“I was probably born with some designing abilities.”
I spent 13 hours in the field with Patrick on Friday, and in that time we got two flat tires on our motorcycle. In Soroti the office doesn’t have a nice field bike like the one we use in Hoima, so instead we rent a boda bike from one of the guys in town. The machine is chunky and sluggish but wicked strong, and with enough patience and pushing it can handle the worst roads and gluey swamps that Soroti region has to offer. We were working in Ongatunyo Village, deep (2.5 hours ride) in the village, when suddenly our ride down a narrow dirt track was interrupted by the slap slap slap sound of a flat tire. We pulled to a stop, saw an acacia thorn piercing the tough rubber tread, and then asked a boy passing by on a bicycle to go to the trading center and send a mechanic.
After half an hour of snoozing next to the disabled machine the mechanics came tearing through the bush on a boda bike of their own. Neither one could have been over 18 years old, and they unwrapped a bundle of tools and began dismantling the bike. Changing a motorcycle tire isn’t difficult, but it’s a complicated process, and these barefoot kids quickly and efficiently began the many steps of pulling off the tire and grafting on a rubber patch fashioned from an old bicycle inner tube they had brought. It took less than an hour for the bike to be dismantled, the punctured inner tube epoxied, the tire reinflated with a rusty bicycle pump, and the whole 15-step disassembly process to be repeated in reverse. When they noticed a worn brake pad they plucked a corresponding part off their own machine and bolted it on to ours. The whole operation cost $3.
On the way back to Soroti the tire went flat again: even before it burst in the village the inner tube had been punctured so many times that it was starting to look like a donut shaped collection of patches. Night and a cold rain had fallen, and we pushed the broken bike a kilometer through the drizzle until we found a mechanic at a trading center who sold new inner tubes and could refit the tire then and there. I watched with interest, this being the second time that day that the tire had been repaired, and was amazed with the speed and confidence with which he approached the bike: he worked without any illumination in the moonlight, a cigarette between his teeth dipping and bobbing as he worked, and—I timed it—it took him 13 minutes to remove the whole wheel, insert and inflate the new inner tube, and put the bike back together again. Parts and labor cost $5 combined.
As we rolled back through the dark, our headlight cutting a jagged beam through the scintillating rain drops, I realized that the bike that we were riding on was perfect. Just perfect. These boda boda bikes are ubiquitous in Uganda, and 90% of the motorcycles on the road are Indian Bajaj 100 or 125 cc bikes, low and stocky and usually decorated with stickers and paint and bright upholstery. Everything superfluous has been removed from the motorcycle: no tachometer, no fuel gauge, no windshield, no automatic starter, and the suspension is reactive enough to handle rough Ugandan dirt roads, but stiff enough to carry enormous amounts of cargo. I’ve seen five grown men riding on one of these motorcycles, and I’ve seen boda drivers carrying couches and cows behind them as they crouch like jockeys over the fuel tank. The bikes have little pickup, low top speed, and they look chunky and squat, but anyone can ride them and a smart mechanic can repair any problem with a pair of pliers and some baling wire. Bajaj has designed a motorcycle that can be ridden by a barefoot 12 year old through a sandstorm, that can carry a cow along a village track, and that sells brand new for under $1000. The bike is absolutely perfect, and because of that it is everywhere.
There are a lot of Perfect products here in Uganda: useful items that people need every day that really have no competitors. The fact is that there is very little commercial variation from one end of Uganda to the other, and a roadside shop in Hoima will sell the EXACT same products as a roadside shop in Soroti, or Kampala. This gives the country a strange commercial homogeneity: as I move from between regions I find people speaking completely different local languages, ethnic groups in certain regions that don’t resemble any other ethnic group, people in the villages building and thatching their huts in different styles, but the exact same products are sold and advertised throughout. When I first arrived in Uganda I found this universality boring, but as I turned things over in my mind while chundering back from the village I became more and more impressed thinking about products that were everywhere, unremarked because of their ubiquity and effectiveness.
Take Krishna matches, manufactured by V.G. Keshawala and sons in my old home town Jinja, Uganda. I keep a few boxes of these at home in Massachusetts because they are so distinctly Ugandan: they are white wax matches with black tips, and they come in a yellow box with a disconcerting picture of a blue baby on it. You can drop a box of Krishna matches in a bucket of water, shake them dry, and they light instantly and without fault, burning for 20 seconds before scorching your fingers. Or cell phones. Everywhere I go in the village I see people using little Nokia phones, which have no color display, no internet connectivity, and no features like a calculator or games. Nevertheless, these phones are perfect: they float when dropped in water, when dismantled and spread in the sunlight after a dousing they work perfectly when put back together, the battery lasts for almost a week without charging, and they have a built in flashlight that spills a surprisingly bright light over whatever path you happen to walk on. All Ugandan bicycles are made by an Indian company called Champion. They are single gear iron frame workhorses, and when I go out to the village I see bicycles built in the 1980s which are still bumping over the punishing Ugandan marram roads.
What I’m getting at here is that in this regard, Uganda could not be more different from the United States. I can name six different brands of bicycle for sale in the US off the top of my head, and when I tried to think of an American brand which had absolutely no alternatives in its field, all that came to mind was Hellman’s mayonnaise. Variety is a luxury that wealthy countries can afford, whereas in Uganda it would be risky to face the corduroy village roads unless you were riding a motorcycle that you could assuredly get parts for in the bush. An American friend of mine who works in Kampala told me that when her NGO needed a generator to cope with the frequent power outages here, their American donors sent them a beautiful one thousand dollar generator made in Germany by people who take electricity generation very seriously. The machine blew a gasket after someone untrained in its use let it overheat a week after they got it, and because parts for this generator do not exist on the continent of Africa, it now gathers dust next to the one hundred dollar Chinese generator that replaced it. The Chinese generator belches oily clouds of smoke and sounds like a jackhammer compared to the hum of the German machine, but it works and can be repaired with 5 dollars and a roll of duct tape.
The Bajaj motorcycle company has done more to jumpstart economic development and community vibrancy than most NGOs here. Bajaj motorcycles carry brides to weddings and coffins to funerals and old men to the hospital, they are the first and last step of any journey to and from the village, and whenever anyone in a rural area invests in iron roofing sheets or a cassava mill or any weighty purchase, these things are ferried out by boda bodas. In the US we crave distinction and specificity from our products, and find ourselves with a surfeit of stuff to accomplish minute variations of the same task: laptops and iPhones and tablets and Kindles and MP3 players, while Ugandans get news and music and entertainment from 5 dollar radios with clothes hangers twisted around the antennae to pick up dance music from broadcasters in the Congo. Simplicity works.