I knew that it would be difficult to transport many aspects of my life in the US to Uganda. But I thought one helpful feature of Minneapolis living that would be applicable to Kampala life would be my mode of transport – namely a bicycle.
I was by no means naïve about the treacherous prospect of cycling the streets of the City of Seven Hills – Uganda has the second highest rate of road fatalities in the world, I can only imagine that most of those occur in Kampala. Here are just a few of the unique features of this city’s roadscape:
- Almost no traffic lights. I saw one street map of Kampala that had all the traffic lights in this city of 1.2 million people marked – there were ten.
- Decrepit roads. The streets of this city take a lot of wear and tear, but unless a given street is regularly traversed by the President and his Cabinet, there is very little maintenance. The condition of some roads in the city is so bad that, to protest, some groups have planted banana trees in the cavernous potholes or set up fisheries therein
- No one here labours under the delusion that pedestrians have the right of way. Indeed, desiring to cross the street is a character flaw for which passing motorists are likely to scorn you.
Into this maelstrom, I desired to insert myself and whatever trusty bicycle I could
acquire here. So, I set out to purchase a noble steed. I knew it would be best to take along a local friend to a) lead me to the best place to buy a bike and b) help ensure that I didn’t end up paying the mzungu price. So, I called our trusted Ugandan sage, Kitongo David.
Kitongo and I took a taxi (i.e. minibus) into the centre of the city, and proceeded to wander through a maze of vendors and shopping arcades (including one that had nothing but bicycles on the top floor). Finally, we arrived outside a particular shopping arcade, with bicycles aplenty inside. He turned to me and said “Now, we are just going to pass by so that you can see the bicycles. But we will not act like we are going to buy.”
We marched down the stairs toward the bicycles and Kitongo very conspicuously told the apparent bicycle salesman, “We are just passing by.”
Having surely thrown this poor fellow off our trail, we then went up a flight of stairs, and met one of Kitongo’s friends, also named David. He introduced us, explained our course of action, and then had me look over the railing such that I could see the bicycles down below. “Which one do you like?” he asked me.
“Uhhhh, that one there looks nice, but I can’t really tell from up here if it’s the right size.”
Kitongo reassured me that he and the other David would go down and scout out the situation. I was told to have a seat in, I believe, a store that David owned. There were two attendants there. One occasionally drifted off to sleep, and the other, although awake, seemed completely disinterested in everything around her. Neither seemed troubled that some strange mzungu was just sitting in their store.
Some time passed and eventually I got a call from Kitongo. He told me they had found a bike and had talked the shopowner down from 320,000 shillings to 250,000 (a little under $90). He told me they would be back up to explain shortly.
Later still, my two shopping sherpas returned. Kitongo proceeded to explain the situation:
“NOW, we have identified two classes of bicycle. First, there are used, or, secondhand bikes. But as you know, these have their own problems. So we have decided to focus instead on the second class which is new bikes. NOW, within this class, we have identified one in particular. I have told the owner that I am buying it for myself, but that I have called a friend who is a white, who will come look at it for me.”
I didn’t know at that point as if I was supposed to act as a bicycle expert or as a concerned friend to Kitongo, but in any case, it was clear that I was supposed to be acting. Kitongo also instructed me, “You will look at the bicycle, but pretend as if you are the one giving me what? Money.”
So we descended down more flights of stairs, deeper into the building into a basement filled with all manner of new and used bikes. Once we got to the bike that had been selected, and with the potential supplier in earshot, Kitongo turned to me and said “I am thinking that I need a bicycle for my exercise. What do you think of this one?”
Some more acting ensued, and the other David told me I should test ride it for Kitongo. Lots of haggling ensued. I couldn’t always tell what was being negotiated, but clearly two of the issues were attaching reflectors in the front and back (only one was installed, on the back) and including a metal piece to protect the rear derailleur. I also couldn’t tell if all this extra negotiating was worthwhile, but it was all very amusing.
Having acquired my bike and walked with Kitongo out of the madness of downtown, I started riding home. I realised rather quickly that I could only shift between two or three gears in the back (but at least the derailleur was protected!). This wasn’t a huge problem, but I do have to ride up a rather huge hill to get home, so my pedal strokes probably looked a bit comical. No problem though; when I got home, the guard at our compound knew how to fix it.
The next day, as I was riding up that same hill, the left pedal fell off.
Kitongo and David almost certainly helped me get a better price for this bike than I would have on my own. But their negotiations focused on the wrong set of issues.
In any case, I now have something to remind me of home – a probably never-ending string of bike issues.