Ssemakula and family...

Ssemakula and family..

The worlds of boda-boda drivers in Uganda fascinate me. At first glance, the boda system looks haphazard and hectic. At most intersections in towns throughout the country, you find a group of young men on motorcycles competing to take you where you want to go. For most of the day, they hang out…play cards, debate each other, sleep, and (all too often) take alcohol. When they get a customer they normally try to overcharge a bit and then often driver recklessly in order to make the trip as quick as possible to allow time for more customers. As a result, Uganda enjoys some of the highest “road carnage” rates in Africa. A few doctor friends of ours that work in the ER of Mulago (Uganda’s national referral hospital) told us that at least 75% of the emergency trauma cases they see are a result of boda-boda accidents.

But that is only part of the story…

During our time in Munaku we have struck up friendships with several of the boda guys who stay at our corner. Admittedly, our original intentions had self in mind…if we develop relationships with these guys then maybe they will drive a bit safer, give us a better price, and watch out for us in the neighborhood. But over the last nine months our friendships have grown deeper and a bit more genuine, allowing us a window into a world that is much more complex than what meets the eye.

For starters, boda “stages” are by no means the seemingly random gatherings of motorcycles that they appear to be. Each “stage” is a highly organized social group in which there is a democratically elected chairperson, clear hierarchies based mostly on seniority, and formal rules for participation.

And, underneath the stereotypes of boda drivers as rough young men who couldn’t find any better work are individual stories of resilience, resourcefulness, and decency.

Take Ssemakula, for example. Ssamakula grew up in Awe, Gulu District (about an hour from Gulu town). His father is an Acholi and his mother is a Muganda (thus the reason he has a Baganda name). As a young man Ssemakula came to Kampala to find his own way.

Last week Ssemakula invited Lauren and I to his home for lunch. He has a small two-room house not too far from Munaku for his wife and six kids. As we ate a traditional meal of matoke and fish, Ssemakula showed us a family photo album. The pictures narrated the life of a working man – a proud father who shows up on time, makes ends meet, and is continually trying to push his family forward. The pictures showed his kids in school uniforms, his late father at a desk, his first boda, his beautiful wife.

The pictures made me think that Ssemakula would have alot to talk about with the family men I know back home who, although they show up to an office every morning very different than his, show up to it for the same reasons and with the same hopes.