Photo Currency: Images of Kampala’s Unmapped
The Kla Art 2014’s Boda Boda Project was a celebration of the spirit of entrepreneurship that drives and sustains Kampala. The project saw artists turning motorbikes that are usually taxis, into mobile pieces of public art. True to the festival’s unmapped theme, the boda industry is a necessary innovation for a growing city that has narrow roads, heavy traffic and a public transport system that is driven almost entirely by the informal sector.
Kampala is a city where some Kampala slum-populations experinece 80% food poverty. This was a statistic espoused by Pope John Paul II when he came to visit in 2011.1 In most cases the art of survival means identifying a need and providing a service that can put bread on the table. Bodabodas contribute to the economy of these slums, whether it is by having a shirt ironed in a hole-in-the-wall laundry, or buying chilled boiled water in a polystyrene bag from a kiosk.
This “unmapped” sector of the transport industry does not only address infrastructure challenges, it also helps in fulfilling the rider’s economic needs. For instance, a boda rider whose bike I use regularly left his job as a teacher in an international school and signed up with a boda association instead. He migrated from his village in Eastern Uganda to Kampala for further studies and to seek employment. Despite his MA in education, he chose an alternative path to ensure that his children benefit from the same standard of education that his former pupils were getting. He says that being his own boss has enabled him to have a savings account, and to start planning towards expanding his small enterprise. His story is not an exceptional one, even middle-class professionals often create other means of generating income to sustain their lifestyles. These narratives of entrepreneurial malleability cut across classes.
The bodaboda project manifests the “unmapped” theme by bridging the gap between its audience and the artwork. It achieves this by taking public art to the public. Participating artist, Papa Shabani shared his excitement about the opportunity to interact with people and to have his art be part of a unique experience that has been relished by the public.
He recreated himself as a traveling photographer who sets up a traditional photography studio on a motorbike at different bodaboda stages. His studio is packed away neatly in a backpack that once was a jerry can. The studio itself is a black and white checkered linoleum mat, white fabric used as a backdrop, wooden poles to hold up the fabric, a portable charger and a polaroid camera. He provided a portraiture service to a ‘clientele’ from different social and economic realities. His usual audience would have previously found him on the grounds of a gallery in affluent Kampala. The five thousand shillings they spend on a cup of coffee is the daily budget for food for most families. For most of Shabani’s new clients the bodaboda studio is their only opportunity for having their portraits taken by a professional photographer with an exceptional eye.
“I take portraits and I intend to bring back the glory that traditional cameraman left hanging on our family walls…” The kind of portraits Papa is talking about are from the 1960s and 70s photography studios in Africa. Families, young couples and stylish people would go to these studios, dressed in their best, to be immortalised in fantastical portraits.
The boda studio is not just public art that makes people part of the artwork, it also gives artwork back to the people. This perspective of life imitating art has already been noted by some members of the public who interacted with Shabani. Some assume that the bodaboda studio is his occupation and want to know how they can find his studio. Shabani’s idea is a plausible and possibly lucrative second business for a bodada rider. Whether it’s a tourist who needs to register a sim card or a local who needs to apply for their national identification card or a visa, image capture is an essential part of today’s world. A world in constant motion with the varied people who drive it. Papa Shabani wants to keep the mobile studio project moving. I asked him if he intends developing the idea further. He said, “I’m already writing a proper plan and considering to take it of out of uganda with funds available.”
Taku Mkencele is a writer and social critic from South Africa. She is currently based in Kampala, Uganda. @matakutso
1 Justice and Peace Centre’s socioeconomic analysis of 10 informal settlements in Kampala