Archive for July, 2010

Memories from the Horn

Travelling in a blue sky with almost no sign of clouds, the DC 10 aircraft approached the horn of Africa. Flying over the Indian Ocean, we could see the coast of Somalia below us and a rush of excitement ran through my body. As the plane started to descend and make its final approach, we could see the seemingly eternal Somali coastline, the longest on the continent, and small dots of fishing and commercial vessels. As the plane landed and everybody got ready to disembark, the pilot said over the intercom ‘Welcome to Bosaaso where the temperature is 37 degrees and sunny’.

As I made my way towards the terminal building of Bosaaso Bender Qassim International Airport, I was happy to finally be back home. I looked around and could see the sea behind us and a mountainous landscape inland. My contact, Qasim,  was waiting for me inside the newly built terminal building, the newest edition to development of Bosaaso, the main port city of the North. We got through immigration and made our way into the city and found a nice air-conditioned hotel for the evening. We turned in early to get some rest before the trek inland.

Early the next morning we had some breakfast and got ready to embark on our road trip to the regional capital Garowe, almost 500 km away. With the Indian Ocean behind us we tanked up the trustworthy Toyota Mark II station wagon, which is a favourite amongst drivers in this part of the country due to cheap spare parts and universal applicability, and started our trek.

Exiting Bosaaso town traveling southbound we could see the landscape change. The paved highway that runs across the whole length of the country was in a remarkably good state considering the events in recent decades. The road is straight and cuts through the mountains with an ever-changing landscape. The dry semi-arid planes melt into towering mountains and rocky terrain. Every presence of water is verified by a burst of green vegetation surrounded by rocks and sand. In its own remarkable way, the relentless sun and the rugged landscape seemed perfectly aligned.

As we made good progress and traveled at the same speed of any decent highway around the world, Qasim suddenly stopped the car and pointed towards the horizon and said ‘I bet you haven’t seen one of them yet’. In the distance I could barely make out a huge black and white ostrich. After another hour or so we had to stop again as a bunch of baboons decided to sit in the middle of the road and remain seated as we came to a halt. They played a waiting game that we lost as Qasim revved the engine and scared them away.

Along the side of the road we came across an old pastoral man hitchhiking and we picked him up. As he talked about the life of the pastoral people and recent events, I was struck by the resilience his way of life required. He informed us that it had recently rained, after a long period of drought, and his family and his livestock were much better off now. And as he continued his story it was clear that he knew the whole region from the coast to the distant mountains, as he had lived as a nomad here his whole life. After a few more miles, he asked us to stop and let him off. His family had settled close by he said, until conditions would inevitably spur them to move to better grazing land.

As we traveled further and further inland, the landscape got greener and there were a lot more livestock around. This part of Somalia relies mainly on livestock such as goats, sheep and cattle for food as well as export and the amount of animals grazing was astonishing. As we got closer to Garowe we came across large herds of camels, the most valuable of all the pastoralists’ animals. I couldn’t help but smile at the sight of a camel nonchalantly crossing the road while looking casually at our car. As we arrived into Garowe and made our way towards our destination I had the feeling that one month in Somalia would be a great break from my usual life at university. And it didn’t let me down at all, and now I’m looking forward to visiting the Horn of Africa next year Insha’Allah.

Sadiq Adam Dahir. Edinburgh University

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In recent years traffic jams throughout Kampala have become a considerable hindrance. Increased urbanisation initiating a rapid rise in the city’s population, has introduced an influx of vehicles onto inadequate and largely extemporaneously planned roads. The number of registered vehicles has increased exponentially. Cars contend against cavernous potholes on overcrowded streets. Public transport is limited to fourteen person mutatus, or taxis buses, that wedge you into soul-crushing stagnant traffic. On the bright side you’ll have plenty of time to make new friends with your seatmate. The informal solution rests with boda-bodas, or motorbikes, primarily found throughout East Africa. Boda-bodas have long characterised Kampala. Born from cyclists moving goods across the Kenyan-Ugandan border nearly fifty years ago, bodas have come to typify transport in the capital city. Quick and inexpensive for passengers, they provide a source of relatively steady income for cyclists.

