“Where do you want to go my friend?” Richard enquired eagerly.
“I’m not entirely sure to be honest,” I replied, shyly toeing the ground in front of his boda boda. “Just drive me around and show me some places? And maybe we can stop at a bar or somewhere so I can get some lunch?”
“OK that is fine, I will show you the real Kampala!” I got the sense that Richard was perhaps more excited than me.
I hopped on his bike, taking care to shove my valuables deep in my pockets before gripping tightly to the back of the bike with both hands. The first five minutes passed in somewhat of a haze, largely because I was petrified that I would fly off the boda boda at the first corner that Richard flung us around. The concept of straight lines do not apply to boda boda’s – they are at their most natural when weaving around all sorts of animate and inanimate objects. As I became slightly more confident, and subsequently more daring, I managed to emerge from my tense slumber behind Richard’s back and straighten up, raise my head, and take in that which we managed to barely weave around.
The first thing I noticed was that, no matter how hard I tried to fit in and look normal, I was gathering plenty of curious stares from bustling onlookers who were clearly unaccustomed to seeing a nervous looking mzungu on the back of a boda boda. I tried to appear nonchalant, as if I had done this plenty of times before, but I think my increasingly tense posture belied my supposed easiness.
This led me to notice that no other boda boda passenger held onto their respective bikes as tightly as I did mine. Most were carefree, one arm twisted casually behind them while the other laid loose in front of them, while others sat sideways on the bike, resting a forearm on the back of their driver. Sharp corners were not met by a tensing of the entire body but rather by a slight seat readjustment. I decided to trust my centre of gravity a little more and brought a hand round to my lap, loosening the grip with my left hand; after successfully navigating the first corner and a bumpy gravel road with little problem, I settled back to observe the scenery around me.
“What place is this?” I shouted to Richard over the right hand side of his maroon-stained helmet as we scrambled across the dusty road.
“This is a shanty town,” Richard shouted back. “There are quite a few here. This, my mzungu, is the real Kampala!” Shacks lined both sides of the gravel road for several hundred metres. Together, they displayed a kaleidoscope of colour and noise, fantastically fluorescent and unashamedly clashing. The dust on which they had settled rose up like an slow mist snaking between makeshift washing lines, creating a hazy hue that seemed to add to the heat bouncing off silver tin roofs.
By this point, I had (with difficulty) slid my disposable camera out of my pocket, no longer worried about falling off the boda boda but rather concerned with the logistics of taking a good picture while bumping along a rocky track.
Richard seemed to sense what I was doing: “Be careful with that! Someone might grab it while we’re driving.” I heeded his warning only a little bit – surreptitiously hiding the camera between my legs before hastily sneaking snaps that I hoped would ably capture what I was seeing myself.
Richard took me through the shanty town to the parts of Kampala that were on slightly higher ground. Here, where the roads were tarmac and slightly quieter, we were able to motor past high-rise buildings and construction sites, leafy suburbs and foreign commissions. The Nigerian Commission had their entire garage door painted to reflect their national flag, while the US and UK Commission’s comprised of seemingly luxurious mini villages, unsurprisingly bigger than what was necessary.
“Richard, can you take me a bar of some sorts? I’d love to grab a bite to eat and maybe a beer,” I enquired over his shoulder.
“Yes yes of course, I know one that is near to here.” A short five minutes later, Richard wrestled his boda boda to a stop outside a hotel bar that was squeezed in between two construction sites.
“Do you want to come with, Richard?” I asked. “I can buy you a beer?”
“No no, mzungu, I am fine, do not worry.” Richard roared with laughter. “There will be people in the bar, buy them a beer! I will wait for you here though.” I smiled, not altogether unsurprised by his declination of my offer – these were people of pride and humility. After being searched at the entrance, I climbed the stairs leading up to the bar to find a spacious room with a lengthy balcony at the one side. Contrary to what Richard said, the bar was largely empty; there was just one man jabbering away to a disinterested bar lady.
I honed in, breathless from the riveting boda boda ride around Kampala but eager to initiate a lunch time conversation over a cold beer on a sunny balcony.