Personhood in motion: the moral landscape of mobility in Kamapala, Uganda

This paper illustrates how the lens of personhood, a longstanding empirical and theoretical concern in African Studies, can offer important insight to mobility studies through an ethnographic discussion of Boda Bodas in Kampala, Uganda. Boda Bodas are motorcycle taxis that provide a vital means of urban mobility as they cut through congestion, extend the reach of the city’s minibus system, and navigate the hilly city’s uneven road surfaces. They are also involved in hundreds of accidents a year and have given rise to a moral panic in the city’s media, the municipality, and the national government around moto-mobility and informal transportation. The paper argues that two divergent concepts of personhood are at the heart of the dominant moral framings of the boda boda industry. On the one hand, drivers view the industry as a moral community and engage in numerous modes of exchange, ranging from mutual aid to financial exploitation, that are predicated on an extended notion of the person as embedded in and emergent from social relations. On the other, regulators in the government, NGOs, and the tech-sector mobilise an individualized and individualizing notion of personhood in order to transform the industry through disciplinary technologies like apps, loans, registration, and safety equipment . Based on ethnographic research conducted from 2013-14, the paper compares how the practices and materiality of these two visions of personhood shape the distribution of risk, injury, and recognition for Kampala’s Boda Boda drivers.