Safety, Ugandan style.

If there is one difference between the Ugandan and Irish cultures that’s really jumped out at me so far, it’s the absolute polarity of our attitudes towards safety, particularly in relation to the system of safety practices known to my generation in Ireland as “a bit of common fucking sense, like.”

In fairness, I do remember a time, when I was very very young, when for example people didn’t really bother with seatbelts in cars. Except for the driver and the person in the front passenger seat (in my family at least, although I remember some of my friends’ parents didn’t even do that). I don’t think either of the first two cars we had when I was a child even had seatbelts in the back. But, at some point, something changed, seatbelts started appearing on all seats in the car; relentless gory TV advertisements in which a grave-sounding voice appealed to us to “stop the bloody slaughter”, together with the image of flying through the front windshield weighing sixty times the weight of an elephant (or something) being regularly drilled into us by the voices from the front seats meant that wearing a seatbelt became something automatic, something you wouldn’t question doing. And it made sense, too. It didn’t really feel uncomfortable, didn’t look uncool, and would save your family having to scrape parts of you off the road in the event of an accident, so it only had advantages really.

Nobody wears seatbelts in Uganda. And I have absolutely no idea why not.

You think that’s bad? Oh, wait til you hear about motorbikes. I mentioned in an earlier post that boda-bodas are a very common way to get around here. Basically they’re motorbike taxis, you just jump on the back and whizz around the place, avoiding the traffic jam, and you pay next to nothing. Now, bear in mind that this is rather a poor country and the people who do this job are not quite, — for the most part at least, I’d imagine — middle class or anything. They don’t earn much money. Their bikes are not exactly in top-class conditions; perhaps they can’t afford to have them serviced quite as much as we do in Europe; perhaps they may attempt to fix things themselves, or be unaware of potentially lethal accidents waiting to happen. Add to this the fact that the quality of roads here leaves, let’s say, something to be desired, if you desire roads without potholes which span, on occasion, the entire width of the road (when indeed you are lucky enough to be on a section which is tarmacked).

“Of course,” you’d imagine, “with that kind of a system being so widespread, and considering the socio-economic and infrastructural circumstances and so forth, everyone at least wears helmets, right?” That’s common sense…right?

Nope, more or less nobody wears helmets. It’s not that they don’t have helmets. My boda driver who takes me to and from work every morning has a helmet. Where? On the front of the bike. Not on his head. Why? No idea.

So, if it comes to a crash, it’s your skull at 60km/h versus the road. That should be avoided — do they just drive really safely instead or something? No no no no. They don’t drive safely. They drive crazy. More or less anything goes, and that is not an exaggeration: even the side of the road you drive on is, apparently, more of a suggestion, and if you’re willing to risk driving on the other side — which they often are — that’s your call. Otherwise generally feel free to weave in and out of traffic, drive on pavements, run the lights if you think you have a chance, cut corners at junctions. Oh, and drink drive. Yes, the mother of all road safety taboos in Ireland. Subject of one harrowing television gorefest after another. It’s commonplace here — if you’re getting a boda at night it’s important to ensure the driver is sober first. Perhaps there’s a logic to it, I suppose: it’ll numb the pain you feel if and when the brakes fail — and they do — but I can’t get over it.

I have been told that 5 to 6 people die every day in Kampala in boda-boda accidents, yet the vast majority seem more or less unwilling to take pretty damn rudimentary steps to avoid a pretty horrific death.

The same nonchalance can be found regarding even more basic things, believe it or not. Your parents told you not to play with fire, didn’t they? Well, not here. As I walked down to my local shop the other evening, I saw a group of kids — some as young as four or five — actually playing with a fire. Like, there was a fire lit on the side of the road, they were gathering around it, taking stuff out of it and running around with it, leaning over it, and so on. Unsupervised, you’d assume? Nope. There were about three adults looking on, alarmingly disinterested.

I had to raise this issue with a couple of colleagues one day as we drove, un-seatbelted, to collect our lunch. As we laughed about it, my colleague who was driving offered a rationale: “Yeah, but as soon as you get burned you learn that you shouldn’t play with fire and never do it again, right?”. Sure.

I just can’t get away from the idea that Al-Shabbab may have somehow benefited from that reasoning, and I sure hope I’m wrong.


About Dan Ó C

Human rights geek in Uganda. I power my entire house on my own sense of self-importance.
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One Response to Safety, Ugandan style.

  1. Tarararara says:

    Brilliant. My favourite safety-related quote from Uganda was a colleague, who shall remain nameless bar letting you know that *he* took me to get my phone and foreign exchange etc. sorted out the day I arrived. We cruised around Kabalagala, frequently jumping in and out of the car, with me diligently taking on and off my seatbelt each and every time. So eventually, our colleague, amused, looked at over his shoulder in the back seat and deadpanned, “Wow, you’re really into seatbelts eh?”

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