130 years of bicycle transport in Uganda

Boda boda bicycle operators wait for customers at a stage in Kampala on January 1, 2022. PHOTO/PROMISE TWINAMUKYE

What you need to know:

  • From Rev Robert Ashe’s  ‘Iron donkey,’ the first bicycle, which was imported into Uganda in 1891, to the present-day widespread use of the two-wheeled vehicle for various purposes, Faustin Mugabe presents the history of bicycles in Uganda.

The year 2021 marked 130 years of bicycle transport in Uganda. In 1891, Rev Robert Ashe imported the first bicycle into the country. The bicycle was a Raleigh brand imported from the England. 

Robert Pickering Ashe was a pioneer missionary in Uganda. He first arrived in the 1880s as a member of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) from England. Dr Albert Cook, the founder of Mengo hospital thinks that his bicycle was the second or third to be imported in the country. 

His arrived in 1899. In his book, Uganda memories, Dr Cook mentions how he used to borrow Rev Ashe’s bicycle to ride on village paths from Mengo to Entebbe, then the administrative capital of Uganda, and on to Jinja in eastern Uganda, Fort Portal in western Uganda and Gulu in northern Uganda as well as to the West Nile region to treat patients. Dr Cook first arrived in Uganda in February 1897 as a missionary doctor from the United Kingdom. 

Rev Ashe’s bicycle was nicknamed “Ecuma kya Ashe” meaning the “Iron of Ashe” because initially, people did not know what the thing was, other than seeing it was metallic and two-wheeled object. When Ashe was asked what the iron-wheeled object was, he said it was an “Iron donkey” and the name stuck. The “Iron donkey” was a scary experience to the first Ugandans to encounter it.

Ashe’s “Iron donkey” scared Ugandans 

Today no Ugandan can be scared at the sight of a bicycle. Some pedestrians stubbornly refuse to give way to cyclists even when they ring the bell to the loudest. But the Ugandans who first encountered Rev Ashe riding his bicycle in 1891were scared to death. And often, they took off or ducked into the bush to let the two-wheeled thing carrying a white man pass. 

The sight of a white man seated on a “two-wheeled object” never seen before on a village path in Buganda Kingdom was too frightening an experience. 

“It was a sight to see, Rev Ashe assuring fleeing men, women and children to come often in vain” Dr Cook writes on page 98 in his book Uganda memories that in order to avoid a stampede, Rev Ashe avoided ringing the bell whenever he bumped into crowds of people such as at the market. 

Chiefs, ex-service men owned bicycles
Ugandan chiefs as well as British King’s African Rifles (KARs) officers were among the first people to own bicycles in the country. By 1907, the bicycle was beginning to be popular, especially in central Uganda. Indeed, the bicycle was the easiest and quickest means of transport in the country. 

The bicycle was more reliable compared to the horse and donkey that were being used by the colonial administrators to traverse the country. 

In 1907, the British Deputy Secretary of State for Colonies, Mr Winston Churchill, came to Uganda. The following year, he authored a book, My African journey, in which he also mentions the importance of bicycle transport. 

Boda boda bicycles
On page 138, he writes: “Bicycle became a popular form of transport with military officers serving in Africa.” He adds: “… nearly all the Kings African Rifles officers I met on my trip used bicycles.” The KARs in Uganda was formed in 1903. Throughout the first and Second World war, the bicycles were still exclusive to officers only; not only in Uganda but in other parts of the world too. 

In the 1950s, bicycles became more popular in Uganda. Civil servants such as chiefs, clerks, extension workers such as veterinary officers as well as traders, among others, were now owning them. 

The late Bonny Katatumba, a businessman and diplomat, writes that in 1950s, he was so excited when he bought a bicycle as a young man. On page 30 of his book, Success is around the Corner, he writes: “Thus, I started my business at the age of nine. Employing a few young men to squeeze banana juice. Their job was to bottle it for sale to commuters travelling by buses and taxis to Kampala. Meanwhile, I trekked off to school 10 miles away. On the return in the evenings, I would collect the money and arrange for more juice the following day. My business flourished into an empire. So much so, that I was able to buy a bicycle.” 

Then President Idi Amin rides a bicycle in 1979. PHOTO/FILE

In the 1970’s during President Idi Amin’s regime, commercial cyclists, the boda-boda started transporting passengers to the Uganda/Kenya border towns of Busia and Malaba and hence the name boda-boda literally meaning border-to-border. 

It is said that the first commercial bicycle passengers at the Uganda/Kenya border were smugglers. From Busia and Malaba towns, the boda-boda cyclists spread to other parts of Uganda but beginning in eastern Uganda. In the 1990s bicycles as a mean of commercial transport was reaching its peak across the country, especially in very busy towns including Kampala, Uganda’s capital as well as other towns such as Tororo, Mbale and Jinja.  

UPC’s Raleigh bicycles 
It was the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) government that popularised the Raleigh bicycle, especially during the second UPC regime which lasted from 1980 to 1985 when the regime was ousted. One of the social-political imprints the UPC government made was dishing out Raleigh bicycles to its supporters at a subsidised price.

Reverends in the Anglican Church, clerks at the district headquarters, county, sub-county chiefs, and UPC chairmen were the first beneficiaries. Owing to that, the Raleigh bicycles in Uganda almost became synonymous with the UPC political party in the 1980’s and thereafter. Raleigh bicycles were very strong but also heavy to push. They were fast and easy to peddle. 

NRM’s Bayun bicycles 
When the National Resistance Movement (NRM) government came to power in 1986, they imported Bayun bicycles brand from China. The bicycles were given to the Resistance Council chairmen as the first beneficiaries. The Bayun bicycles were heavy to push and hard to peddle. 

In fact, you needed to keep peddling the bicycle for it to move even on flat road surface. Their spare parts were not readily available in the country and soon the Bayun bicycle disappeared from the Ugandan market.  More than 100 years since the first bicycle was imported into the country, a lot has changed. Today, Ugandans buy bicycles to enjoy cycling as an exercise or sport. 

Local irrigation. President Museveni fetches water on a bicycle to irrigate his farm crops to encourage residents to adopt the local bottle/drip irrigation system. PPU PHOTO

Nonetheless, the bicycle remains the cheapest commercial means of transport. For example there are commercial cyclists ferrying passengers from the old taxi park in Kampala to Katwe Township. Namuwongo boda-boda cyclists’s stage is one of the oldest. 

The stage has been in existence since the 1980s, ferrying passengers from Namuwongo village to Kampala City and back. During the two national lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 declared by President Museveni during which car transport was limited to three passengers only, the bicycle rose to prominence once again after 130 years as one of the most important and affordable means of transport in the Covid-19 era. 

Kabaka Daudi Chwa holds a bicycle. PHOTO/FILE

Bicycle use

Bicycles are a common means of transport in Uganda. They are used for transporting people and goods. The areas where bicycles are most widely used are eastern and northern regions of Uganda where most areas are flat.

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