Transportation in Uganda strikes a fine balance between pleasingly convenient, and mind-numbingly frustrating. On different occasions I have been heard to exclaim “That was easy!” and, “Someone please shoot me in the face,” in reference to the same journey between the village and Mbale. This is a journey I make frequently—about once a week. I essentially have one transport option: the matatu. Otherwise known as the minibus, the taxi, or the death machine.

Matutus are standard mini-buses, often white, with loud slogans painted across the top of the wind shield. “God is Able,” the vehicle proudly proclaims as it whizzes by in a cloud of dust. They usually also have the seating capacity painted boldly on the driver’s door: “This vehicle is licensed to carry 14 passengers.” HA. That’s the best joke I’ve heard all year. I believe 27 occupants is the current volunteer matatu-journey record. That doesn’t include chickens.

Each matatu has a driver and a conductor. The conductor’s job is to hustle people into the van, insisting that you attempt to squish your entire body into a space that would be a tight squeeze for my right thigh. Once it’s clear that all the seated passengers are suffering near lung failure from the cramped conditions, he begins slotting in the standing passengers. These are generally men, including the conductor himself, who stoop awkwardly just inside the sliding door, hanging over all the passengers in the front row. As I’ve mentioned before, hygiene is a difficult concept in our circumstances. It’s never easier to appreciate this than when your face is stationed about two inches from the conductor’s gaping armpit. Now Mbale is a market town. People traveling to and fro have stuff with them. Bags, suitcases, jerry cans, live chickens, giant bunches of matoke strapped to the top of the van. Anything’s game. Small children are hoisted around like rag dolls. Impossible is nothing when it comes to matatus and storage capacity.

Beyond the space issue, there are other key factors which make every matatu ride a gamble. Namely, the fact that the dirt road is bumpy as hell, the vehicles are usually in a poor state of repair, and there are no apparent traffic laws in Uganda. I swear, you could drive around for hours without getting a clear sense of which side of the road you’re legally supposed to occupy. The front seat of the matatu is definitely the most spacious, but I avoid it because it gives me too clear a view of the on-coming traffic I often appear to be hurtling towards.

Exchanging matatu stories is a bit of a competitive pastime in the guest house. We try to out-crazy each other. I recently came home with a winner. I was in Mbale late and hoping to get a taxi back to the village. After 5:30pm you’re in the danger zone with taxis in Mbale. There are always too many people and the number of taxis heading out to the boondocks dwindles. At some point it’s elbows out, head down and push your way through, crying babies be dammed. On this day it was already after 6pm, so I was very skeptical. I rounded the corner to the median where all the taxis wait to fill up, and lo and behold one was sitting there, almost full and ready to go. The driver was eager to get me on board but I told him that I had to pick up a box of drinking water to bring back to the village. He said no problem, he’d pick it up for me on the way. Turned out he was both the driver and conductor for this trip. It was a one man show. I was thrilled with myself and ducked into the van. The driver directed me towards the very back seat where a large woman and her son and their fifty pounds of luggage had spread out and were already pulverizing the two poor creatures to their right. I looked awkwardly at the non-existent space I was supposed to maneuver my ass into. Every other passenger followed my gaze. A well-dressed woman sitting in the second row saved me. She looked me up and down and said brusquely, “This one is too big. She will not fit.” I was momentarily offended, but I had to agree. I backed out and the driver raised his eyebrows. “I’m too fat,” I explained, “The lady said.” He laughed and sent a skinny kid in to the slaughter instead. After some interesting gyrations the kid was seated, and I plopped into the seat in front of him. It was one of the seats which can fold up to let passengers in the rows behind pass. The major disadvantage of sitting in one is that it usually means the seat in front of you is also a fold out. This means your knees become the backrest for the person in front of you. You better get your knees in a comfortable position before that person gets settled, because they’re not going anywhere for a while. But I took all this in my stride. I was on a matatu, headed for home.

I first smelled a rat when the driver began the journey by coasting the van down the street in neutral, and then popping the clutch to get the engine to start. It was disconcerting, but definitely not unheard of. I felt better when the driver stopped at a supermarket on the edge of town and picked up a box of water for me. Talk about customer service. The tension rose a little when we pulled over at the entrance to the dirt road and it became clear that the driver was going to try and fit someone else in. We were packed as tightly as I’d ever seen—about 25 of us I’d say. The driver solved this problem by having the extra man climb in through a side window and unapologetically sit on another passenger. A general hubbub started. Everyone was speaking Lugisu, and they didn’t sound happy. Another neutral roll and violent clutch pop, and we were back on the road.

The scenery along the route is beautiful. Flat green fields with a backdrop of giant cliffs. The setting sun was just hitting the rock faces. As we rode through the dusk I was aware of an abnormally high level of chatter in the van. It began to rain. There seemed to be some controversy going on. As it got darker and darker it became very clear. The van did not have headlights.

I need you to understand. We were on a muddy, winding, pot-holed country road, which is treacherous at the best of times. We were in the rain, in the dark, and the driver was shining a goddamned flashlight out the window. There were no streetlights. There was no light spilling from shop fronts or homes along the road. It was cloudy, there wasn’t even moonlight. There was only the frail circle of light coming from the flashlight. Death is never far from my mind during a matatu ride, but this was really pushing the envelope.

As it became fully dark the muted mutterings of the passengers broke out into all-out mutiny. They were speaking Lugisu so I couldn’t understand, but it seemed to amount to a general “Nuh-uh. The well dressed woman was particularly vocal, leaning back every now and again to update her friend in English: “He’s using one parking light now Betty. He’s going to kill us all.” It was sweaty and pitch black. I could vaguely see the giant matoke leaves outlined against the sky as we trundled along. For the first time since my rafting trip, I muttered a quick prayer. At one point I’m pretty sure I became the topic of conversation. I heard several mentions of “muzungu,” and “kiholo,” (my destination). Later a nice English-speaking man beside me informed me that everyone was worried that the driver wasn’t going to go all the way to Kiholo and was going to drop me in a neighboring village. They were advocating on my behalf. Every so often the driver would pull over to let someone out. He had to give the side door three or four good wallops before it opened, then stand in the driving rain, counting out change to passengers who looked like they were ready to spit in his face. His expression became stonier and stonier as he absorbed the abuse hurled from the passengers.

Finally we reached the village before Kiholo—Bunamubi. This was where I had been warned that he might try and dump me. I had a tirade all prepared in my mind. He’d already risked my life tonight and how dare he leave a young woman to try and negotiate these roads at night alone and if I was raped it would be on his head, and so on. As it turned out, it was wholly unnecessary. One quick enquiry was enough to determine that the driver had every intention of getting me home. He was an eminently decent man in extremely tough circumstances. On the final two kilometers I was the only passenger, and he had me sit up front with him. The engine cut out twice. The first time he determinedly located two men to give us a push, and performed the clutch trick with success. The second time his stony façade finally cracked. He slumped back in his seat, head in his hands, and exclaimed, “Ay, how am I going to survive this night?” Then I climbed out so that he could lift up the passenger seat, because the engine was located beneath it. He poured in a whole bottle of engine oil, we crossed our fingers, and it started on the third try. We were friends by the time we reached the guest house. He dropped me right outside the door, and I said I’d look for him next time I was catching a taxi—provided he fixed his headlights.

On the one hand it was the worst journey of my life. On the other hand, that driver didn’t know his headlights were broken until it was too late, and he went through a personal hell to make sure I reached home safely, with my box of water, all for the equivalent of about $1.50. I can’t really imagine too many bus drivers in America doing the same. Ridiculous brush with death, or amazing customer service? It’s all a question of perspective.

Advertisements