Column SquadEntertainment

Taxi Memoirs: Delving Into The Linguistics Of Ugandan Taxi Touts


The debate rages on about what makes the world go around depending on whether you are a physicist, economist, or gold digger. Personally, I believe flattery certainly oils most wheels on which the juggernaut of human relations spins.

Taxi touts certainly know this and have mastered the art. They will use all sorts of embellishments to court favor with picky passengers. Take this one time for instance.  While in a taxi heading to Ntinda, some overly bleached woman dressed in a top that exposed most of her gigantic cleavage passed by and everyone started calling her Mariah Carey.  However, in their accent it sounded like ‘malaya kale’.  At first I felt offended on her behalf (yes really!) until I took a closer look at her bosom and saw the unmistakable resemblance of her cleavage to that of former Mrs Nick Cannon.  Lucky for her, she had understood the flattery from the beginning and was now beaming with pride.

People are always changing words and their meanings as we go along. And I fear that in a few years there will be a chasm of language barrier between the middle and lower classes in Uganda. For instance, if someone said there was a manager outside your door, you would expect an averagely well dressed, sober man with a briefcase but not to the touts. Any man with a shirt on his back and shoes on his feet is a boss or a manager.  Every female with a headscarf is a hajati. Any woman of child bearing age is maama baby never mind that the individual might be struggling with infertility. Any foreigner, especially light skinned is an investor and everybody with showy outfits is a designer or ‘campuser’.

With experience from the tout’s names, I know when to do something about my weight and my outfits.  Usually I go by maama baby but when they start calling me hajati even without a headscarf I realize it is time to go on a diet because that is what they sometimes call overweight women.  When they call me jajja, that means I look too thin and aged so it is time to stop the diet. When they call me designer, I pull off my earings or necklace because it means I am overdressed.

I had mastered all these dynamics until recently when I heard one that cracked me up so hard I burst out in hysterics.  While braving the hot sun on Kampala Road, a tout called out ‘Mugole ogenda Ntinda?’ (Bride, are you going to Ntinda?) Taken aback I look around trying to find the mugole in question but the tout saves me the trouble when this time he looks me in the eye and repeats his question.

Having evoked the memories of my own wedding over two decades ago, I smile coyly just like the Mariah Carey and board his taxi. As I settled in my favorite back seat, I tried to think hard as to why anyone would call me mugole since I wasn’t even dressed in white. It later hit me that under the sun, I was sweating profusely  and kept dabbing off the sweat with my hankie. If you have been to a provincial wedding, this is how a bride sweats. In fact the job of the maid of honour (matron) is to continually dab the sweat off the bride’s face which isn’t a simple task considering the bride is usually buried under layers and layers of bad makeup meant to make her look extra beautiful on her special day.

Hey, I am a Ugandan woman who spends a minimum of four hours daily travelling in taxis. Like you, I used to dread the taxi rides until I realized that it is a source of a variety of free entertainment and an interesting study of human nature.