Kampala is the capital city of Uganda, the country Winston Churchill once called the Pearl of Africa. With over one million foreign tourists visiting the Ugandan capital every year, the city has a reputation for being a tourist-friendly African metropolis. Visitors who wish to interact with locals in order to learn about the Ugandan culture might find it convenient to use the transportation system in Kampala. There are three options available – matatus (mini-buses), boda-bodas (motorcycles), or special hires (private taxis). This short guide is designed to introduce you to the normative rules that are attributed with each mode of transportation. The first section covers the general rules for using the matatus, boda-bodas and the special hires along with the particular rules for the matatus. The second and third sections only cover the specific rules for the afferent means of transportation. Consequently, most of the rules for the matatus apply for the boda-bodas and the private taxis as well.
Mini-buses are typically ancient cars, licensed to carry 14 passengers that often accommodate about twenty two people (on the car seats or folding stools), their belongings and various small animals. If you don’t like this it’s a good idea to sit in the back of the vehicle, since usually most people are squeezed in the first two three rows. Behind the driver’s seat, on many cars, there is a small TV playing loud East African music and soap-operas. These are sturdy cars but you will often feel each and every bump in the road given the aggressive style of driving in Kampala and the poor infrastructure. The following rules apply to all rides on a mini-bus:
Confusingly, matatus are known as taxis in Uganda. Each matatu has a driver and a conductor, both of whom will shout the destinations of their vehicle out the windows. If you don’t understand what they are saying, simply ask one of them for your destination and you’ll be told yes or no.
Except for the terminal station, mini-buses do not stop on a regular basis (though they tend to follow relatively preset routes). As such, when the mini-buses approach the stop you are at, raise your hand in the air to signal your interest to hop on board. If the car doesn’t stop, it means it has reached its (i)llegal capacity. Do not despair; the next car will typically arrive in less than 10 minutes.
If you are interested in getting off the mini-bus, you must yell at the driver or conductor the name of the street / point of interest where you want the bus to stop (if the mini-bus is full, and no one calls out a particular stop, then the driver will simply drive past it). Though most drivers in Kampala speak a little bit of English, this is not always the case. Consequently, it might be useful to remember the local word for stop – Kuacha. The proper way to ask for the mini-bus to stop would be: “Kuacha Sheridan hotel” or “Kuacha Kilimanjaro Road.” The English word for a stop in Kampala is “Stage.” You can say “Stage” at any point and the driver will stop within 100 feet.
If you plan to take the mini-bus, it is important to carry small change with you. The driver’s assistant (who will normally sit against the sliding door, collecting the fare) often deals with paper-money no higher than 5000 shillings (US$2.5). If you offer a banknote larger than that, the driver might be forced to stop in front of a shop to allow the conductor to run inside and get some change. This will derail the ride and will reflect negatively on you as a passenger. Given the fact that the city fare ranges between 1000-1500 shillings, it is considered the passenger’s duty to have obtained change prior to hoping on the matatu.
You must always pay the conductor when you exit.
If you decide to hop on the mini-bus, you are automatically giving your informed consent to interact with other Ugandans. Given the sardine-in-a-box physical proximity to other passengers, people will often wish to interact with you and chit-chat about your experiences and your visit to Uganda. Not interacting with locals is seen as patronizing them – a highly charged emotional reaction given the country’s colonial past. Therefore, if you are not willing to speak with locals taking the mini-bus is not advisable.
Try not to fart, burp or yawn on the mini-bus. Any detectable bodily function exercised on the mini-bus is considered highly inappropriate.
It is customary to compliment passengers transporting animals on the mini-bus. “What a lovely pig/goat/rooster you have there” can be an excellent conversation starter.
If you have been talking to a local for more than ten minutes (especially to the young folk) he/she might be asking for your email address. This is not an attempt on behalf of Ugandans to try to scam you at a later stage. Having “friends abroad” is a sign of social distinction. As such, simply being in touch with you from time to time represents a type of symbolic capital locals like to tap into.
Speaking on the phone is considered inappropriate on the mini-bus (not to mention, unfeasible given the loud music playing in background). It is inappropriate because it might prevent other passengers from successfully announcing their stop to the bus driver. Similarly, reading a book or a newspaper or listening to music are all considered improper activities on the matatu.
Do not consume any beverages or food items while on board of the mini-bus. The food smells would soon be felt throughout the car while the bumpy roads will ensure that any drink you carry will inevitably be spilled.
