The last few days I’ve been readjusting to driving in Uganda. Coming back fresh from Canada I’m remembering what “normal” here is! 😁 While the *official* rules of the road aren’t too much different than the ones at home, there are a lot of unique unofficial rules. And the only difference is not JUST which side of the car the steering wheel is on, or the “right” side of the road on which to Drive.
Steering wheel always goes towards the middle of the road. (That works at home too! Although, I found myself mindlessly driving on the wrong side of the road the first while I was back in Canada... And yes, I even cleared a few countryside hills while doing so. Thanks for praying folks, intercultural driving can keep my guardian angels busy!)
You are responsible for only what’s in front of you and just to the right and left of the front of your car. “Only what’s in front?” You say. Yep! And trust me, it will keep you more than busy. ;) In North America we are trained to assess and keep track of what’s going on all around us... here it’s nigh impossible. And truly, it actually does work if each one “owns” responding to what’s directly in front of them. Because what’s going on in front of you will no doubt change every other second. That leads us to the next rule:
The “Making” of Space. One will rarely ever find a completely clear and long enough right of way to turn into traffic or change lanes. If you wait until there is space you may just wait until...well, I’m not really sure! So, yes—push your way in even if it is just 10 inches of space. Think that line of neck-to-neck traffic is impossible to enter? It isn’t ;) Get in as much as you can, even if it’s only a corner of your bumper. Then, keep holding your ground and pushing forward.
Part B: always be Aware that someone may suddenly enter or push the corner of their bumper in... refer again to rule 2, you’re responsible because it’s in front of you!
Traffic. This term is less determinative here than it is back home. Traffic is not made up primarily of Motor vehicles. It also includes people on foot, goats, cows, dogs, baboons (I almost passed out once when a monkey dropped down suddenly from a tree above—right in front of my vehicle on a highway!)
Government motorcades always take precedence. (And there’s lots of them!) If you hear their police escort sirens—get out of the way whatever you need to do. If you don’t clear, really bad things happen. Let’s just say They keep guarding their own security seriously. And who really wants to be stuck in traffic like the rest of us?
Traffic direction officers and lights are a thing... There is still a debate as to whether they help or hurt, but they are there. Officers may be sleeping by the roadside or they may have simply completely given up at directing traffic, but they’re around! Fly by the seat of your pants, said lights and officers may or may not be law at any given moment or corner.
However, make sure you don’t get caught making a turn or doing something if you’re a muzungu (white person) because you no doubt should know better than anyone. Even if others are breaking the law, you cannot. They know *all white people have money* so no doubt the officers will try giving YOU a ticket above others because out of the dozens of people around you are most likely to have cash. That brings us to rule 7…
Don’t make eye contact with police. Most are only on foot, they won’t chase you down. Therefore, if you don’t make it easy for them to pull you over, they usually won’t! Too much work.
But sometimes, there is simply no way to avoid making it easy for them to flag you down and stop you (like in traffic jams). And—they may or may not have a reason to do so. They will pull you over and THEN try to find a reason. Part B: when said police do pull you over, one of my friends taught me to grab a pencil and paper and as they approach Greet them in a friendly traditional way and be sure to use their name (on their shirt) then write down their badge number in an obvious way, so they see you doing it. (This way they take note that you have record of who they are. They are much more less likely to try and bribe you.)
Genuine Tickets are given at the roadside, not paid there. And just because you see a ticket book, it doesn’t mean it’s there to write you a ticket. Often officers will slide their ticket book towards you like they are going to write you up a ticket… but it’s their way of asking you to slide in some cash so they don’t write a ticket. Others will outright ask you for lunch or tea money. Encourage them to do their job and write the ticket if you truly deserve it. Side note: Some officers ask to get in your car. Don’t do it. Only roll the window down enough to speak with them.
Last year I made a right hand turn at a corner I had made it dozens of times... but apparently they had put up a sign saying it was no longer allowed. But I didn’t see it because it was dark...the officer flagged me over (and the whole line of people who had done the same) The others got let go, but he scolded me thoroughly... I said I was so sorry, I lived up country and didn’t know about the new rule.
