Ngabirano: Urban planner who altered Kampala’s traffic

Ever seen a smartly dressed bespectacled woman, with a trendy handbag, riding a bicycle in or around Kampala? It could have been Amanda Ngabirano, an urban planning enthusiast, so radical at creating spacious urban places.

The lecturer at Makerere University leaves her car at home any day and picks her bicycle to tell Ugandans that cycling is the better mode of transport to decongest our cities, create more green spaces, reduce air and noise pollution, cut transport costs and achieve more inclusive mobility.

Long route to success

Amanda is the sixth-born among 12 children in a family groomed in Kasese Town. Her father was a bus driver and her mother did all manner of jobs—tailoring, selling mandazi, samosa, etc, to supplement her husband’s income.

“Our parents were not educated, but they did their best to give us a good life,” she commends. “We shared beds, but we ate well, had electricity, running water and we all went to good schools.”

After Mubuku Primary School and Hima Primary School, she wanted to join a girls-only secondary school, but her father sent her to Kigezi High, a mixed school nearly 140 miles away.

“I hated that seven-hour bus drive but dad had strong relations with the school administration and I knew he wanted the best for me.”

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Ngabirano during an interview at Makerere University. PHOTO/ABDUL-NASSER SSEMUGA

Career switch

At first she was shocked by the Bakiga culture of calling a spade a spade. But gradually, she appreciated that frankness, grew a thicker skin for the usually colder Kigezi weather, and fell in love with the people, no wonder when she chose the man of her life, she chose a Mukiga.

Amanda wanted to be a doctor and applied for PCB—Physics, Chemistry and Biology – at A-Level. But she joined Senior Five towards the end of first term after attending to her father, who was battling diabetes. She was advised to try an Arts combination or she would not be promoted to Senior Six.

With her father’s health waning, she knew her academic chances were limited. She opted for HEG – History, Economics, Geography and Kiswahili. “I hated History but I accepted the reality—that I had to pass it—and the teacher helped me so much to cope.”

But despite scoring 19 points, she missed government sponsorship, yet her parents couldn’t afford the tuition.

She rejected a rich man’s offer to pay her tuition, give her a car and storeyed house, because she loved someone else—her childhood boyfriend and future husband.

She studied Kiswahili at Kakoba National Teacher’s College in Mbarara for three years. But in her final year, she registered for UACE exams, again, determined to enter university on government sponsorship. Surprisingly, she registered with St Leo’s Kyegobe, a boys-only school in Tooro.

The results returned almost the same time. She had scored second class upper at college and 21 points in UACE, finally enrolling for a bachelors’ degree in Urban Planning at Makerere University, her only choice, on government entry in 2002.

But before admission, her papers were missing and she had to face then Minister of Education Namirembe Bitamazire, who sorted the mess.

While at Makerere, she anchored news in Kiswahili on UTV, earning Shs20,000 per bulletin, which was about Shs40,000 a week. Those six years brought her close to exemplary journalists such as the legendary Bbaale Francis and Toya Kilama.

First kick

Most of us dream of fancy rides—cars and motorbikes. Not bicycles. But Ngabirano chose a bicycle. And she wants us to join her ride.

Yet 11 years ago, she neither knew how to ride nor did she need to. Even during her Masters studies at the University of Greenwhich seeing people of all classes in Deventer, Netherlands, riding bicycles to work, school, wherever, didn’t instantly convert her.

But later cycling became necessary. First, the two Euros (about Shs8,000) she paid for one bus trip became expensive. Walking was tiresome, yet cycling was a lifestyle in the city.

She made up her mind, bought a bicycle and a Tanzanian student taught her to ride. In two weeks, she could ride on her own, though she struggled riding on the right on Dutch roads.

And the rest is not history. It’s what she is. Probably what she will ever be – an academic who drives her point of improving cities on a bicycle.

Lifestyle

Even on Kampala’s congested roads, poorly lit, full of potholes, open trenches and worsened by impatient, reckless drivers, riders and pedestrians, Ngabirano insists on riding. Yet she owns a car.

It has not been a smooth ride, though. “Sometimes I get scratched and bruised.”

Still, she doesn’t wear a helmet.

“It’s risky but it’s sort of a protest: I wear a helmet on Entebbe Road or the Northern Bypass but riding within Kampala should be safe,” she says.

“So, wearing a helmet discourages others that riding in the city is unsafe.

So, the ultimate solution, she says is making the road network safe for all.

And, she wonders, it makes news when Amanda rides without a helmet, but who cares about those women in Lira, Soroti, Kamuli, who cannot even afford a helmet but must ride with their children on their backs, every day?

What’s more, most cycling accidents affect limbs, not the head. “So, even if my head is intact when I lose my legs or arms, I might fail to fend for my family.”

