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08/13/2013

Uganda's silent killer: the boda-boda

 

Boda-boda

There is a silent killer stalking the streets of Uganda.

It moves quickly and strikes without a moment's notice. It has spread all over the country and maims and kills thousands of Ugandans every year.

But this "death on wheels" is also cheap, efficient and has created thousands of jobs in a country where youth unemployment is high. And, for a silent killer, it tends to make an awful lot of noise.

Today, the Guardian has an article about the public health hazard that is the boda-boda, Uganda's ubiquitous and noisy motorbike taxi.

Boda-bodas were originally bicycles and used to smuggle people and goods between Kenya and Uganda or "border to border," hence "boda-boda." But in the 90s, the boda-boda became motorized and in a country where 62 per cent of youth are now unemployed, it offered an appealing job opportunity on the traffic-congested streets of Uganda.

Today, it's estimated there are more than 300,000 boda-boda drivers in Kampala alone. The scrappy little two-wheeler taxi has given hope to young people like Joseph Sempijja and is now being used as an ambulance -- something that is especially good news for Ugandan monthers. The motorbike has also become entrenched in the local culture, inspiring blogs and music videos.

But as bodo-bodos have become more common, so too have the accidents.

A doctor at Uganda's largest hospital told Radio France Internationale that up to 20 boda-boda accident victims are admitted every day, with an average of two dying every week. A 2010 study conducted at the same hospital found that 41 per cent of trauma patients were in boda-boda accidents. Treating them also proved costly, eating up nearly 63 per cent of the surgical department's budget.

Why have boda-bodas become so dangerous? Drivers are often inexperienced, reckless and helmet-less. Regulations are lax and road are conditions poor. Many boda-boda drivers operate without licenses.

Accidents also tend to be deadlier for women because they sit on the back sideways, according to Radio France Internationale. This means that across the border in Kenya, where boda-bodas are also common, accidents may soon get a whole lot deadlier – there is a movement underway to ban Kenyan women from straddling boda-bodas because officials find the position too "demeaning,"  according to this Thomson Reuters Foundation report.

Jennifer Yang is the Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar

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