when I’m there, and there’s no stealing him for a day to go up-country. By borrowing his bike a time or two for a price, I have found a really fun way to see some beautiful countryside. Similarly, my friend and teacher Ssematimba would commonly borrow a bike near his home and drive the two of us to other villages.
Uncle Ssema introduced me to his home and family over the span of several different trips. Andrew Mwesige, another friend in Busoga, did the same. I met their families and friends in Kyaggwe County and Namutumba District, from Nakifuma in the heart of Buganda to Nawandyo deep in Basiki land, where they taught me so much about drumming and song, ritual practice, and the basic way of being-in-the-world for rural Ugandans.
When I was a child, my father used to put me in front of him on a motorcycle. As I grasped the handlebars inside his own strong grip, he would take me all around Cedar County, Nebraska, where he grew up. There we met family members previously unknown to me, old friends of our family, and comerades in farming and life. On these more recent journeys, the nature of our interactions is so strikingly similar. One does not simply pass by a place without stopping to say hello. When people tell us that they are happy to see us—tusanyuse okubalaba!—we return the joy of that meeting, apologizing if we cannot linger to chat over a warm cup. The Baganda say, “mu nju, temuli kkubo,” meaning that, “in the house, there is no road.” A visitor is a blessing, and a host blesses him in return with warm hospitality. This is a familiar pattern to me; it parallels the grace of the people who live near my own ancestral home.
When companions of convenience or professional necessity care enough to show me the place where they live, to introduce me to family and friends, to open their homes and their minds and teach me about who they are, the journey becomes so much more than the destination. This road has been rich with such experiences. A boda-boda is not merely a faster or more efficient mode of transport, though it certainly can be; it is a means of getting to places where cars cannot go, on paths that always end in compounds filled with the warmth of sincere welcome. These paths are useless if they fail to map the human landscape of a place. Now that these fine friends have led me there on bodas, I truly know where Uganda is.