Transportation in Kampala

Transportation in Kampala - Matatu

Some of the most chaotic experiences of my life include: getting robbed by a man with a pistol in Guatemala City, getting robbed at machete point in Kampala, fighting off an attacking pack of dogs with a snorkel tube in Belize, and figuring out the Kampala transportation system. I will be focusing on the latter in this article.

While there are many very affordable transportation options available in Kampala it can be tricky figuring out which one is best for you. Kampala is a rapidly growing urban center of East Africa where population estimates are currently at 1.6 million and  expected to increase nearly five times that by 2050 (Herro, 2006). As such, the road infrastructure currently in place is insufficient to meet the transportation demands of the large and rapidly expanding population. If you find yourself on the road during rush hour, you could end up sitting in traffic for hours. So obtaining a knowledge of various transportation options, knowing the peak times of traffic, and figuring out shortcuts is great knowledge to have.

Matatu

During your stay in Kampala you are sure to take notice of Japan’s wonderful gift to this nation, thousands of run down white Toyota vans. Theses dastardly pieces of machinery go by the Kiswahili name “Matatu” meaning “for three” which refers to the price in shillings it cost to travel Kenya’s roads during the 1950’s. However I think a more apt translation would be “reckless abandon” as this is often the style in which these vehicles are driven. If you can overlook the chaotic driving habits and cramped seating, Matatu’s can be among the most affordable of options for getting around town and actually all over the country.

To catch a matatu into town, simply stand on the side of the street and wait for a driver to stop, honk, or raise his hand/eyebrows at you. It feels awkward at first but don’t worry, you’re an expat so everyone expects you don’t know. Ask the conductor (he’s the guy holding money, opening the door, and leaning out of the vehicle to recruit passengers) if they’re going to the taxi park. If so, jump in. You’ll pass your money up to him near the park. Check your change.

To catch a matatu out of town, you’ll need to take a deep breath and go into the taxi park. There are two parks, old and new. At first glance, the parks will feel terrifyingly chaotic and just the thought of entering them might make you want to hyperventilate. Rest assured, they are actually quite organized. There are little signs that all the taxi’s group around, find the sign of the place you’re going, walk directly to it, and start asking people where the taxi is for that place. You will be lead to a taxi, once you get in, ask the other people inside if the taxi is, in fact, going to your destination. If they say no, get out and repeat the previous procedure. If yes, great! Now all you have to do is sit there for who knows how long until it fills up.

Matatu/taxi park tips: Not all destinations are at both parks, make sure you’re at the right one. If you are ever on a matatu by yourself for more than a few minutes, get out and find one going to the same place with other people in it. Matatus will hit you- hit them first, seriously, hitting the matatu tells the driver to stop, or better yet, just move out of the way super quick. There are no “stops,” you must say “masow” or “here here” or “stop” to signal the conductor to let you out. You pay on your way out.

Pioneer Bus

Recently introduced to the Kampala public transportation system, Pioneer Bus is a very nice option to take around town. You can identify these buses by their orange and black colors and large size. They resemble city buses you might find back in the U.S. or U.K.

How these buses operate is similar to the matatu system except much more organized. You will find the conductor and driver wearing nice clean uniforms with ties. The service is very professional and friendly. There are set bus stops all over town, which eliminates the sudden stopping and starting. And perhaps the best part of all is the standard fare of 800 UGX no matter how far or near you travel. Yay for no inflated Mzungu prices!

Special Hire Taxi

Probably the safest and fastest way for a group of 4 to 5 people to travel in Kampala is by Special Hire Taxi. While these taxi’s are the most expensive of options, they can become quite affordable with the more people you squeeze in.

In general, white or yellow Toyota Corolla’s seem to be the quasi-taxi of choice, and they can be identified by the “taxi” sign on top of the car or by the man yelling out his window at you. There are many taxi stage’s around town including Garden City, the National Theatre, and Pioneer Mall. However if you’re in a rush you can usually flag down one passing by.

The price is dependent on where you are going and how far it is. Remember everything in Uganda is based on bargaining so settle the price with the driver before you get in. Cost usually ranges from 10,000-40,000 UGX.

Boda Bodas

Perhaps the most dangerous thing you can do in Uganda is ride on a boda boda. According to local health professionals the number one cause of injuries and death among foreigners in Uganda are boda boda accidents. While this is the fastest way to get around town it may not be worth the risk. Most organizations (including mine) strongly discourage or even prohibit their employees and volunteers from riding these because of their ridiculously high injury and mortality rates. I’ve regrettably known of several expats and Ugandans that have died while riding these, and have seen more than my fair share of horrific accidents.

While they may be the most genuine and sweet people you’d ever want to meet, boda boda drivers have a notorious reputation for being involved in the Kampala crime syndicate. Some things to be aware of are: never get on a boda boda that already has a passenger on back, as there have been instances where the first “passenger” ends up being an associate of the driver and when a secluded area is reached both will overpower and assault or rob the victim. If you absolutely must take a boda boda at night, always use extreme caution as many drivers drink and become intoxicated. There have also been instances of intoxicated passengers being driven to a secluded location then assaulted or robbed. Perhaps this is all the more reason to go green and ride a bike in Kampala.

On the opposite note, I have had wonderful experiences with boda boda drivers. One of the most joyful and hilarious guys I know is a boda boda driver, and he shares a house with several of my expat friends.

Owning and Driving a Private Vehicle

After purchasing a vehicle with my girlfriend a couple of months ago I still have yet to decide if the investment was worth it or not. While owning a vehicle can have major advantages like mobility, safety, increase in friends, and street cred, it can also be quite stressful. As a vehicle owner in Kampala you take on an enormous amount of responsibility and risk. In the event of an accident insurance will not help out, you will have to cover your own costs of repairing your vehicle/buying a new one.

You also have to be extra cautious about theft, I know of an expat that had the majority of his vehicle stripped bare while out to dinner one evening. Repairs and maintenance are a big expense as the bumpy roads and dust can quickly take a toll on your vehicle. High fuel costs are also a deterrent to owning a vehicle here, as petrol tends to be around double the price you would pay in the US. Limited parking availability at most places, traffic jams, and becoming a target for being pulled over by the police are just a few more things to consider before taking the leap and purchasing a vehicle.

However if you’ve weighed all the options and still decide you want your own vehicle, feel free to give me a call because I love free rides!

Coach Buses

Imagine yourself careening around blind curves at over 100 km per hour, paying only 30,000 UGX for a 10 hour ride, and listening to a cacophony of reggaeton music blasting from multiple cell phone speakers. No this isn’t a roller coaster ride at Disneyland, this is a long distance coach bus! If you are in the mood to take a trip to a neighboring country (South Sudan, Rwanda, Tanzania, or Kenya) and don’t want to spend the money on flying there, taking a coach bus may be your best and cheapest option.

A word of caution; drivers of these buses are notorious for being reckless, especially at night. So if you’re thinking of taking one of these buses it’s usually a bit safer to take the day-time buses. Some of the coach bus companies include Kampala Coach, Jaguar, Akamba, Post Bus, Buscar, Gaga, Gateway and a whole host of others. I will be writing a separate article about where to find these buses and how much they cost in the future. So be on the lookout.

Bicycling

Hands down riding a mountain bike is my favorite way to get around the city. Not only are you getting in ridiculously good shape (which we all know leads to becoming really ridiculously good looking), but you’re also building street cred among other expats and Ugandan’s alike, attracting gorgeous women and/or men with your smooth pedaling movement, saving wagon loads of money, saving the environment, getting around much faster than cars and matatu’s, and it’s very safe (if you wear a helmet and have good brakes). Plus you can even get more friends by joining this sweet cycling club.

About Aaron

I'm the creative director of the music and arts organization Ensigo, and have been living in Uganda for close to three years. I’m thrilled to contribute to the Living in Kampala website, and will do my best to unveil some of Kampala’s hidden gems and local talent that I’ve discovered during my time here. Get in touch at aaron@livinginkampala.com.