22 July 2014

Uganda's White-Collar Motorcycle Taxi Drivers

Bukudea — Ugandan authorities are grappling with a new kind of problem: school teachers dodging classes to operate a motorcycle taxi business.

More and more teachers - among the worst paid civil servants in Uganda - are trying to make an extra buck by driving a boda-boda motorcycle taxi. In Bukudea alone, 50 teachers are registered as boda-boda drivers. Undoubtedly, many more teachers are doing similar work in this small town of 40,000 in eastern Uganda, but then illegally.

With so many teachers putting in long hours riding taxis, the practice is being cited as a reason behind the poor performance records of rural schools. Meanwhile teachers are saying that poor pay is the reason behind what's driving them to a trade that until a decade ago was reserved for the uneducated.

Teachers "very wise"

The local authorities admit the practice is widespread and not easy to curtail.

"We have tried to stop teachers from riding boda-boda motorcycles during working hours, but they always find a way of countering it," says Michael Kisolo, the Mbale District Secretary for Education.

"We try to catch them but they are very wise. They report to school at 7am, sign the arrival books and then ride off to carry passengers to trading centres," says Kisolo. The school board is now considering introducing a new system that requires teachers to also sign out at the end of the day.

Silver fish

Peter Omongot (28) has been a primary five teacher at Kakere Primary School in the Bukedea district for eight years. Eight months ago he joined the boda-boda business.

"I began after acquiring a motorcycle using a loan from a bank. At first I lent it to someone and he would bring me money at the end of the day's business. But he reneged, so I made the decision to juggle between teaching and transporting passengers," says Omongot.

"It's only through riding this motorcycle that I'm also able to buy silver fish for our family meals. Otherwise my salary is too low," says Omongot.

Of the 316,000 shillings (95 euros], Omongot earns a month as a teacher, he spends 25 euros on rent and 58 euros on private primary school fees for his two children. Omongot says his boda-boda gives him a daily profit of 10,000 shillings (3 euros).

"I see nothing wrong with me moonlighting, because I operate this business only in the early morning and late evening. The rest of the day I'm at school performing my duties. But it's not easy. As you can see, I'm now dressed shabbily, but I have to change and put on a tie if I am going to school."

Bitter competitors

While the boda-boda represents an extra source of income for Omongot and his colleagues, the 'real' motorcycle taxi entrepreneurs claim they are losing business.

"We are very bitter. These guys (teachers] should leave our trade and go back to the classrooms because they are out-competing us," says Simon Okello (22), a primary school dropout. "Whenever a customer comes who speaks English, they just grab them because they are educated and people prefer them."

Okello says boda-boda used to be the domain of the less educated. "But now these guys [teachers] have invaded and spoiled it, because they don't waste time negotiating with customers as they accept any amount they are given."

An obvious solution?

Kisolo, the District Secretary of Education, believes it would be unwise to sack teachers who are engaged in the practice. He believes the Ugandan government should instead consider increasing their salaries.

"You can't sack somebody who is underpaid," says Kisolo. "In fact, most of these teachers have acquired loans [... ] and when you look at what they get at the end of the month after the bank has deducted, you really feel sorry for them."

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