Do not take pictures while on board of the mini-bus. Taking photos without permission might cause a visceral reaction from other passengers either because they might consider the act as an intrusion on their personal space or because of culturally-defined local moralities (some passengers might think you are attempting to steal their souls when taking their pictures.)
Keep your belongings in front of you and ideally empty your pockets before riding the matatu and put the items in your bag/backpack which should then be placed on your lap for the duration of the trip. Pickpocketting is a common occurrence on the mini-bus.
Do not object to people opening the windows next to them. It is a common practice in Uganda, one which is ultimately preferable given the dry-hot climate in the city.
Bear in mind that all it takes is for one person on board to not have taken a shower in order for your olfactory functions to attempt to shut down. Do not express your disproval either vocally or through your facial expressions. Chances are everyone felt the Hellish Breeze of Dawn that accompanies a certain passenger. However, it is understood that other people might just get back from work on a hot summer day (which is basically every day of the year!); or that other impediments might have prevented a person from washing him/herself prior to the ride. If you feel a particular odor is about to scratch your soul, simply open a window or ask the person next to you to do so. It is unlikely anyone would ever object to that request.
There are over 20,000 boda-boda drivers in Kampala waiting for clients on a daily basis. The motorcycles range is size and shape and can accommodate from one to three passengers in addition to the driver. The boda-bodas are, at once, the most unsafe means of transportation in Uganda and the most commonly used. Given the congested traffic in a city designed to accommodate half a million people which has an estimated population of three million, using boda-boda services is the only way you can get from one part of the city to another one, in record time. Tourists are encouraged to try the boda-boda out, for the sake of the experience, but are recommended to use matatus or special hires if possible.
There are no pre-set prices for hiring a boda-boda driver. As a tourist you will always be overcharged. The question is not whether you can get a fair price, but by how much you will be overcharged. The cost of driving a boda-boda for the driver is, on average, 500 shillings per mile. You should expect paying at least three times that much, as a tourist.
Always negotiate the fare at the point of departure, having in mind that haggling for the fare is not only expected, but required (for the same trip, the author of this guide has received more than 40 different price demands from boda-boda drivers ranging from 50 cents to 100 dollars). The fool is not the one who demands a high price, but the one who honors it (Romanian proverb).
The rule of the negotiating your price is simple. Drivers will always agree to a profit of 1000 shillings (fifty cents) per mile, probably even less. Therefore before scheduling a boda-boda trip, you should check Google maps for the estimated distance between the departure and the destination points so as to have in mind the price you should be paying. For example, a five mile trip would require you to pay 500 x 5 for the gas plus 5 x 1000, the driver’s share, or, no more than 7500 shillings (as of 2012); add 2000 shillings to the price if you are sharing the motorcycle with a friend.
After you have determined the price for the trip, and when you reach the place where the boda-boda drivers are stationed, you can either ask for an estimate from a driver, or simply tell him your price (drivers are always men). If he declines your offer, move to the next one. If five drivers decline your offer, simply start walking towards your destination. 9 out of 10 times, one of the drivers who initially declined your offer will drive in your direction and let you know that he agrees to your price.
Helmets are only required for motorcycle drivers in Uganda, not for passengers. Most of the drivers will not even have one for themselves. Consequently, unless you see two helmets attached to the boda-boda, you should not ask for one.
It is perfectly reasonable to ask your driver to slow down or go faster, according to your wishes. They will accommodate your request either way.
If you wish to avoid haggling on your next boda-boda ride, you should take the phone number of the driver that gave you a reasonable price and drove you safely to your destination. Drivers are always in search for regular customers and they will offer you discounted fares if you call them back. Allow for 30 minutes between the time you make the call and the time of departure for a new destination so that the driver can get to your location.
Boda-boda drivers are also known for propositioning potential customers, especially tourists. If you are not interested, simply decline their offer politely (“no, thank you”) and they will usually not continue bothering you.
Men usually ride the boda-bodas facing forward while women are expected to ride side saddle. Though some locals might make fun of females riding the boda-boda facing forward, they tend to understand that tourists have other habits / cultural norms.
Rules of engaging with private taxi drivers are the same as for the boda-boda drivers. Almost no taxis in town have meters. This means you must negotiate the price at the point of departure.
You are allowed to consume food and beverages while taking a taxi ride.
You are also allowed to smoke if you may choose to do so inside a taxi, provided that you lower the window.
Make sure, once more, that you know where you are going before negotiating the fare you will pay to a taxi driver. A trip in the city should not exceed 20000 shillings (approximately US$10). However, taxi drivers in Kampala are known for taking you in circles, around the city, only to drop you off at your destination, half an hour later, less than two miles away from the point of departure.