Somewhere in Buloba on Mityana Road, a bus en-route to Fort Portal in Kabarole District suddenly screeches to a halt.
It was on December 28, a peak travel time for travellers hoping to celebrate New Year upcountry.
Uniformed police officers had flagged down the bus to conduct security and safety checks.
Nearly a dozen sprinted out and vanished into the nearby bushes to answer the call of nature.
“I prefer urinating here than using the toilet in Mubende [Town]. I am very conscious about my health; using the bush is safer and limits the chances of contracting urinary tract infections which you can easily get when using dirty toilets,” Ms Mable Kobugabe, said when asked why she had to use the bush.
In Mubende Town, about 130 kilometres west of Buloba, exists a place with sanitation facilities where transporters give passengers a five-minute break for refreshment. Those answering nature’s call pay Shs300 to use the facility.
Inside the toilet, human waste is visible and filthy water flows on the tiled floor. It is unsightly. Fifty-year-old Kate Kyalimpa vows never to use this facility in Mubende again.
“For the years I have spent plying this route, I have never used the toilets here, and they are too dirty and I am a picky person. Honestly, I would advise one to hold their urine and do it (answer nature’s call) from their homes,” Ms Kyalimpa says.
This destination is popular with roasted chicken, meat and plantain by the roadside. There are a bevy of beverage sellers too.
Some of the passengers, who answer nature’s call, return to snap up food and drinks without first washing their hands, an unhygienic practice that has lasted for generations.
Mr Erisa Karamagi, the Link Bus manager for the Fort Portal branch, says there are designated places on the route where both driver and passengers take a brief rest before journeying forward.
“In Buloba, it is a check-point for buses, but people just take advantage to ease themselves,” he said, “our official bus stopover is in here [in Mubende].”
But some passengers, particularly men, think urinating anywhere is normal practice. They never weigh the health ramifications.
“For us men we are blessed. I can urinate anywhere whether in the bush or toilet. I just stand and urinate and leave; so, basically I have no problem,” Mr Victor Arinaitwe, who was travelling on the Link Bus, said.
However, answering nature’s call randomly can attract sanctions, even in Uganda as elsewhere in the developed world.
In 2017, Kampala City Hall Court fined the then Arua Municipality Member of Parliament, Ibrahim Abiriga (now deceased) Shs40,000 for being a public nuisance.
He was summoned and tried after his photograph captured on a cellphone, and showing him peeing on the perimeter wall fence of the Finance ministry headquarters, circulated widely on social media.
He pleaded guilty, saying he was under pressure and there was no immediate public toilet where he could in comfort and seclusion, answer nature’s call.
“I was badly off. Should I have kept urine on myself? What is the problem with that?” he asked.
His woes in part explained the public toilet crisis in the capital, which mirrors a similar problem travellers encounter while on highways.
There are limited places they can find to answer nature’s call, all of them private business premises and none run by government.
Such stopovers include places in Bombo, Kafu, Migyera, Karuma and Pakwach on Kampala-Gulu-West Nile highway; Namanve, Namawojjolo, Najjembe, Hared Petrol in Jinja and Idudi on the eastern route; Lukaya, Nyendo, Mbarara town; and, Busunju, Buloba, Mubende town, Fort Portal and Bwera in Kasese on the western axis.
Users are charged a fee at some of these places while others are free. The problem is complicated by uncooperative transporters, mainly commuter taxis drivers, who decline random stops.
“There is a lot of jam on this (eastern) road, especially from Bwoyogerere and taxis do not want to stop when we ask. They stop here once and it is a bush; so, there is problem,” a traveller said, asking not to be named.
Mr Robert Mutebi, the general secretary of Uganda Bus Operators Association, said passengers are their bosses, and bus drivers, unless in a national park where wild animals present an ever-present danger, are under instruction to stop whenever passengers request a break to answer nature’s call.
“Drivers are under instruction that when five or more passengers request to get out for a short call, you have to stop. It is the reality on the ground, however, bad it may sound,” Mr Mutebi said.
“Some passengers travel with complications and cannot hold for long. But there are few places on these highways that are designated and we indeed stop there,” he added.
According to the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef), poor sanitation, including open defecation, leads to spread of several preventable diseases such as cholera, typhoid, diarrhoea. Some are communicable diseases, costly to treat and kill hundreds.
Diarrhoea alone, the UN agency estimates, kills 33 children in Uganda every day.
“In most cases, children get the diseases by drinking unsafe water or from contact with contaminated hands – theirs or their parents/caregivers – that have not been washed with soap,” Unicef notes.
The World Bank in a 2012 report titled, Economic Impact of Poor Sanitation in Africa, says poor sanitation costs Uganda Shs389 billion each year or 1.1 per cent of the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
It manifests in open defecation and World Bank says eliminating the practice would necessitate construction of not less than 650,000 pit-latrines.
It pointed out that open defecation a lone costs Uganda $41 million (about Shs100.4b).
Government officials who spoke to this newspaper on the matter said a solution is in the pipeline and state –of –art sanitary facilities are going to be built on all the major highways.
Mr Collins Yebazamukama, the contract manager at the Ministry of Water and Environment, which is a principle stakeholder on sanitation matters, said they have completed feasibility studies for the project.
“We are going to have at least five facilities on each highway. We will have at least a facility every after 100 kilometres,” Mr Byakatonda said, without providing the timelines.
“We are going to provide incentives such as cafes, restaurants, fuel stations and supermarkets and sell this idea to private sector [for a] public–private partnership such that these facilities are run sustainably,” he added.
Mr Enock Kusasira, the communication and learning specialist at Uganda Sanitation Fund Programme, said they have embarked on mindset change such that even when such facilities are in place, people use them.
“There are places with [sanitation] facilities, but still people do not use them. We are now sensitising people so that they know why they should not go to the bush,” he said.
The Uganda Sanitation Fund (USF) is $10m (Shs37b), five-year programme funded by the Global Sanitation Fund (GSF).
Ms Joy Barungi, a regular traveller, said she cannot use the bush because of the dangers it exposes one to.
“I am not comfortable using that bush, I would rather hold my urine until I reach Bwera [in Kasese]. You imagine squatting at the exact place where someone put his or her excreta [the previous day]! It’s really disgusting. You also imagine a snake bites you on your bottom, what will you tell people; that you were urinating in the bush?” she said.
The bus operators association said they are willing to work with town councils on highways on how to find land for putting up the sanitation facilities if the government can offer attractive incentives.
This, the association’s general secretary Mutebi says, will guarantee sustainability.
“We have an association where we can address such issues but to be honest, it is not on top of our agenda. We will be going beyond our business scope,” Mr Mutebi said, adding: “Imagine someone with six buses, will that person be able to build sanitation facilities along the way?”
Ms Kate Kyalimpa, traveller: “For the years I have spent plying this route (Mubende), I have never used the toilets here, and they are too dirty and I am a picky person. Honestly, I would advise one to hold their urine and do it (answer nature’s call) from their homes.”
Mr Erisa Karamagi, Link Bus manager for the Fort Portal branch: “In Buloba, it is a check-point for buses, but people just take advantage to ease themselves. Our official bus stopover is here [in Mubende].”
Rest areas on highways
Karamoja Kampala–Gulu-West Nile route
Kampala-Masaka –Mbarara highway
Kampala-Fort Portal- Kasese
Fort Portal Town
Bwera in Kasese
Jinja Hared petrol