Laura Sellmansberger | KF19 | Uganda

If you’ve never been to East Africa, you may not have heard the term “boda-boda” before.  A boda-boda, or “boda,” as it is more commonly referred to, is a type of motorcycle taxi driven in East Africa, and more increasingly, throughout other parts of the continent as well. To say that there are a lot of boda-bodas in Kampala would be an understatement. Boda-bodas are everywhere in this city.

Bodas in downtown Kampala

The history of the boda-boda is an interesting one. Following the end of British rule in East Africa, the amount of paperwork required for motor vehicles crossing through the area between the borders of the newly independent nations of Kenya and Uganda dramatically increased. Passing through this area, also known as “no-man’s-land,” required a cumbersome stack of paperwork to be filled out (once before entering this ill-defined area, and once again promptly after leaving it). Eventually, out of this bureaucracy, a business idea was born: people soon began offering bicycle rides across no-man’s-land, allowing passengers to avoid the paperwork that was necessary for motor vehicles. It began in the southern border town of Busia, where there is over half a mile between the border posts, and it soon spread to the northern border town of Malaba. Vying for the attention of potential customers looking for a quick ride through, bicycle drivers would shout out “boda-boda!” (meaning “border-to-border”). Of course, in Kampala, there are no borders being crossed, and the bicycles have been replaced by loud, polluting motorcycles. Nevertheless, the name “boda-boda” remains.

Like many things in life, riding a boda has its pros and cons. I’ll start with the pros:

  • Speed: Kampala is notorious for its traffic jams, known locally simply as “jams.” As an Atlanta-native, I had arrogantly thought myself to be a traffic expert. Oh, how wrong I was! Kamala gives a whole new meaning to the word “traffic.” (BBC recently named Kampala one of the top-ten cities for traffic jams in the world.) A boda rider, however, enjoys a certain immunity to traffic. The boda simply zips around, weaving around cars and potholes as idle automobile drivers enviously watch it speed by. If there is a “jam” and you need to be somewhere by a certain time, a boda really is your only option.
  •  Price: Bodas are very cost-efficient. A ride across town goes for about 5,000 Ugandan Shillings (approximately $2.00). In a hired car, that same ride would cost about four or five times as much.
  • Street cred: It must be said: sitting on the back of a boda can and will make the rider feel like a badass. With the wind in his face, he nonchalantly gazes into the horizon ahead. Locals stare in awe, impressed with the foreigner’s bravery and ability to master this new culture with ease.

And now, the cons:

  • Your life may occasionally flash before your eyes while on the back of a boda-boda. But every dark cloud has a silver lining, right? The silver lining here is that the rider gets off of the boda with a newfound appreciation for life. (I am told that people in South Korea pay good money for that born-again feeling).

If you are considering trying your hand at boda-riding while in Kampala, I suggest that you adhere to the following practices:

  • Buy a helmet. I have always been a fan of Japanese engineering and when it came to choosing what I’d be placing on my head before each boda ride, I found that my enthusiasm for products of superior quality only increased. It took a while to find what I was looking for (a large portion of the products imported into Uganda are Chinese-made), and it cost about three times as much as a more cheaply-made helmet would have cost, but it was well worth it.
  • Ladies, ride like a man. Ugandan women tend to ride bodas sidesaddle. This may appear more graceful, but it makes it harder to stay on the bike. If you know you will be riding a boda, leave the skirt at home.
  • Be ready to negotiate. If you let them, many boda drivers will take your wallet for a ride, too. After all, the word “mzungu” (the ubiquitous term locals use to refer to foreigners, especially Westerners), literally translates to something along the lines of “confused person wandering around.” Confused people wandering around make for quite the business opportunity for the cunning boda driver. Try your best to appear as informed and in-control as possible, and demand a fair price.
  • Always get on and off of the left side of the bike. The (very hot) exhaust pipe is on the right side. Ouch.
  • If possible, find yourself a regular driver whose driving skills and judgment you have vetted, and stick with him. Store his number in your phone and call him whenever you need a ride somewhere rather than trying your luck with someone new every time.

Now that you have been educated on the art of boda riding, I think you are ready to try it out yourself. Hop on, hold on tight, and enjoy the ride…



Laura Sellmansberger is a member of the 19th class of Kiva Fellows, serving in Kampala, Uganda with three new nontraditional Kiva partners. Stay tuned for the official launch of these partnerships to find out about the exciting things Kiva has been working on in Uganda!

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