Uganda motorbike deaths: concerns grow over silent killers
Amy Fallon in Kampala, The Guardian, 13 August 2013
They have been dubbed Uganda’s silent killers. Boda-bodas, the country’s ubiquitous motorbike taxis, snake through gridlocked traffic, navigate potholed roads and provide much-needed employment for young people. They are also maiming and killing thousands every year, monopolising hospital budgets and wiping out livelihoods.
Since they appeared on the streets of Uganda in the 1960s, the number of boda-bodas has swelled. One recent news report estimated there were more than 300,000 bikes operating in the capital, Kampala.
The number of motorbike accidents has increased exponentially. According to the Injury Control Centre, there are up to 20 boda-related cases at Mulago National Referral hospital in Kampala every day.
The strain on the country’s limited health budget is growing. According to a report by Makerere University College of Health Sciences and the department of orthopedics at Mulago, about 40% of trauma cases at the hospital are from boda-boda accidents. The treatment of injured passengers and pedestrians accounts for almost two-thirds of the hospital’s annual surgery budget.
Dr Michael Edgar Muhumuza, head of Mulago’s neurosurgery unit, believes the boda-bodas are deathtraps. “These are young people, the youth of tomorrow,” he says as he examines x-rays. “It’s a big problem [for] this nation. The last two, three years the number of these accidents has become much greater. It’s now very bad.”
As well as those who are injured or die in accidents, Muhumuza is seeing an increasing number of riders who have been beaten and left for dead after being robbed of their vehicles.
While boda-bodas are helping to reduce youth unemployment—one recent study estimated that 62% of young people in Uganda are jobless—the impact of a serious injury can prove catastrophic for riders and their families.
Ali Niwamanya, 25, a boda-boda driver, spent three months in Mulago hospital and another five at home recovering after a collision with a car in the capital in September. “I had a broken leg. It was too painful,” he recalls. “It was hard for me to get money because I could not work, and so my family had to suffer during that time.” Niwamanya is now in debt after taking out a 3m Ugandan shilling loan (£765) for a new bike.
While the human impact of the boda-boda craze is evident in the packed hospital wards, the strain that spiralling road fatalities could have on the economy is worrying politicians.
The death toll on Uganda’s roads is twice the average across Africa. The Ugandan annual crime and traffic/road safety report showed 3,343 road deaths were registered in 2011, although the World Health Organisation has estimated the figure to be more than double that. Some are warning that, if action is not taken, the death toll from Uganda’s roads could top that from diseases such as malaria—and be second only to HIV and Aids as the leading cause of death in the country.
Even though road safety measures were not specifically included within the budget, the government is establishing a national agency to run advocacy campaigns and manage roads.
Other initiatives are also springing up. The Global Helmet Vaccine Initiative is holding a one-day workshop for 100 riders, part of a national scheme under which it has trained 1,800 boda-boda riders in basic road safety. On completion, each participant receives a yellow helmet bearing the slogan: “Your life is your wealth”.
It is a message that seems to be getting through. Ronald Katetemera, 27, says he will not be taking his new headgear off. “Every day it’s going to be the first thing I put on,” Katetemera says. “They say life has no money value. I have my children. I don’t want to die.”