Five minutes that changed her life

When the Dutch minister for environment visited the university on the 2010 World Sustainability Day, Amanda was one of the students who presented. It had taken her four weeks to prepare for the moment she now calls, “The five minutes that changed my life.”

She had never presented to such a big audience, on such an important occasion. But in those five minutes, she outlined her ambition to return to Uganda and make a significant contribution towards sustainable urban mobility, especially bicycle transport, which caught everyone’s attention.

Soon, a company near the university gave her an internship opportunity, paying her much more than what Makerere paid her as a teaching assistant.

‘Integrating Bicycle Transport in City Planning: A case study of Kampala City,’ was her Masters’ research topic.

To those who knew the mess in Kampala, it came off as an impractical idea. But she was determined. And she had to return to Kampala to gather the information.

“I stopped bicycle riders at the busiest spots such as Wandegeya, and interviewed them,” she recalls. Such was her passion for change that she even suggested redesigning one of the busiest roads in the heart of Kampala to include bicycle lanes and make it more accessible. Her supervisor also felt it was “not practical.”

But when she shared the proposal to KCCA, it was approved in 2012 and the result is that non-motorised transport system that changed traffic flow on Namirembe Road and Luwum Street.

The road has two lanes for cyclists and wheelchair users, a one-way route for motorists, a paved walkway, and some green reserves in the middle. Since its completion during the 2020 lockdown, taxis from nearby parks no longer exit via Namirembe Road.

It’s a pilot project which developers should try to replicate in different parts of the city to create inclusive mobility.

Why bicycles?

Cycling has countless social, economic, environmental and health benefits. Besides enhancing physical exercise, bicycles are cheaper to buy, and service than motor vehicles and because they are lightweight, they put less pressure on the road, hence longer road lifespans.

Parking a bicycle is usually free, accessible, more convenient as it requires very small space. Because bikes use minimal fuels, they greatly minimise air and noise pollution synonymous with motor vehicle.

And, she says, if we don’t make cycling a serious means of transport, everyone will buy a car, hence thinning the already thin space the more.

She dreads a cyclist on the Express Way as much as she dreads a lorry offloading stuff in the Central Business District during the day.

Shaping a legacy

Sometime back the public ‘nominated’ Ngabirano the next KCCA executive director after Jennifer Musisi. “I was confused by how people concoct stories. But I was equally humbled that people recognise my efforts.” In July 2020, Ngabirano was sworn in as acting chairperson of the National Physical Planning Board, an assignment that has exposed her to the level of non-compliance in the infrastructural sector in Uganda. Mega buildings without plans and fuel stations constructed without approval. Don’t be surprised if some are demolished.

She insists that “our roads are not narrow, they are just congested and poorly designed.” She also does not believe Kampala is spoilt beyond repair.

“The game changer is to develop other urban centres to the level that doesn’t necessitate people to come to Kampala. But we also need to rebuild our capital into a better city, full of green, well-planned buildings and a user-friendly road network.”

She says planners and implementers must be focused on a similar goal, and the public must be interested too. “So mass sensitisation is key in urban development.”

Could that be the reason why the green reserves inside Makerere University are still intact yet the ones outside the campus are being patched by pedestrians’ footprints?

Largely, she says, “but enforcement is equally important. If we let motorists encroach on cycling lanes and sidewalks, as they habitually do, cycling remains unsafe even with safe infrastructure.”

Titbits

Ngabirano, a lecturer at Makerere University’s Department of Architecture and Physical Planning, is pursuing her doctorate in Urban and Regional Planning at the Saxion University of Applied Science in Nairobi.

She is the outgoing vice president of the World Cycling Alliance, and sits on the consultative forum to unite taxi operators under one body. She is the African partner for Move Mobility, another Dutch organisation led by the CEO of the firm where she was intern.

She is also a member CAMA—Collaboration for Active Mobility in Africa— and Ugandan coordinator and partner for High Volume Transport Applied Research Programme, an international initiative, which aims to increase access to transport services, more affordable trade routes, and safer, lower carbon transport in low income countries.

Support system

But she admits being lucky to do what she loves and having a supportive husband, the father of her daughter and a son, aged 21 and 15, respectively.

“A woman to succeed at family and career needs a supportive husband. My career involves lots of travelling but he has never stood in my way. In fact, he encourages me to pursue most opportunities.”

But she warns women: “Don’t abuse that freedom. Play your family role in the best possible way.” For that matter she has rejected lucrative offers that required her to work abroad.

Cycling Tips

Ensure you know how to ride.

Keep your attention on the road.

Avoid earphones while riding.

Service and maintain your bike regularly.

Don’t carry a heavy or wide load…a handbag is okay but a backpack better.

Signal with your hand and use eye contact to communicate with other road users.

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