The Ministry of Health, with the President as the Chief Walker, launched the National Physical Fitness Day last Sunday. Plenty has already been said about the great health benefits that await those who will heed this message. The walking itself was largely symbolic, and it served the purpose of catching public attention.
If the day had been launched in a gym, it would probably have gone down with a whimper. But symbols are important, and in this case, the walking brought attention to an important aspect. The only reason the President and his walking companions were able to do the entire route without incident is because there was a serious security ring around them, and the traffic police cleared the route of busy traffic.
The choice of Sunday was a wise one. Walking is a wonderful way to exercise. Almost anyone can walk, no matter their level of unfitness. You do not pay for walking. You do not need expensive equipment. You can take your own pace. So why are not more fitness fanatics walking in our city?
Truth is, Kampala is largely unwalkable. There are large numbers of Ugandans daily braving the roads to walk to wherever they need to go because they have no alternatives. Those Ugandans are far fitter than they would like to be. Public transport woes are common knowledge. The people that are at risk of a harmful sedentary lifestyle have transport options, but some of those options are unsafe, especially the ubiquitous boda boda.
A few years ago, the Ministry of Works and Transport developed a ‘Non-motorised transport’ policy. This was meant to encourage and support the use of – as the name says – non-motorised transport. Bicycles and walking. Both wonderful, affordable, non-polluting – and very hazardous on our roads.
I occasionally take my life in my hands to walk home from work, and the journey takes far longer than it should because I am constantly leaping to safety to avoid being run over, or I take detours to stay off the truly treacherous stretches.
I share the narrow strip between the deep trench on one side and the speeding vehicles on the other with school children, fellow workers returning home, assault rifle wielding askaris going to work, vendors, maize roasting entrepreneurs, and – yes – boda bodas! The risk to pedestrians in this town is real. Police data indicate that for the last few years, pedestrians formed at least 40 per cent of all those dying on our roads. Four out of every 10 people that die on Ugandan roads are run over while trying to walk somewhere. These are the truly vulnerable road users.
The authors of the ‘Non-motorised transport’ policy should quickly jump up and meet with the Minister of Health, and encourage her to join their lobby for a more walkable and cyclable city. That well written document contains many practical ways in which road users that are not inside or on a motorised vehicle can move about safely. And not just in Kampala, but elsewhere.
We are not about to migrate the city to a more spacious location, but we can insist that roads provide for all road users, not just motorists. Leave pedestrian space for pedestrians. Install barriers that prevent motorists and boda bodas from invading pedestrian spaces. Cover the gaping graves, rather manholes, that spring up at unsuspecting walkers along pavements.
Improve commuter transport so that more people have affordable transport options. Let us not stop at symbolism. Let us ensure that between the national physical fitness days Ugandans are able to enjoy the benefits of the simplest and cheapest exercise of all – walking. Let us not just say it, let us walk the walk.
Dr Kobusingye is a medical doctor and an author. [email protected]