On the busy, sloping streets of central Kampala, near the old taxi park where all forms of transportation come crashing together in a kaleidoscope of wheels and potholes, multiple level shopping centers offer hair extensions, electronics, or local food. In the basements of many, one can find dozens of bicycle shops, jammed with tires, selling the magnificent machines in all conditions, shapes, and sizes
I came around looking for a bicycle solution. Men in greasy jumpsuits waved their wrenches and beckoned me downstairs to see their selection. I complied, happy to be out of the sun, and to peruse through the many junker machines available. I needed one which could bear me around Lake Victoria.
Bikes for Africans!
Bicycles come in many shapes in Uganda. The most popular form factor, known as the boda bike, is the workhorse steel model which can be seen in every locality and on every road. They are heavy, they are strong, they are Chinese. They come painted black with decal highlights in yellow and red so they look patriotic. They have only one gear, which is nonsensical considering that Kampala’s urban blanket covers many hills and valleys, and considering that most boda bike users are hauling humans, water jugs, loads of food, sheet metal, lumber, or other cumbersome loads. Riders dismount and creep up even the less serious slopes, leaning into their bundles. Posed with gradient, bicycles become little more than tall, narrow wheelbarrows.
I had considered using one of these heavy duty bikes for the Ring Around Victoria campaign. It would be symbolic, maybe, to use the same style of bike which the locals of east Africa know so well. It wouldn’t matter that the going was slow. In the early planning phase, I had no time limits.
But all those hills! I’m no superman, and my thighs aren’t thicker than my head. I would surely be pushing my bike along the highway with every other potato pusher and grain cutter out in the countryside. Why torture myself?
So I went in looking for gears. Bikes which westerners are more familiar with like simple mountain bikes and road bikes come second hand and at a premium. They arrive in vast quantities to coastal regions like Mombasa, Kenya, packed in shipping containers. They are all coming from Europe or the USA, from do-good organizations who collect the things and send them off. Hooray! Bikes for the people of Africa!
They are immediately seized by tycoons or mobsters or whoever and sold off to merchants. Merchants send distribute them as far inland as possible – landlocked countries like Uganda have no hope of getting first dibs on a container full of bikes – and sell them at jacked-up prices. Affixed to the battered frames are worn out stickers saying Texas Tech Bicycle Registration and Pedal Pusher Bike Shop, Saskatoon. Somebody on the other side of the planet went through a lot of work to send these once-impounded garage sale rejects to Africa hoping to promote cycling around the world.
It works, sort of. At least some few people are making a living by selling donated machines. By the time these bikes hit Uganda, they’re far more expensive than a brand new boda bike. A junk vintage mountain bike might have a starting price at around $150, Across the border in Kenya, it may be half that. Back home, the same bike probably isn’t worth $40. There aren’t many mountain bikes out on the streets, and even fewer road bikes. People simply can’t afford them.
Her Name is Victory
Negotiating with bike dealers is tough. They display their bikes, many of which have not been serviced since they were first purchased by some college student in Milwaukee, and grip their high prices hard.
“We have good mechanic. He will service when you buy. Price 350,000 shillings.” One dealer said of a bike, which had been sitting out in the elements for weeks. As it was, it would not roll.
“How much is it without service?” I asked, thinking I can probably service it better with my multi-tool.
“You are telling me that this bike, as it is, is one hundred and fifty dollars. That’s bullshit. It doesn’t move.”
“I will not negotiate my prices.”
Some days later, I visited some other shops, determined to find something. I increased my bike budget to $100 after realizing that not even the crappiest multi-speed bikes are priced so low. I hung around the shops for hours, looking through all the options. I considered many of them, making a nuisance of myself by asking to see all the bikes in the middle of the heap.
Eventually I settled on one. It’s a steel 21 speed mountain bike which is only sort of rusty. The price came out at just above a hundred bucks, but the slightly undersized bike is solid and has good function. Additionally, I chose it because my multi-tool works for most of its fasteners, and because the 26 inch wheels and other parts will be easy to find replacements for should the need arise. The bike is utterly unimpressive, which is why I like it so much. Maybe it won’t be so attractive to thieves.
I came up the steps of the shopping center with my new conveyor. The bike is not ideal. It needs fenders and a cargo rack. It needs a few nuts and bolts. Still, I was smiling when I reached the sidewalk. As I pushed toward the busy street, I realized I had never driven or ridden a bike in Kampala’s free-flowing traffic before. Here goes nothing, I thought, and without pausing I shoved off into the fray atop my new steed.
Her name is Victory.