Port Bell Road

Creative Nonfiction | Memoir

Port Bell Road

BEFORE I HAD my own wheels I hitched rides from social work colleagues to work at Butabika, Uganda’s national psychiatric hospital. The drive was fifteen miles, the first ten on main roads. When we turned off them toward Lake Victoria and the hospital, I steeled myself. Port Bell Road was a lane-and-a-half wide, crested and potholed. The shoulder was jagged, narrow, and crowded with people, animals, and shops with mud walls and tin roofs. Swarms of vans, lorries, cars, bikes, dogs and people crowded the road and the roadside. Adults headed to work; waves of children in different bright colored uniforms ran and skipped to their primary schools. Trucks and buses surged forward, passengers and cargo bulging out from the windows and the roof. Bicycles often had two or more riders, and sometimes bundles—firewood, a Nile perch, a table—as wide as the bike was long.

Anything went; the daring prevailed. Most were heading toward Kampala, Uganda’s capital, so we, the cautious reverse commuters, were often forced off the road. As we slowed, people would scatter, wave, and try to touch our hands through the open car windows. Once we hit the second turnoff onto a dirt road that only went to Butabika, I relaxed a bit. Even that final mile was either dusty or slippery, depending on the weather.

About a month after I arrived in 1968, I made the dubious decision to buy a Vespa, using settlement money from the car accident in which I had been injured two years before, while in college. My legs were weak, and the scooter was heavy and difficult to handle, but I felt less like a wealthy American, spending big on a scooter rather than bigger on a car. Fighting the urge to shut my eyes when the traffic got complicated, I got somewhat used to the Vespa, keeping left at crossroads and roundabouts. Still, if wasn’t long before I skidded off Port Bell, and fell. People picked the Vespa and me up and dusted us off, saying they were sorry it had happened. My knees and elbows were scraped, nothing worse, so I remounted with fake bravado, and continued on to work.

That accident made me realize that having almost lost my ability to walk in one accident, I should not court another, no matter what I feared people might think. I sold the Vespa back (at a loss, of course), and bought a used VW. Just as the hospital staff had thanked me for buying the scooter, now they thanked me for buying the car. I asked why they were so gracious; the answer was that maybe I’d give them a ride sometime, but it was also a generous recognition of my good fortune. Their words eased my guilt, even though it masked the economic divide between us. In my red Beetle I traveled with friends all over East Africa during the two years I was there. The roads were bad, and I was always nervous. Every driver was scared of hitting someone. We didn’t want to cause injury, and we knew that bystanders might beat up—even kill—an offending driver. I always picked up people I knew, both to make their lives easier, and because I wanted to have African passengers if anything went wrong.

Terrified of damaging myself in some way that couldn’t be fixed in Uganda, every time I got into a car, I thought, “If I’m going to crash it, could be this trip.” I knew full well that having broken my back in one accident didn’t change the law of averages for any later journey. My recurrent fear was breaking my neck.

Heading for the airport to fly home in 1970, I was sure that I would be in an accident on that final ride—the last chance to be struck down in Africa—as though I were sure that catastrophe was my fate. When my plane took off, I cried with sadness at leaving, and thanked my lucky stars that my body and I were intact.


Photograph courtesy of Julia C. Spring