He said “I’m going to give you a ticket”-but held the book towards me in the traditional way. When I didn’t act and said I was so sorry, he didn’t know what to do. He said “shall I write you a ticket?” I said “please, don’t let me stop you from doing your job. Please, you write me a ticket” He said: you want a ticket? I said “no, but please you must do your job. “ (This conversation was repeated numerous times-while he pulled his buddies close to hear and laugh heartily: “she wants a ticket!😆” .... At the end he said, “you buy all of us evening tea and we will let you go.” I said: “please, you need to do your job”.
Finally, he pulls out his pen and decides he should write the ticket... BUT it turns out he didn’t know how! 😆 And it seemed the other officer on site was a little stumped too. Finally they came to the window and said “we have forgiven you” ... and I drove away without wasting a minute!
Lights talk. There is the quick flashing of lights “on/off” that means there is either something dangerous on the road ahead or a speed trap. Or, it might also mean a polite “I’m making room for you” (if you have your blinker on and are trying to cross traffic). Then there is the continual flashing of lights... seems that is used to say: “make room for me, I’m holding my ground and making room (even using your lane coming from the opposite direction) but I’m seriously NOT backing down, you must yield to me.
Turn signals “blinkers”: They are used sometimes in the traditional manner but are used for all manner of reasons. If you are on the highway behind a vehicle, a blinker may mean “please pass me, the way ahead is clear.” But it can also mean the opposite, so you’re left to figure that out ;)
Horns are another way of talking. Even after 7 years of living in Uganda, I’m still adjusting. In Canada it’s pretty much only used in emergencies or for a sudden warning-any other use is rude. Here it’s used in a variety of “Morse code” ways. 😁 Not all are impolite. One example is the little tapping honk-honk-honk, warning someone “I’m coming along, be aware.”
There is *no limit to the amount of people, animals, chickens, pigs, goats, and all other manner of things that will fit in, on top, and on the sides of vehicles! They know how to haul a whole sofa set, along with their two children on the back of a Motorcycle (Boda)! And speaking of Boda’s, they are a family vehicle here—totally in the same league as your Mini van in regards to amount of perceived space for a family 😉
When filling with ⛽️ fuel, they do it for you. But keep out a sharp eye to ensure they start the pump back at zero (not billing you for the prior customers fuel) and that they are actually fuelling your vehicle, not a small can nearby. Yep, that’s happened folks.
Keep your doors locked and keep your windows up unless you’re on the highway. Keep your phone, purse and valuables out of reach of an easy grab. Don’t leave things of value in your vehicle, and realize that some have much different scales of what’s valuable.
The amount of lanes on the road. This is not necessarily determined by the lines on the road if they exist or the amount of space. (Refer to rule 3) Think it’s a 2 lane road? It’s probably at least 3 lanes, plus there’s always the shoulders, ditches, sidewalks.
Speaking of ditches... always always make room and yield to the cross-country massive buses. The “gaga coaches” etc. They don’t stop for anything. The drivers are usually sleep deprived. They know they’re bigger than you. If they’re coming towards you in your lane, yield. Hit the ditch if you have to. Yep, it’s happened to me. 😐 They don’t stop for anyone or anything.
Rest easy and be at home. Does it look like that person flying towards you in your lane is going to collide? Don’t worry. With the exclusion of buses (see rule 15) or the continual flashing of lights (see rule 9) they will usually suddenly merge back to where they’re supposed to be. Yes, your mirrors may be only inches away, and it may happen just in time... but Ugandans are very accurate drivers.
They may just be dodging a massive pothole, or perhaps a goat. It will all work out, don’t lose your breakfast. Ugandan drivers know the exact space their vehicle takes… Unless they’re drunk. And simply put, that’s one reason why it’s best not to drive at night!
Always always plan on trips taking more time then they should. Be at home, things happen slowly-slowly. Enjoy the ride. Observe people. Or, amuse yourself by sarcastically and verbally praising the intelligent driver in front 😉 Enjoy some good music. You may also just get a little shopping done while sitting in traffic (depending on the hawkers that day). You can usually buy anything from toilet paper to flower pots, fake Ray Ban sunglasses, to bananas or mangoes.
if necessary, choose to sit in a cafe with a coffee (like i am right now!) during the “big jam” time, rather than sitting in traffic. All in all, it won’t actually take you any more time and you may just keep your sanity! 😄
I’ll still be turning on the windshield wipers for blinkers, and pulling on the blinkers to wash the window for another few days :) It might just take another day or so to break myself of that habit