My secret love of bodas: Facing fear

8 02 2010

A boda boda is a broken down motorcycle that serves as a form of transportation in Uganda – a ridiculously unsafe option to help you get around.

The drivers are sketchy at best. It is not out of line to smell their breath to see if they’ve been drinking or check their eyes to see if they’re high. Most do not wear helmets and forget about any type of protective gear for driver or passenger. Women either straddle the bike where the exhaust pipe has literally burned a hole in my flip flops (considered safest if you trust your driver and not the other drivers) or sit side saddle if you’re wearing a skirt (easiest to hop off if your driver is reckless). Boda drivers literally weave in and out of cars on the road and excel at zig sagging through traffic jams with turns that often cause knee grazing of other vehicles. They may drive down the wrong way on a street or take to the side of the road where people are walking if it will get you to your destination quicker.

According to a popular guidebook, 10 people die in boda accidents every day. And according to my friends who work in the hospital here, the majority of patients they see are boda accident related.

There are numerous horror stories of boda drivers scheming to steal bags (one drives past the other and literally grabs the bag from the passenger while the bodas are moving). Right before I came, the American embassy put out a warning indicating that two American women had been attacked (one gang raped and the other violently robbed) after leaving a popular ex-pat bar in the wee hours of the morning.

Why you ask would anyone ever choose to take such a death trap on wheels?

I’m not really sure the answer. I know it is dumb. I know my grandma and Baubie Lu Lu will cringe when they read this (sorry!). I know my program specifically forbids taking them and Peace Corps volunteers are sent home if it is discovered they’ve taken a boda. Yet, I also can admit that I secretly love them. At the end of every ride, I feel a rush and thrill of survival – almost like a runner’s high but without all the sweat and hard work. They’re convenient, cheap and offer an incredible experience.

When I first arrived I had no intention of ever stepping near a boda. I lasted about one week of walking everywhere before I had an experience that made me face the fear. I was walking home from someone’s house late at night. She lived in the neighborhood and it was decided it was safe enough to walk. In retrospect, I’m not sure but that was the smartest but that was the decision made at the time. Nonetheless, I got lost in the dark and got scared. It was the first time it hit me that I was in Africa of all places, that there was really no 911 to call for a rescue, no identifiable street sign to help guide someone to my location and lots of unknowns lurking in the darkness. I managed to find my way to a busy road and so incredibly afraid of getting lost again I flagged down the next boda and hopped on. This was by far and away, the most dangerous risk I’ve taken in riding a boda yet it turned out fine. I survived and it broke me in to the world of boda bodas.

For me, I consider it to be a calculated risk and one that I use certain parameters to determine whether or not I ride a boda. For instance, I never take bodas at night. I took a boda with another person one other time (yes you can fit and regularly see 3 people or more with kids on a motorcycle) and vowed to not do that again. I tend to judge which boda I take based on the condition of their bike.I always ask the driver to go slow and be safe.  In reality, I’d say I ride a boda maybe 3-5 times per week depending on where I’m going. My first choice is always to walk, followed by a group taxi (mutatu – also not very safe) and then special hire (our version of a taxi and most expensive option – I have two regular drivers who take me wherever I go at night). Are these parameters really going to save me from something bad happening?  Of course not.

The point in me sharing this is not to scare anyone. Rather it is to illustrate something I think is important to note. Every day of this experience there is something to be afraid of.

At first I was just scared to come. What if I miss home? What if no one likes me? What if I can’t do the work? Then once I arrived it became… Will this food make me sick? Is this person trying to scam me? Am I going to trip and fall when walking through the dark? Is my belly ache indigestion or the beginning signs of malaria?

Before I left I saw an article in my gym magazine about fear. It was written by an Olympic high diver with a fear of heights. His point was essentially that rather than focus on conquering fear – which may be an exercise in futility – it is better to acknowledge it and embrace it.This struck a chord with me. There are days I’m embarrassed of my fears and wish that I was a “stronger” person and not such a scaredy cat. Yet, I also know that by facing my fears I get the same high I get when taking a boda – the thrill of accomplishment and survival.

To me, that is one of the most rewarding lessons I’ve learned during my time in Uganda. I’ve always believed it was important to take risks but somehow I felt insincere because the same risks I preached taking were ones I was (and continue to be) afraid of. Now I have come to know, that I may never “conquer” my fears but I have a new confidence in my ability to face them and knowledge that in doing so, the greatest thrills are yet to be had.




One response

9 02 2010
Alan Frailich

OK Allison…enough of facing your fears there in Africa. Time to come back home and face the fears of driving on the streets during a Minnesota winter. That is scary enough for me.
Have a nice trip back.

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