Baba kuja twende! Welcome to Busia
Boda Bodas lined up in Busia.

Baba kuja twende! Welcome to Busia

... and those notorious men in their wheelchairs!

By John Isingoma
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First published: July 6, 2006

To many ordinary Ugandans, the name Busia evokes an image of a town, booming with business and where getting money is as easy as spending it. Well, at least in the imaginations of those who have not been there.

This is because border towns in Uganda especially Busia are historically known to be centers of not only doing brisk business but also where smuggling has become a definite tradition. This has led to a belief that commodities at many border posts/towns are incredibly cheap. However, though goods are in plentiful supply and some are cheap, life in Busia is not any different from that in any other inland towns. The future of many youth in Busia is in quagmire and their livelihoods rotate on a bicycle.

In fact, a bicycle is almost worshiped here among the town's majority low-income earners, as it is the readily available and affordable source of income through transportation of both humans and goods. To others a bicycle is a source of inspiration, a symbol of wealth and a yard stick to one's social standing. Unlike Kampala and other towns in Uganda where the common means of transport for short distances is a motorcycle (boda boda), in Busia town bicycles boda bodas have to labor up the hills to serve the same purpose.

The curtail price for most distances here is two hundred shillings from the border gates to other locations within the town. In other towns, the minimum fee using a motorcycle is five hundred shillings.

Busia- eastern part of Uganda at the border of Uganda with Kenya
Busia- eastern part of Uganda at the border of Uganda with Kenya.

Busia is found in the eastern part of Uganda at the border of Uganda with Kenya. It's approximately 200 kilometers from the Uganda's capital Kampala and will cost you between 10,000 to 15,000 shillings (depending whether it boom season or off season) if you choose to travel by a 14-seater commuter taxi and less by bus.

Festive and holiday seasons are traditionally considered as a boom season as many workers head to their home villages to have a break from work. Because I went on the eve of the 2006 presidential elections when people were flocking the villages to vote, the transport fare had been hiked to 12,000 shillings.

As the taxi slowed down to allow passengers disembark in Busia Taxi park, one is owe struck by tens of bicycle boda boda men (almost tripling the number of passengers in a Taxi) shoving each other in attempt to win the passengers.

Boda-Boda in Busia
Boda-Boda in Busia
Image Source: Boda-Boda for Africa.

"Baba kuja twende- sir lets go!" a stout looking young man yelled at me.

If the passenger is taking too long to make his/her mind but is showing signs that he or she is going somewhere, the boys change the tactics and cunningly beg the passenger to board.

Shortly, the pink uniformed riders scramble for the luggage from the taxi carrier as each of them try to out-shout their colleagues assuring the owners of the safety of luggage and how he is the best rider, familiar with the owners' destinations. One by one, passengers continue to leave to their various destinations. Some passengers choose to go by the bicycles while others are picked up by personal cars leaving behind disappointed cyclists, some visibly angry and rueful of the opportunities lost to colleagues who transported the last luggage or passenger.

No wonder it is common to see fists flying as the cyclists struggle for passengers and their luggage.

Motorcycle (boda boda) as found in Kampala
Motorcycle (boda boda) as found in Kampala.

Once in this town you realize how a bicycle is very important and how much life revolves around it. From fetching water and transporting people from one place to another, to carrying sacks of smuggled goods; all is done by bicycles.

The young men have gone out of their way to decorate them. They 'baptize' them names like Isuzu, Mercedes, Jaguar, Ndege Ya Kiini (land plane) you name it.

Steven Sakwa, a bicycle boda boda man I hired to take me around town confirmed that the bicycles are widely used in smuggling good. This is mainly because of their flexibility to dodge law enforcers through hilly short cuts. However, Sakwa says that the dangerous work of smuggling is done by local youth on behalf of big importers. He attributed smuggling to delays by the border authorities to clear heavy vehicles hence the temptation by the vehicle owners to use bicycles to take their goods across from and to Kenya.

"Those revenue officers can delay some trucks for three days before clearing them", he said. He says that 100 kg sack of soy beans from one side of the border to another is carried at 200 to 400 shillings or around 20 Kenya shillings depending on the risk and length of a shortcut chosen.

In Busia town both the Uganda and Kenya shillings is accepted as a means of exchange by locals and all price quotations for commodities are done in both currencies. Bicycles for personal use have a marked difference from those used for public transport. Many of those used for private transport do not have carriers and the few that have, are not dressed with soft cushions.

It is also a common sight to see disabled men and women carrying goods on their specialized wheelchairs from Kenya using the shortcuts. The disabled in their wheelchairs are alleged to be notorious smugglers. This is because border patrol personnel often ignore them.

The traffic of bicycles becomes heavier towards day's end as school children loiter around town before heading home. Almost every secondary and upper primary student goes to school riding a bicycle. They ride very fast and are reckless exposing them to accidents with drivers while others skid and fall causing multiple injuries to their bodies.

Basically what you see in Busia are bicycles and because of their being relatively cheap, they are used to perform almost every transport activity in the town.

By John Isingoma
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First published: July 6, 2006
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John Isingoma is a member of Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd. A social scientist by training, Isingoma is the Executive Secretary at Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd and after years training and practice in the media has become a dedicated writer and researcher.