17th September 2006
A truck thunders past me at a speed that would make even the most
ardent petrolhead exclaim, "I say, just hold on. That's just
too fast!". If this was a movie, it would be on two wheels as
it took the blind corner.
But this is not a movie. This is not Hollywood. This is
real life in rural Uganda.
I curse the truck as its trailing dust cloud coats my throat and
stings my eyes. The din from its rattling cage has silenced the
interview that I was trying to conduct. How am I suppose to work
in these conditions? No power. No phone. No internet
access. Just a pen, some paper, a translator and a God-damn noisy
People shouting. People screaming. The truck has stopped
and kicked up an even greater duct cloud. It reverses back as its preciously
perched laborers look back sheepishly.
"Oh God. Please let it be a goat. Please let it be a
goat", beseeching a God that I had only moments before cursed.
Nothing happens. Nobody talks. No body moves. The
world has stopped and needs a kick start.
Somebody needs to do something. So I do.
I jump from my seat and scramble over to the blind corner.
"Please let it be a goat. Please let it be a goat."
It's not a goat.
need to wear condoms and drive with some God given commonsense.
Take the boda-bodas for example. Boda-bodas
are beat-up motorcycles that cart around Ugandans and white-knuckled
mzunugus (white person). They run on oil fumes,
driver insanity and mzunugu heart rates. They buzz
in and out of traffic, taking seemingly impossible gaps, like a
mosquito. Ironically - or tragically depending on how you look
at it - they claim a more lives than the malaria-laced mosquito.
The typical ride for me starts with an
over-zealous sales pitch, "Americana! Americana! Boda?!",
followed by a net-worth appraising stare and a mzunugu-inflated
half-grunted quote over a dismissive shoulder.
"Two thousan' shillin'
Two thousan' shillin' ($NZ 1.66) is too much,
but - being the world's worst bargainer - I accept it anyway.
"I should be cool with this", I
think as we lurch into traffic. "I've traveled
four-to-a-bike in the
Philippines." This is not the Philippines though and
I'm not cool with it. My legs press heavily against the boda-boda's
side and my white knuckles grip the gritty seat.
I'm suppose to be dead-weight, but can't
manage it. My mind wills the boda-boda to take safer
options, and my body follows in kind.
As I ride, boda-boda stories filter
through my already addled brain. Like the lady who tumbled from
a boda-boda with a baby wrapped in her arms. The lady
ended up a grazed mess, but her sacrificial act ensured the baby was
fine. Or Moses' tumble that led to a
concussion. Or the all too common story of people surviving the
fall, but not the oncoming traffic.
The tension leaves my body as I throw a big
leg over the side and give the driver his money.
The Philippines has jeepneys,
Ghana has tro-tros,
and Uganda has taxis.
The jeepneys are by far the coolest, by the
way. They are both roomier and provide great fun when riding on
Taxis are everywhere
in Uganda. A Ugandan taxi is usually a Toyota Hiace van with
seats bolted into the back.
A typical ride into Kampala from Mukuno goes something
I stand outside the
guesthouse, thankful for surviving the walk across the
road. My extended arm indicates I want a ride.
A couple of taxis - filled to the brim with passengers - roll by
before one pulls up. The conductor says, "'mpala. 'mpala.
Fif'een hundre." I give him a nod as he opens the door.
I stumble my way past the vacant folding
chairs and plonk myself down in the back seat. The musk-smelling
chairs are slightly tatty, but comfortable enough. The driver
graunches the taxi into gear and we pull away. The conductor
hangs his head and attempts to attract more passengers.
The taxi fills up until every seat is
taken. And then more people get in. The conductor points
and grunts. Small children are moved to parent's laps, four
people are squeezed into seats built for three and the conductor
himself morphs into a standing pretzel.
The formerly comfortable seat is now uncomfortable
in all the wrong places. My butt-bones grind against the metal
chair support and my knees are clamped together like high school
sweethearts. My feet flap uselessly at the end of my
I try rearranging myself, but it is no
use. I'll be in this position for the rest of the trip.
The armpit in my face and the elbow in my ribs are robbing me of any
personal space, so I put on some headphones and listen to some tunes.
An African breeze blows in my face and I'm
thankful - it takes away the staleness of the armpit. The effect
is somewhat ruined when a truck overtakes us and blows dirty diesel
fumes in my face. Ditto for the roadside fires.
I shout "Mas-ow" when it's
time to get off. Like some mass game of Twister, the
passengers gradually untie themselves, fold up the seats and I stumble
my way out - thankful to be fee. I give the conductor my fare
and the taxi leaves in a cloud of dust.
It's not a goat.
A young kid - maybe sixteen or so - is on his haunches
on the side of the ride. He is spitting blood and there is an
enormous graze down his arm. I put my arm gently on his shoulder
and ask how he is. He shakes his head.
The amount of blood coming from his mouth is
quite disturbing. He is making a decent puddle on the ground and
some of the blood lands on my notebook. I
ask him to open his mouth so I can see the damage. All his teeth
appear okay. I think he has bitten either his tongue or his
cheek. I'm worried that his jaw is broken. Some prodding and
questioning allay my fears. He is banged up, bleeding from his arm
and mouth, but is basically okay.
I help him to stand and walk him over to the
nearby clinic. Ugandans continue to stare and a few Mzunugus
help me. I leave him in the capable hands of the nurse, who
disinfects his wounds.
offers to pay for transport and medical costs if we need to take him to
the hospital. He is okay though. We see him the next day - a
little stiff but basically okay.
One lesson I have learned on my travels is that people are
people. Filipinos are not better or worse than New Zealanders or
Ugandans or Ghanaians... It's something that I thought should be
true before I started traveling, and has since turned into something
that I know to be true.
So why didn't the Ugandans rush to the aid of
their fallen friend?
I can imagine any one of a number New Zealand
friends being their in an instant.
I don't know why the villagers didn't, but I
can hazard a guess. The kid took a nasty knock, but was obviously
going to survive. He was coughing up a lot of blood. The
specifics probably eluded them, but I'm sure that just about every
Ugandan in that village knew that you could get HIV from contaminated
So, why would risk approaching a guy - who was
basically okay - and risk getting HIV/AIDS?
It's a tough question.
The risk of contracting HIV/AIDS in that
situation are practically zero. It should of been on my mind when
I was helping the kid, but it wasn't - I wasn't clever enough to put two
and two together.
The HIV rate in the village is probably about
25%, so - while it is tragic - you do need to worry about such things
when helping a fellow human.
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2005 and 2006 Malcolm Trevena.
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