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Driving in Kampala – not for the nervous

Nov 3 • 3028 views • 8 Comments Africa, expat, Guest posts, Kampala, Travel, Travel tips and advice, Uganda

Driving in Kampala? Then you’ll need to read this first!

Welcome to Diary of a Muzungu! This week’s guest post is by Mark Penhallow. Mark has been working in the roads sector in Uganda since 2001 and has recently returned to the UK after 2 years based in Kampala. Mark writes:

Ugandans are generally friendly, intelligent and considerate people, but they should never, ever be allowed anywhere close to a steering wheel (or a microphone for that matter) when, for some inexplicable reason, these admirable characteristics (plus any sense of self-preservation) seem to abandon them entirely!

If you plan to drive in or through Kampala (which is unavoidable when you visit Uganda), it’s imperative to remember that it’s a war out there and to be prepared for battle!

Some rules of engagement do exist (such as driving on the left), but these appear to be advisory only and are frequently ignored. Consequently, there is no point of waving a “Highway Code” at anyone or claiming any self-righteousness, such as “but it’s my right of way!” or “I got here first” as this merely produces looks of utter perplexion and shrugged shoulders.

One of the slower moving obstacles to avoid while driving in Kampala

One of the slower moving obstacles to avoid while driving in Kampala

How to prepare your vehicle for battle

  1. The bigger the vehicle, the better. “BIG IS BIG” as a windscreen sticker in one of the city’s matatu (taxis) says.
  2. The presence of “bull bars” on the front of your vehicle helps intimidate other road users; show them you mean business! Loud horns are important, together with full-beam lights for after dark.
  3. The presence of other miscellaneous items such as indicators, tyre treads, brakes and windscreen wipers is usually an indication that the vehicle belongs to an affluent foreigner or even richer NGO.
  4. If your vehicle does have such ancillary items, use these to fool other road users:
  5. Flash your lights means “go ahead” or equally the opposite “I’m coming through.”
  6. A right hand indicator means either “I’m pulling off to the left, so you can overtake me” or occasionally, “I’m going to turn right.”

You will notice that, yes, one meaning completely contradicts the other and could easily result in a collision – welcome to Kampala!

Now you’re prepared for battle, let me introduce you to some of your fellow road users:

Pedestrians

Pedestrians are an occupational hazard of driving in Kampala, but can usually be safely ignored by drivers. Unfortunately, instead of remaining in the narrow areas of mud or dust that line Kampala’s roadsides, they have an inconsiderate tendency to walk in the roadway instead, often getting in the way of vehicles. A sharp blast from the car horn is usually sufficient to scatter them out of your way.

Should you happen to hit one of these individuals, it’s unlikely anyone will care, as they tend to be poor and, as would appear from the state of the facilities provided for them throughout the city, the authorities clearly do not think these people are important anyway. Anyone important or rich has a car of course, so it is their needs which the authorities aim to satisfy above anyone else’s.

A note of caution! Beware of pedestrians in white uniforms, especially if they start waving little red objects at you, as they are particularly keen to greet foreigners.

Fortunately, these people are often quite fat (especially the successful ones), so are relatively easy to spot from afar. Their waving usually indicates that they are feeling hungry and want you to stop, so that they can tell you of some spectacularly imaginative reason why you should pay for their lunch. Consequently, they tend to be especially busy in the mornings, and less so after lunch. Their levels of activity also rise in the run-up to Christmas and when school fees are due.

How to deal with pedestrians in white uniforms (sometimes referred to as ‘traffic policemen’):

1. Look away and pretend you haven’t seen them: eye contact is especially foolhardy.

2. Having red number plates (denoting you work for a NGO) can be partially effective. The best avoidance tactic is to own a pair of blue (diplomatic) plates, which as you will inevitably see, allows you to do whatever you want, without having to worry about anyone else.

3. Adding a little flag to the front of your vehicle can help too (and is certainly good for your ego).

4. If you are feeling especially insecure, insignificant and unimportant, why not hire a truck full of uniformed men to escort you to the shops and restaurants around town? Make sure that your escort vehicle has a wide range of different tunes to blast through its sirens, as you speed through the traffic of Kampala. This adds variety to your trip and startles other drivers, which is always fun.

The Muzungu says: I’ve run into Kampala’s thirsty policemen more than once….

