KAMPALA, UGANDA — Rossete Muhumuza and her husband, Aggrey Muhumuza, made a purchase in 2018 that transformed their lives: They bought a car.
Owning a station wagon meant their two teenage boys and 9-year-old daughter no longer had to take a school van in the mornings. Rossete, 42, could do more shopping, faster. And, much to their delight, they didn’t have to depend on public transport for family picnics. They could now go anywhere.
The Muhumuzas are part of a signal shift in Uganda, where vehicle sales leaped by 35% from 2010 to 2019, and thousands of people are now learning to drive. The change highlights the East African country’s uneven progress in recent decades, as economic growth has propelled more people to buy cars, even as traffic jams outrage drivers in cities whose crammed roads simply can’t bear the overflow of vehicles.
Frustrations aside, owning a car has become a symbol of success in Uganda.
“If one is able to liberate themselves from the nightmare of public transport in Uganda, then to me that person is rich,” says Jovia Katushabe, 31, who sells artificial hairpieces and lives in a Kampala suburb.
As of June 30 last year, Ugandans were driving about 2.3 million vehicles, according to government data. Uganda remains among the world’s poorest countries, but over the last two decades, its gross domestic product per capita has skyrocketed, largely powered by growth in industry jobs.
Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda
Although the nation does need a more robust public transport system, “Ugandans have the wrong mindset,” says economist Fred Muhumuza, who is not related to Rossete and Aggrey. People buy cars, he says, because they are “just crazy with consumerism.”
Agness Namutebi, a cosmetics dealer, recalls that even as a child, she dreamed of owning a car. But Namutebi, 27, didn’t have enough money until 2018, when she bought one with the help of a loan. “I am now sure I can afford fuel and service when the car has a glitch,” she says.
Before buying a car, many Ugandans must first learn to drive. Some take lessons from mechanics because they are less expensive than qualified driving teachers, but that choice can yield harrowing results.
On her first day of driving class, Rossete recalls, her mechanic-teacher forced her to get behind the wheel. Panicked, she accidentally stepped on the gas, and the car hurtled toward a field of children playing football.
The mechanic grabbed the steering wheel, whipping the car away from the field. Instead, it raced in a different direction and crashed into a house. The house collapsed.
No one was hurt, but “I will never drive because God spared me a lifetime’s guilt,” says Rossete, who owns a local juice shop. Today, her husband usually drives their car, and when she has to use it, she hires a driver.
Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda
In a 2019 survey by the government’s Uganda Road Fund — which finances and maintains the country’s public roads — 10.6% of respondents said they felt unsafe because of reckless drivers. The worst drivers are often poorly trained, says Assistant Commissioner of Police Charles Sebambulidde, who oversees Uganda’s Traffic and Road Safety Directorate. The United Nations’ Safety Performance Review in 2018 also noted that “driving standards in Uganda are of poor quality and need urgent improvement.”
The influx of vehicles often overwhelms streets, especially in big cities like Kampala, the capital. Ugandans, usually friendly and calm, frequently lose it on the road.
In 2020, Uganda’s police counted 55,679 careless or inconsiderate drivers — a roughly 79% leap over the previous year.
In a normal, pre-pandemic rush hour in Kampala, buses and matatus — minivans used by many for transport — battle for space with motorcycle taxis known as boda bodas, which thread through traffic. Horns bellow and tires squeal. Children scamper when they hear a bang from a collision, schoolbooks flying.
Angry motorists honk and scream at her when she is driving, says Adrine Kyomugisha, a Kampala schoolteacher. “‘Why don’t you move? Are you a snail? You are scared your husband will kill you if there is a scratch on your car.’ When I can’t stand their bullying, I use public” transport, she says.
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Women say they bear the brunt of road rage. That doesn’t surprise Sebambulidde, who says that in nearly 10 years in his role, he has found that men “are reckless. Women are cautious, maybe because they are most times taking children to school.”
That said, he adds, in situations that call for quick decisions, men are faster.
Another challenge is the condition of Uganda’s roads. More drivers are happier with infrastructure than in years past. But the 2019 Road Fund survey still found that more than 40% of respondents lamented problems such as narrow roads, potholes and poor drainage.
Those issues are compounded by more traffic. A lack of public buses, combined with more cars, taxis and boda bodas, has left Uganda’s roads swamped, says Martha Agama, public relations officer for Uganda’s Ministry of Works and Transport.
To reduce traffic congestion, the Kampala government plans to construct more bypasses and footpaths above thoroughfares, and the national government has hired a Chinese company to build more commuter buses, Agama says.
Even with more cars on the roads, vehicle-related crime isn’t much of a problem. In fact, car thefts have fallen by about 27% since 2018, according to the annual police crime reports. Still, traffic officers, dressed in crisp khaki-and-white uniforms, often can barely keep up with the mayhem.
Clogged roads are the price to pay for progress, Sebambulidde says.
“An empty road is a bad signal,” he says. It means “people are not doing much. Heavy traffic is synonymous with development.”
Edna Namara is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda.