Uganda’s first ever Critical Mass is missing the air of protest normally found in Europe or the US. This may be for the best in a country where dissent is often quashed with rubber bullets and tear gas
Alice McCoolLast modified on Wed 7 Feb 2018 09.15 GMT
“Do you know what is going on here today?” I ask Annette, the banana seller I’m buying a quick breakfast from. She doesn’t, so I explain that people are gathering here to ride bicycles together. We’re standing on Luwum street in central Kampala, looking out at a completely alien scene. With the usual sea of cars, minibus taxis and boda bodas (the city’s famous motorbike taxis) absent, the whole road is visible and looks 10 times more spacious than usual. It has been adorned with colourful paintings – including green cycle lanes – and we can see people walking, talking and cycling, while children run around playing.
It is a playground in the middle of a city where people rarely stop to play; there is too much work to be done. “I don’t know how to ride a bicycle, but I’d like to learn,” says Annette as she observes the scene, sighing: “But how can I learn? Are you going to teach me?”
People are gathering for Uganda’s first ever Critical Mass – the monthly event where cyclists in cities around the world reclaim the streets. But it is missing the air of resistance normally found at equivalent actions in Europe or the US. This is may be for the best. Dissent in Uganda is normally quashed by a police force who are not shy of using rubber bullets or tear gas: this happened most recently in September, when protests broke out against Yoweri Museveni’s plans to remove the presidential age limit. Direct action to promote cycling may not seem worth the risk for many Kampalans.
This Critical Mass was actually enabled by traffic police under the direction of Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), which helped organise the event, along with UN-Habitat and local cycling organisations. It was held on the last day of Placemaking Week, a three-day event designed to inspire people to rethink and reclaim public spaces, and to show locals the benefits of city plans to reduce congestion by creating pedestrianised areas and cycle lanes.
Uganda is among the highest ranking countries for road traffic injuries in the world, experiencing traffic deaths at the rate of 28.9 per 100,000 people. Last year, the Ugandan capital took the unflattering title of the most polluted city in Africa.
According to Peter Kaujju, a KCCA spokesperson, the area from Luwum Street to Namirembe Road will serve as a pilot non-motorised transport zone, with works on the two billion Uganda shilling (£390,000) project expected to begin this February. “And as a matter of practice, all roads being rebuilt in the city have the carriage way, cycle lanes and pedestrian walkways as well,” adds Kaujju. Whether construction gets under way quickly is another matter: while there are painted cycle lanes in a few parts of the city, they are not the separated lanes Guardian Cities reported on back in 2015, says urban planner Amanda Ngabirano.
‘I can even go and sit on the middle of the street if i want to’ … Judith Owigar, an organiser of the event from UN-Habitat. Photograph: Alice McCool
rised transport. But for now, it seems most Kampalans have got too many other things on their minds.