Article from the series: Staying Safe and Healthy in Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo
It would be rather irresponsible to run a Staying Safe and Healthy series and not address the issue of passenger motorcycles. They are available all over the Gorilla Highlands region, parked right at the cross section of affordability, practicality, traffic accidents and crime. The temptation to jump on one is huge both in traffic-jammed cities and in hard-to-reach villages, but you certainly first need to know what you are getting into …
Sitting behind an often inexperienced or reckless driver, you are potentially exposed to numerous dangers. In Rwanda you will at least get a helmet and deal with a moto man who fears policemen. But on Uganda’s boda bodas and the wewas of DR Congo all bets are off.
I am a daily user of this mode of transport, and in 20 years in the region I have of course gone through my share of motorcycle adventures. As far as injuries are concerned, I have been lucky. The only time I was truly injured — in the middle of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park where soft after-the-rain soil proved too much for my driver — my gashed knee was neatly taken care of at Bwindi Community Hospital, one of Uganda’s best rural hospitals.
The personal safety aspect of my coexistence with boda bodas is a more complicated story. I have a dangerous propensity to enjoy living on the edge and enough street smarts to then deal with what (night) life throws at me. For example, once upon a time another boda boda intentionally bumped into mine on a dark Kampala street and the two youngsters sitting behind the driver approached me to “help” — but I stood my ground and angrily shouted at them until an armed nightwatchman showed up.
There was a moment in 2016, however, when I lost everything I had. For a moment at least …
The Brief Battle of the Boda Boda
The darkness found me in a fancy cafe on one of Kampala’s many hills. I was waiting for a hired bus that would allow me to send something with a group of British hikers. I was counting Ugandan shillings. Millions of them. Publicly. (A pretty good practical example of life on the edge.)
I put a trekking budget to be taken to Lake Bunyonyi, a fat wad of cash, in a paper bag, together with a pack of Pocket Guide booklets, and left the cafe after a short toilet visit. I found a boda boda instantly of course — they are all over the place, at all times of day and night — and perhaps it even appeared suspiciously fast. Did a cafe employee alert somebody outside that a stupid whitey had piles of bank notes? We will never know.
I had instructed the bus driver to find me on Nasser Road, a street full of printers, designers, signmakers and other visual professionals. He was a little bit ahead of me, so I called him from the motorcycle to establish his exact location, as we sped on Kampala Road. Unbeknownst to me, another bike was following us on a parallel road.
The bus lights blinked as we approached it, and then many things happened very quickly. The first guy came in, running, and grabbed my phone. I fought for it, but not well enough. The second guy focused on the paper bag. When I pulled it back, it tore and the booklets fell on the road. But not the money.
The money wasn’t there. I’m careless enough to count 3.5 million shillings at a public place at 11pm, yet I’m also cunning enough to move the money away from the paper bag when nobody is watching. The cash was safely in my backpack.
Did I say safely?
As I yelled “Get them!” to my boda driver, the third guy sprinted to the scene and took the backpack from my hands. The shilling equivalent of about 950 dollars was a fraction of the total value of its contents. There was a 4K camera, a laptop, many many dollars, my documents, etc. Every material possession that meant something to me.
A moment later I got the backpack back. Don’t ask me how, because I don’t remember. When in danger my mind goes blank, my instincts and reflexes get amplified, and things happen. I shouldn’t be like this. I had always been a bookworm, a nerd end everything else you would associate with being hopelessly useless in a street fight. But in Africa I discovered a side of me that helps a lot.
With my adrenaline only marginally boosted, I calmly passed the booklets and the money to my man on the bus and continued my journey, using the same boda boda. I didn’t like the driver’s passivity during the action sequences, but well … Who was I to judge?
I directed him to the printery, got more booklets, and home we went. However, the guy chose a rather unusual, quiet, dark route. I began to have doubts. I told him to turn around and follow the busy route. He did it, without any complaint.
Still. I couldn’t be sure about him. What if his friends were awaiting us somewhere? What if they were behind us? Before we were to leave the main road, I told him to stop at a random restaurant, paid him for his distinguished services and went for a bottle of water at the bar. I then picked another boda driver from the road — one that definitely had no prior intention of ambush — and reached home peacefully. The only collateral damage: a battered iPhone. The thieves would later send me an SMS pretending to be from Apple, asking me to activate the phone, but I didn’t fall for that.
The Skewed Moral of This Story
Don’t be like me. Avoid using boda bodas by night, pick one from an official stage (instead of somebody just driving by), don’t travel with loads of cash and expensive hardware … and if something happens, do not fight, I beg you.