Saturday, April 28, 2012

Life on the Edge as a Pedestrian


I expect we’ve all had the internal conversation wherein we ruminate earnestly about what we’d do if we ruled the world for a day, as though there was some probability of our being entrusted, however temporarily, with the reins of global power.  I conducted just such a monologue yesterday, and determined that my first act would be to ban boda bodas (these are the motorcycles/scooters that serve as taxis in Kampala).  It is possible that at another time in another place I might have conceived of an act of world leadership more far-reaching or idealistic (like banning mobile phones), but at that moment my mind was fixed firmly on the wretched machines, for my foot was beneath one, and the strap from my rucksack caught in the spokes of another.

I’ve met some other foreigners who find boda bodas ‘cute’, and ‘authentic’ and ‘African’.  I find them dangerous (to themselves and others—at least five drivers die each day in Kampala alone), disconcerting, and totally disrespectful of road-rules in a way that ordinary vehicles are not—even in Kampala.  I can assure you that I am not alone in my dislike, as I’ve met any number of Ugandans who bear scars from crashes.  Some have given up boda bodas altogether, but for others they remain the only affordable means of transport.

Allow me to illustrate the perils of walking in Kampala.  Only yesterday I was trundling uphill to work (I’m quite sure that I spend about three quarters of my perambulatory hours in Kampala going uphill...how this occurs, I don’t know, but I’m convinced) when I had to sprint into the middle of the street to avoid being run down on the sidewalk by a boda boda driver who was wearing eyewear that could have got him a walk-on part in a Star Wars film as some oversized alien insect, and an enormous yellow jacket that might have made Hillary and Tenzig uncomfortably warm on their Everest ascent.

I gained a new appreciation for the ‘deer in the headlights’ expression as I found myself smack in the middle of Bombo Road.  I dodged a police truck which appeared to be filled with Storm Troopers, presumably on their way to arrest some hapless opposition demonstrator, only to have a taxi whiz by behind me and deal my backpack a firm blow, which I feared for a moment had sent my long-suffering laptop on to the great computer playground in the sky (subsequent examination proved otherwise), and I shuddered to think of what would have happened had that been a baby strapped to a woman’s back.  I shook my fist at the rascally taxi driver and thundered, “You witless peon!  Blemish on the Pearl of Africa [For so Uganda is known—chiefly, I’m assuming, by those who have never attempted to do archival research here, for it appears to be an otherwise perfectly lovely place]!” 

Of course, I did no such thing, but only gave a yelp of surprise and muttered some imprecation quietly to myself.  I’d like to be able to suggest that my forbearance was inspired by a profound respect for my fellow man, but it would be more accurate to ascribe it to a keen sense of self-preservation.  I can only guess that most Kampala drivers have rather poor sight and are unable to distinguish between a pedestrian and a speed-bump

‘Banning boda bodas?’ I hear you say, ‘That sounds a bit harsh...what about the unemployment that would result?’  For indeed, boda boda drivers and heavily-armed police officers appear to constitute somewhere in the neighbourhood of 64% of Uganda’s work-force (and probably account for a similar percentage of unnatural fatalities!).  But I have a system in mind.  The drivers would be put to work doing penance for the multitude of sins committed during the course of their illustrious careers, and would be paid to be sidewalk police, ensuring that pedestrians go expeditiously about their business instead of dawdling and zigzagging about.

For on the sidewalk, you’ve not only got to watch out for boda bodas and taxis, but also for your fellow man, as pedestrians in Kampala are not, as a rule, firm believers in the notion of swift and steady forward movement.  There are times when I’m walking home and think that I am moving so slowly that in actuality I must be either standing still or else moving backwards.  Sometimes I can literally feel myself retracing my steps, hear the flutter of files at the library being turned backwards, feel my breakfast coming up...  If I didn’t invariably end up back at Tuhende, I would swear that I was actually defying natural laws.

The numbers are against me here, so I have to stifle my pedestrian-rage, but I occasionally shudder to think of the fate that would befall any Kampalan who was set unexpectedly down in the middle of, for example, San Francisco’s financial district.  The poor soul would be trodden relentlessly down before the unflinching march of a great host of black-suited businessmen and –women, too distracted by the dollar-signs dancing in their heads to notice the unfortunate being trampled beneath their expensive shoes. 

Fortunately, I’m of a fairly placidly bovine temperament, and so when I find myself driven to distraction by the speed of my fellow pedestrians, I simply grumble to myself and think, ‘I’m going to write a blog post about this!’  Alas, I cannot even people-watch from a sidewalk chicken and chips stand without having to constantly stifle the urge to shout encouragement to passers-by, “Go on, you can do it!  Don’t go breaking the sound-barrier or anything!  One foot in front of the other, that’s the ticket!  Don’t stop in the middle of the pavement to a) count your change; b) carry on a half-hour conversation on your phone; c) contemplate the meaning of life!”  I know, I’ve got issues, but as a Berkeley-ite I take my rights as a pedestrian seriously and resent not being able to abuse them shamelessly.

Aha, the boda boda driver has moved his polluting contraption from my foot, so I’d best be going now...

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