Politicians might have decided to walk to work to make a statement but for other people, walking to work has been the norm for a long time now. John K. Abimanyi writes about those men and women who trek long distances, braving the heat, rain and so much more, just so they can make ends meet.
As heavily armed police officers, dressed in multi-coloured fatigues and dark heavy boots, painted the skies grey with misty tear gas in attempts to crash a walk-to-work protest, one could be tempted to make the wrong assumption that walking to work was suddenly a new phenomenon in Uganda, just having a troubled start. But nothing could be further away from the truth.
On every weekday morning, as the luckier workers in the safety of personal cars and passenger carriers make their way to work, another set of workers is also going to work, except, they do not enjoy the comfort, or discomfort, of motor vehicle or even motor cycle let alone bicycle transport.
They leave their homes, step onto the roads and throw one foot ahead of the other, walking in what seems like queues along the road until they reach their work places. And in the evening, the process is reversed. One of such people is Deo Gero Tebesigwa, a motor parts broker at Kisekka market in Kampala. He resides in Sungwe village, Bulenga, along Mityana road, about 12 kilometres from Kampala city centre. And he says by the time the opposition called for the walk-to-work protest, it was already a part of his life.
“It was my condition that led me to all this,” he says. “I came to discover that I use a lot of money, especially in transporting myself from home to work every day. From Kampala to the stage near my home, the taxis will ask you for Shs1,500. And that is on good days, with no traffic jam or rain. Even if you have the money, when the taxis come you will have to fight to enter. “Sometimes the taxis are not even there so you wait for a long time. I compared that with the money I earn here and I decided to cut the costs by walking instead.”
Mr Tebesigwa earns his living by looking for car owners interested in car parts, locating those parts and then making a commission off the general price at which the part is sold. “I earn an average of between Shs5,000 to 10,000 daily,” he says. “With Shs2,500 or 3,000 going into only transport every day, I had to forego transport and allow my family to feed.”
Having a job that does not have strictly set times for arrival gives Tebesigwa room for laxity as he moves to work in the morning.
“I wake up at 5a.m. as a standard and by 6a.m. I am on my way to work. At times I have breakfast at home if there’s something or I come straight to work and find something to eat here. If I walk fast and in a hurry, I arrive at work at around 8.30a.m. but if I take my time, then I get here after 9a.m.”
Tebesigwa says walking to work comes with a host of challenges. “When you are walking along the road, there are boda boda riders and drivers who act like they do not see you on the road. They hoot at you and at times even splash water on you in case it has rained.” “The cars push you off the clear parts of the road. They force you to walk through wet parts while they drive through the dry parts. And in the evenings, if you walk on the right hand side, just like all pedestrians are supposed to do, the cars come with heavy flood flights aimed at you and end up blinding your eyes.
When you walk, you strain the shoe and you end up spending on shoes more and you also sweat a lot.” Sometimes the journey takes its toll on him. “There are times when I wake up and feel “I just can’t walk to work today.” So in times like those, I choose to board a taxi but that rarely happens.” Tebesigwa says he has been doing his walk-to-work since last year and he says he will continue trekking all the way to work and back as long as his balance sheet stays uneven.
And Tebesigwa is not alone. Ismail Balikudembe, who deals in scrap metal in Kisenyi, says he has been trekking to work from Kikaya, in Wakiso, about 10km away from Kampala, for three months now. “The taxi to Kampala which used to cost Shs1,000 now costs 1,500,” he says. “That Shs500 may look little but that is what you have to give your child everyday to eat at school. Now if you use it up in transport, what will your child feed on?” he asks.
Tebesigwa welcomes the opposition’s call for the rest of Ugandans to join him in his routine, although he doubts whether any good will come out of it. “It’s good that they thought of such a thing because truthfully, everything is now very expensive, especially fuel. But in Uganda we don’t have much equality. Most of the people care about themselves alone. For most people, as long as they know that they have parked their car and it has fuel, they will not care about the rest.”
The opposition’s call for walk-to-work protests has been caused by high prices for consumer goods, most especially food and fuel. And the figures from the Uganda National Bureau of Standards say it all; inflation has risen to over 11 per cent.
To the government, the walk-to-work campaign is a move to overthrow an elected regime. To the opposition, it is a legal complaint against an escalating cost of living. But the walk-to-work protests bring into the fore ground people like Tebesigwa, a section of the public for whom walking to work is not only protest, but a way of actual survival.
The roads leading in and out of Kampala and other towns crowd every day, not with cars alone but with workers strolling silently to work. And their story hardly ever gets heard. The walk-to-work offers a sobering perception on the lifestyle that a considerable section of Uganda’s labour force leads.