Cyclists

Cyclists are also a nuisance but, being relatively small and slow moving, they can usually be forced out of your way, as you make you way through the city in air conditioned comfort. There are a lot of cyclists but, like pedestrians, they are neither important nor rich, so their needs can safely be ignored.

Away from the city centre, boda bodas can be a lot of fun

Away from the city centre, boda bodas can be a lot of fun - Jan catches a boda upto Cassia Lodge, Kampala

Boda boda (motorbike taxis)

Boda bodas, upon which entire extended families travel together (plus furniture, animals and household goods), are more of a problem, as they multiply and spread like bacteria across Kampala’s urban sprawl. They comply with no rules or regulations. In fact, it is only their evident desire to perish as quickly as possible that has any impact on controlling their numbers.

Room for one more?

Baboon on a boda boda

If you are ever tempted to make use of their pillion passenger services, then ensure that you have bade fond farewell to the family first, finalised your Will and paid for the best quality medical services that any insurance policy can buy.

The Muzungu: boda bodas feature in my 50 reasons why I love Uganda

Finally, a special mention must be made of the Matatus, the majority of vehicles in the city’s congested streets. These too are a law unto themselves, overloaded with passengers (human, chicken or goat), plus suitcases, hooks of matoke, sacks of farm produce and a myriad of other items indispensable to African life. It is of course far more important to load the vehicle’s roof and boot with mattresses and rain barrels than it is to be able to see the road, as Matatus claim absolute right to do any manoeuvre at any time.

A large, 4 wheel drive vehicle (as recommended above) may help to moderate the matatus’ bullying tactics, but their insatiable enthusiasm to get to the next stop before anyone else knows no bounds. If this requires driving on footpaths, verges or the wrong side of the road, then woe betide anyone who gets in their way.

So, enjoy your trip across Kampala. It will certainly be an adventure!

The Muzungu: thanks Mark for a hilarious view of driving in Kampala! Mark enjoys creative writing and is also an expert public speaker. You can connect with him via www.TheSpeakologist.com

Do you have a story or some advice you’d like to share? Please read my Guests Posts page for guidelines on the kinds of stories I feature on Diary of a Muzungu.

If you live in Kampala, what are your driving tips?

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8 Responses to Driving in Kampala – not for the nervous

  1. the muzungu says:

    Your encounters with men in white uniforms have made me quite paranoid Mark! so much so that I have had to completely ignore two that jumped out of the road to try and catch me last week!!

  2. Audrey says:

    I’m curious of the requirements to operate a vehicle in Uganda. Is there a permit or license required, age, or is it a free for all? Also, if I wanted to drive in Uganda how would I go about meeting that requirement?

    • the muzungu says:

      Hi Audrey

      Yes driving might seem like a free for all! But, as with everything in Uganda, we have a pretty good set of laws in place but implementation is a whole other issue. This is down to lack of resources, lack of training and corruption, to put it bluntly. Few people know the law or their rights either.

      Visitors to Uganda can drive on their licence from the issuing country. Bring it with you. An international driving licence is useful but not necessary if you’re on a short trip. For longer-term expats, advice varies on whether you need a Ugandan licence or not. I’ve been here 4 years and still show my British / European Union one whenever I get pulled over by those nice men in white uniforms looking for school fees!

      Two days before Xmas, a traffic policeman pulled me over. When we challenged him (he could not possibly have seen my broken brake lights when standing in front of the car) he explained “yes but we have special skills. we are trained to see these things.” Advice, never give them your original licence as they may hold on to it until they get what they want. A Ugandan friend had to make seven visits to the central police station before he got his licence back. I just keep a colour photocopy in my glove compartment and it’s always been fine.

      On the whole I recommend driving in Kampala, it can be fun – just expect anything to happen, at any time, from any direction!

  3. [...] Diary of a Muzungu now accepts guest posts so if you have a story you want to share with the world, please get in touch! Thanks to my first guest blogger Mark Penhallow for a hilarious blog about Driving in Kampala [...]

  4. [...] 2013 from an amateur astrologer tip, tap, typing on his keyboard 3410 miles (5488 km) away from Kampala – in Poltava in the Ukraine to be exact. Roman Kostenko – or Роман Костенко in [...]

  5. Kristin says:

    You completed some good points on muzungubloguganda.com . I did a search on the theme and found the majority of persons will have the same opinion with your blog. and Happy New Year!

  6. […] be on a budget, but your safety is worth more than saving a few thousand shillings. Try and get a licensed special hire taxi home, sharing with friends if […]

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