If you are lucky enough to live 15 kilometres away from your workplace in Kampala, then you only have a 2 hour commute each way to work. If you live any further away from work, then your commute can take a lot longer! At least in London you can read the paper, eat your breakfast or listen to your ipod whilst zipping along on the tube. In Uganda you simply sweat, suck in fumes and stress about running into somebody else. All of this is relevant to the story I am about to tell you!
The WHO (World Health Organisation) ranks Kampala as the 16th most polluted city on earth. This is due to the estimated 2.5 million commuters that churn out fumes around the sprawling city every day. 1.5 million actually reside in the city, with another million flowing in (and out again) on the rush hour waves. Kampala is also the 13th fastest growing city in the world with an estimated 60,000 people moving there each year. This makes Kampala a logistical and commuting nightmare.
The narrow streets have to contend with millions of cars, buses, trucks, minivans, motorbikes (and a collection of other weirder vehicles) to claim a small footprint of tarmac as their own. Add into the mix that there are very few rules of the road, hardly any enforcement by traffic police (unless they see an opportunity to earn a few dollars from a bribe), spurious driving licenses, and the stubbornness, recklessness and general “couldn’t care less” attitude of some drivers…and you have a recipe for disaster. Drivers bully their way forward like an army of swarming ants, pushing, jostling and forcing their way forward.
Kampala is losing an estimated £624 million each year as a result of poor infrastructure, and it is a heavy cost to pay. I was about to pay a heavier cost on a sunny Kampalan morning…going kitten shopping!!!
It started when I received a text from our friend asking if I was free and wanted to keep her company in the car whilst crossing Kampala to look for a new cat. I replied that I would love to and jumped in with her. Not two minutes from my hotel and we were nearly sideswiped by a loon in a 4×4 who pulled in front of us from a side street. Our friend gave the obligatory “bird” to the driver (but below dashboard level so that he didn’t see). I chuckled as I advised her she responded well. Another minute of travel and we joined the Kampala car park. At 11am the roads around the city are meant to be rush hour free. What this means is that you can in fact drive ten meters without stopping at a time. The trails of cars leading into town was at standstill and a massive tailback stretched all the way down the road.
I was told not to open the windows as the aircon was on. I suspect it was to stop me from having an asthma attack though. An hour later and we had completed our 20 kilometer journey. There in the animal rescue centre there were masses of cute puppies, kittens, dogs and cats. Our friend ended up sat on the floor in reception playing with them all. Half an hour later we walked out with a cute kitten.
We took said kitten first to collect Amy from a meeting before carting it into a restaurant for lunch with us. He seemed happy in his pink plastic cage and seemed appreciative of us sacrificing chicken and salami from our pizza. We then drove out of Kampala with the nameless kitten. Four and a half hours drive later we ended our journey and kitten still had no name. Our friend took him home and messaged us 10 minutes later to say that one of the kids had called him “David”. I was disappointed beyond belief. We had discussed names such as Musafa, Leo, Simba and Psycho that all fitted with his character. Yet a 9 year old girl had the final say with “David”. I grizzled and then thought, well it could be worse. I could still be stuck with the commuters in Kampala!
Driving is a re-occurring theme here. Two days later we needed to get to work and as it was a Sunday there was no transport to get us there. Our friend offered her new car to us and we gladly accepted. I drove very calmly and cautiously the 40 kilometers there and back watching out for any large potholes, animals, pedestrians, fellow road users and unexpected anomalies. We arrived safely back at her house and I duly turned the engine off in front of her 8 foot high steel gates. Now the car is an automatic and has no handbrake. I climbed out of the car and as I went to get hold of the door to shut it it moved away from me. I had inadvertantly forgotten to put it in park! The car gathered momentum and then smashed head on into the gates.
Poor Amy was still in the passenger seat and had been making high pitched noises the whole way through. She had also been grasping for the imaginary handbrake the whole way through. This resulted in nothing more than a mime before the inevitable crunch. I started the car and reversed it back and put it in park. The damage was already done though. The gates were bent and a small scuff to the bumper. We thought the days car troubles were over and headed out for some pork and beers in a nearby village.
On the way back though, our friend was driving and whilst deep in conversation and her own world, strayed onto the wrong side of the road. The passenger in the front made a grab for the steering wheel while I shouted “WHOA!! WHOA!! WHOA!!” from the backseat. There in front of us was a speeding car heading straight for us flashing his lights. At no point did he slow down, swerve or take avoiding action. We missed him by inches and all exhaled in unison before bursting out laughing.
So if you are wanting to visit the capital city of “the pearl of Africa” for a driving tour….I would pack a gas mask and bring a comfortable cushion for your week long drive around the city centre!