Turn left at the jack fruit tree

In some parts of the world, finding your way around to a point of interest, X, should be as easy as Block C, XYZee Street, 3rd Avenue. And as it’s written is exactly as you’ll find it.

Karibuni kwa Uganda. In the Central Business District of cities and towns, places are rather easy to locate. Streets have names, plots have numbers and buildings have names. In some places  the order is a little haphazard but you eventually get where you need to go. After swimming through the sea of human bodies, that is.

Outside the city, and even within the city but outside the CBD, it takes a lot more than GPS and a good sense of direction to get where you’re going. You stand a far better chance with superb people skills, determination, eagle-like eye sight, and truck loads of patience. Because homes are not constructed here as they are in the west or other parts of the world with planned communities, planned homes, intricate urban planning et al, addresses become hard to locate. Here, land owners cut and sell their plots of land as they see fit. As long as an access road can be routed to that piece of land, it’ll be fragmented and sold. I know there are some rules, but some people ignore them. People will build their houses facing wherever, as they see fit.  In extreme cases, when the seller happens to be someone of questionable character you may even find yourself having purchased a piece of land without an access road. Ambulance chases are to lawyers in the west what land wrangles are to lawyers over here. Most places don’t have addresses. Nothing is recorded, unless it’s a place of business in a business area, you cannot look it up in a directory. And not even all places of business are recorded in directories. So directions to someone’s home could go something like this:

‘When you alight at the taxi stage, follow the tarmac road till you come to a fork in the road. Take the big murram (dirt) road and go down the slope till you get to the sign post of a primary school. Take the road opposite that sign post and follow it until you see a big jack fruit tree. Turn left at that tree and keep going till you see a big red gate. Stop at that gate and give me a call. I’ll come open for you. ‘ Or perhaps… ‘… when you get to that sign post give me a call and I’ll come pick you…’ meaning beyond that point chances are high that you’ll get lost or the directions get more complex, to many turns and shortcuts, etc., so it’s a lot easier for your host to come pick you from a certain landmark.

At some point – and this happens really often – you’ll lose your way. Then you’ll need to keep calling your host on your cell for further directions, and this can get tiring for both the ‘direct-er’ and the ‘directee’.  At this point what you need to do is ask the people you find along the road to direct you to where you’re going. Sometimes (most of the time for me, actually, before I bought a car) the easiest option is to take a boda-boda.  A boda-boda is a motor bike (not the Harley Davidson type, think Bajaj), and we use them as one type of taxi here. They get their name from the word ‘border’ as in frontiers, because they were used to smuggle things across borders back when the country was rife with economic and political upheaval. Every area has boda-bodas and the cyclists are really good at their geography. You tell them where and they’ll take you. Thing is, you can’t always grab a boda-b. One, they aren’t free of charge –duh! Two, you maybe under the impression that you’ll only be walking a short distance, only to later realise your journey’s end is far from close. I have friends who’ll tell say ‘you don’t need to take a boda-b, it’s a really short distance.’ Walking distance, they’ll say. So you’ll don your high heels and be on your merry way only to find a dirt road with gulleys and pebbles and all you can think about is how much irreparable damage is being done to your fancy BCBG heels. People tend to forget that a certain distance appears short if they walk that road daily, and may actually be long to someone taking it for the first time. On occasion, both you and the boda-b guy may be ignorant of the area in which you find yourself because that’s not his jurisdiction. And then you’ll have to find boda-b guys that work in that area to point you in the right direction.

I’m sure you can now see what you’d need all that people skills, determination, eagle-like eye sight, and truck loads of patience stuff for. Oh yeah.

I’m reasonably good at giving directions. I’ll get my left and right turns right, I’ll tell you what obvious landmarks to look out for at what point. When to take a turn, where to get off the road. When I direct people, they find the address with ease. Unfortunately for me, some people are just not good at giving directions. They’ll say, go, go, then turn left. After a while you’ll see the big red gate. And I go: is that on the left or the right? Are there any landmarks I should look out for? Et cetera. Often, I find myself getting frustrated when people’s directions are unclear, frustrated to the point of tears, and by the time I get to where am going am all out of sorts.

Today I almost found myself in a similar situation, and night had fallen. I got to where I was going, or at least where I thought I should be, something I had been told to look out for was no where in sight, and the car horn went unanswered. The gate was slightly open but I couldn’t just invite myself in, more so since the person giving me directions hadn’t arrived yet. I went back the way I had come, only to find out I had been in the right place all along. That didn’t go so bad, though. It could have been worse. I could have found myself  in a wrong place altogether.


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