Throughout my time in Kampala I thoughtlessly took bodas on a daily basis. Coming from Washington D.C., I’ve experienced my fair share of traffic. Yet, in the face of such extraordinary jams, bodas proved the fastest and least exhausting means. Attempting to employ some form of caution I found a driver recommended by some Ugandan friends. While he was far more careful than the surrounding drivers, we still darted in front of oncoming traffic, between moving buses, and careened into potholes. I met numerous tourists and Ugandans involved in boda accidents, and countless others who incurred serious burns from exhaust pipes. The general sentiment towards boda travel was not if, but when you would become involved in an accident.

Bodas provide work to thousands throughout Kampala. It’s estimated there are around a quarter-million operators within the country at-large. The work is highly gendered—throughout my time in the city I failed to see a single female driver. Limited to young men, locals warn of cyclist’s tarnished reputations, imbued with drug and alcohol abuse. Papers accuse drivers of rape and the transmission of HIV. Bodas are said to frequently rob and beat passengers at night. The prevalence of traffic accidents (Uganda maintains some of the highest incidents within Africa) is often singularly attributed to reckless bodas. Newspapers publish stories daily of passengers tricked, beaten and robbed.

The relationship between the Museveni administration and boda-boda drivers has been inconsistent. During the 2001 presidential elections Museveni rode atop a boda-boda, forgoing his usual motorcade in a bid to recast himself as the people’s candidate—while gaining the support of the city’s thousands of boda operators. Following the election, Museveni granted special privileges to bodas, helping cyclists acquire motorbikes through micro-credit cooperatives. However, relations have become increasingly strained. In September 2009 riots began in Kampala when the administration refused the Kabaka of the Buganda kingdom from visiting the Kayunga district. While largely rooted in indigenous land disputes, boda cyclists publicly incurred blame because of their visibility at the riots.

Boda-bodas absolutely pose tremendous risk. Yet, aside from the inherent danger of predominately helmet-less transport—the winding in between moving cars, and general disregard of lights and oncoming traffic—bodas have come to encapsulate not only the political friction between the informal and formal sector in Museveni’s Uganda, but the necessity of particular public representations of ‘developing’ space itself within the international sphere. Just as unregistered street vendors were obscured from sight throughout South Africa during the World Cup, boda drivers were prohibited within Kampala’s city centre for the duration of the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. In an effort to stave off the ‘boda-menace’ the government issued a moratorium, by penalty of incarceration, aimed at projecting a clean, orderly and hermetic capital for foreign visitors.

The pretence international events create within host countries is ubiquitous, and can result in the lost wages of thousands within the informal sector in attempts to mask the ‘unsavoury’. In the Ugandan context, the obfuscation speaks to greater institutional failures that necessitated the rise of the informal boda industry itself. Hundreds of millions of US dollars were invested into the city in preparation for the 2007 meeting. New hotels were built along with other cursory renewal projects.  While ‘rejuvenation’ renders the city more consumable, the systemic inadequacies that have given rise to boda-bodas remain. A deficiency of comprehensive urban planning has left bodas as the only viable means of transport throughout massive portions of Kampala. The lack of employment and educational opportunity often renders informal work as the only option.

The presence of the international community brought about by the 2007 conference inciting the need to remove bodas from sight, speaks to broader, global phenomena. The process of spatial transformation often harkens social exclusion, predicated upon fixed public constructions of the undesirable. Such spatial exclusion is far from limited to the African context – gentrification and the construction of sports stadiums in my hometown alone have displaced thousands. Yet, the exclusion of boda cyclists from the city in 2007 leaves me to question who such ‘progress’ and ‘reinvention’ is ultimately serving.

Caroline Valois, Edinburgh

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