Last week the Uganda Police impounded over 1,400 boda-bodas, and the number is rising. Bodas are the ubiquitous motorcycle taxis that are able to weave between the rest of traffic, providing efficiency in exchange for the occasional near-death experience. In Rwanda this is an industry that is very closely regulated, with permits, safety helmets (for both driver and passenger), and reflective vests required for every boda. In Uganda the requirements are essentially the same, but the enforcement of them has been, ummm… looser, partly because the 60,000 of them in Kampala represent a significant voting bloc.
The Uganda Police for some reason have decided it is now time to start cracking down, so with no notice they began pulling over boda drivers and confiscating their motorcycles if they did not have all of the requirements. Now, I will be the first to admit that boda drivers are the rebels of urban Uganda, and I believe many of them take some pride in flaunting laws whenever possible. At the same time, when you combine the costs of the permits, helmets and vest, the total comes to about 400,000 shillings, or about $200USD. That is a decent monthly salary here, and significantly more than a teacher or police officer makes in this country. Not an easy amount to come up with for someone who is hustling rides for 500 or 1,000 shillings each, particularly the week after school started when any of them with children just paid out all of their savings for school fees. And now the unlucky ones who got caught have just lost their livelihoods.
I’m not saying the enforcement of the regulations is bad. A friend of mine was knocked unconscious in a boda crash a couple of months ago and by the time he woke up his shoes and wallet had been stolen, the driver was gone and he had a nasty headache. Helmets are good, and permits can be good if the money is used to promote safety and environmental improvements such as reduced emissions from the motorcycles. Some controls on the industry are necessary.
The issue I see here that cuts across the lives of people living in poverty around the world is the difficulty of coming up with 400,000 shillings (or whatever the currency happens to be) all at one time. People who come to Kampala and take taxis to get around are surprised initially that every time they get in a cab, the first stop is always a gas station. Your first thought is that it is a coincidence until it happens again, and again, and… and then suddenly you realize they are just putting in enough fuel to get you to your destination and no farther. They will do the same with their next client if they get one. The story is repeated with people struggling to get just enough food for the next meal, just enough money to pay the rent this month, just enough school fees to send your most promising son to school. There is no possibility of having a “buffer” in case something goes wrong. My mother-in-law, who has spent much of the last six years in Uganda, has a term for this. She calls it Life by Increments.
This is why it is so difficult to get out of extreme poverty, and it explains the power of microfinance. You can change a person’s life in the developing world with $50. Not because they can’t earn $50 on their own, but because they can’t get it all at one time due to the demands of feeding a family, paying school fees, obligations to extended family, buying necessary medicine, etc. It is difficult for those of us who have never lived in extreme poverty (living on less than $1 per day, and being in a position where you could, potentially, starve to death) to understand this day-by-day existence and the stresses it puts you under, particularly if you have children you need to feed.
There are certainly plenty of boda drivers in Kampala who have just been bucking the rules because they could – because nobody was checking. And then there are those who can’t quite pull together the amount they need to meet the requirements. The police should have put the word out three months ago that everyone had to be in compliance by February. That would have at least given them time to try to save up the money and get into compliance. By turning it into a sudden sting operation, many are taking even more risks on the road to avoid the police, and Kampala now has at least 1,400 more unemployed young men to deal with.
Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala