Mbale — Four years ago this month, Ugandan Parliament established the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA). Its top mandate: to "develop and maintain" the central African country's roads. But, as made dramatically clear by landslides in June that killed eight people and left over 500 families homeless, most of the road network is in a sorry state. Our local correspondent experienced this for himself on a bumpy ride along the Tororo-Mbale highway.
My journey begins at 10 in the morning. At Mbale Main Taxi Park, I board one of the 14-seater Japanese-made Toyota wagons that have become a popular form of public transport in Uganda. We're taking the great northern road that begins in Mombasa, Kenya, and ends in Cairo, Egypt. Yet today's ride to the Ugandan border town of Tororo is a mere 48 kilometres. How bad could it be?
We set off and, from the get-go, it's rough and ragged. I see why motorists in eastern Uganda have been struggling. Torrential rains continue to pound the area. Streets and bridges have been washed by floods. Mudslides block most of the roads leading to commercial and administrative centres along the slopes of Mt. Elgon. Local authorities have even closed a school in the Bududa district for fear that if the rains persist students will be sent running for their lives.
"This road is finishing [off] our vehicles because every week I have to take the car to the garage to replace the shock absorbers," says our driver. He manoeuvres from one side to the other, trying to find his way through the potholed highway - which a first-time traveller here could easily mistake as a village path.
Our driver, 28-year-old Latif Wamarungo, tells me more about the nightmare he and fellow taxi operators travelling this route go through every day.
"We used to spend less than 40 minutes on the road," he says. "Now we have to endure more than two hours to cover the 48-kilometre stretch and, in the process, we end up using a lot of fuel, which leaves us with nothing in the end." The gasoline needed to cover the distance previously cost nine euros, but now up to 17 euros must be spent to buy the requisite 14 litres, he explains.
But not only is the price of petrol going up. "We now have to load an additional five passengers on top of the 14, which we are licensed to carry, in order to recover the money we lose on fuel and in garages repairing the vehicle," Wamarungo says. Indeed, we are forced to sit five per row rather than the three per row the seating was intended for.
We are sweating profusely and the air is stuffy. Before long, a woman next to me starts complaining that her six-month-old baby is suffocating because everyone is so crammed in. Other passengers tell her she should have hired a private means or used her own vehicle if she wanted comfort.
On several occasions, Wamarungo, who is a father of five, has contemplated abandoning the taxi operating business. Yet the pressure to provide for his family is what keeps him behind the wheel.
"Who shall we tell our plight?" he asks. "From last year, they have been promising us that they would repair the road, but in vain. And worse still, they keep charging us 6,000 shillings [about two euros] per each trip as road toll yet they can't repair the road."
Some operators say the poor state of the roads is forcing them out of business, as they spend a number of days in garages repairing the cars. Wamarungo and other drivers are left considering other ways to make a living.
What lies ahead
According to the Parliament-approved national budget, Uganda intends to spend up to 1.6 trillion shillings on repairing roads in the 2012-2013 financial year. Recently, President Yoweri Museveni complained that the corrupt practice of awarding road tenders has led to shoddy work, as engineers connive with contractors to embezzle the funds. But will financial allocations and awareness literally pave the way to better infrastructure?
Two hours later, we reach Tororo. We are tired and dirty, having also been crammed in with our belongings, which included foodstuffs and 15 live chickens. As we disembark from the taxi, an old woman who was seated in the back makes herself heard. We made it through the journey only through divine intervention, she shouts.