I love this clip from Grease 2 with Michelle Pfeiffer. I remember watching this as a kid and thinking she was one of the coolest babes around…I still do!
I never imagined I would miss the boda bodas but now I can say with certainty that I do. There are 3 modes of transportation in Uganda if you don’t own a car: matatu or “taxi”, private hire, or boda boda. I pretty much exclusively took bodas around Kampala unless I was out late at night in which case I called a private hire. I might be crazy but I don’t have a death wish and bodas at night are notoriously dangerous…poorly lit streets, drunk drivers, and the potential for muggings (or worse) make for a bad combination. Bodas congregate around areas called “stages” that tend to be more organized than just picking up a random driver.
on portbell road approaching the UPDF barracks on the hill
I knew two cool riders in Kampala: Apollo and Wilson.
After I moved into the compound in Mbuya our sweet housekeeper Joyce, who also lived with us, insisted that she call a reliable boda to take me to work every day. His name was Apollo and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Apollo was the first person I saw when I walked out the gate every morning. I trusted him implicitly and as a single father of 4 children he wasn’t about to take chances with his own life let alone mine.
Over time we became friends. Every evening when I would go for a run I’d see Apollo driving people up and down Mbuya hill and he’d smile his huge toothy grin and wave to me. Eventually all of the other boda drivers at the stage on our street stopped bothering to harass me for a ride because they knew I was always waiting for Apollo. (When you’re walking or just standing anywhere in Kampala boda drivers will slow and say “yes, sister!!! we go??” in an attempt to pick up any potential riders.)
my #1 accessory
One morning I was getting ready to leave for work and Apollo wasn’t answering his mobile. Joyce called out for me as I was walking towards the front gate and told me that something horrible had happened to Apollo. That Friday night one of his clients asked him to wait outside Bugolobi Flats (an apartment complex nearby) while they went inside for something. After several minutes Apollo was attacked by several men. They beat him up, knocked him out with chloroform, and stole his new motorbike. I was heartbroken for Apollo.
I thanked Joyce for telling me and walked down to the stage. My friend Duncan was working that morning and so I hopped on his bike. As we coasted down the hill weaving in and out of traffic he said “something very bad has happened to your friend”. I asked if he’d seen Apollo and how he was doing, any updates from the police, and what he knew. Duncan said that this wasn’t the first incident of bodas being stolen around Bugolobi.
That evening I called Apollo again and this time he answered. He was okay but his new bike was gone. I started to think of anything I could do to help and decided on a loan to get another bike. A few days later I got a call from him that he was able to get his original bike back and would use that old one to work off the cost of the stolen bike. Apollo continued to drive me to work every morning up until my last day in Uganda.
Below is some footage another muzungu took on the back of a boda driving through central Kampala. Just to give you some idea of what it’s like…
Wilson was similar to Apollo but more goofy. He worked at a boda stage outside MTN tower where my Grameen office was located. My friend from work, Laura, introduced us and Wilson became my regular driver home on days I worked from Grameen. Every time I would give him directions he’d say something like “okay boss!”. I still think of Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway screaming “willlllsssoooonnnnnn” when I remember riding his bike and it still makes me smile.
Wilson driving me home through rush hour traffic
My favorite Wilson memory was the one day he drove me home under threat of a massive hail storm. I was sitting at my desk late one afternoon at Grameen watching the dark storm clouds gather just east of Nakasero over Mbuya hill. As the clouds grew more and more foreboding I began to frantically pack up my computer and rush out the door. I decided it was better to chance it and get home before the storm instead of being stuck at the office. Wilson and I started off towards home with him saying “EH!” the whole way, clucking about how badly it was going to storm. (Ugandans have this higher-pitched sound they make that when they are the least bit dubious about something.)
Halfway down Jinja Road Wilson pulled over at the Warid Airtel boda stage and said the weather was getting too bad and he was going to get stuck. I hopped off the boda and rushed over to another driver to start negotiating a price to the Mbuya army barracks. Wilson, overhearing our conversation, started hollering “EH! no! he’s ripping you off!! too much!!”.
He frantically motioned for me to get back on the bike and said “come, come! we go!”. So I hopped back on the bike and he took off like a bat out of hell towards Nakawa. When we made it to the bottom of Mbuya hill it still hadn’t started to rain but Wilson flagged another boda driver at the stage and gave him a 1,000 UGX note. “You take her up the hill to the Jeba market!” he instructed. I hopped on the second bike and thanked Wilson as he yelled out to me “Don’t give him any money! I already paid him!”, waved, and sped off down Port Bell Road. About 10 minutes after I arrived home it started to hail:
I feel very fortunate to have made friends like Apollo and Wilson. Both of whom kept an eye out for me for no real personal gain in return.
boda driver out in the village