Ugandan Fred Batale is sitting in his car at Kampala’s LaBa! Street Art Festival, held in June. But it’s not just any vehicle he’s getting ready to drive. It’s a vibrantly painted automobile built using a tricycle as a base, with a canary yellow bonnet and a roof, back and windows constructed from polythene paper, small metallic wires and abandoned cloth and red mirrors found in the city’s Kisenyi slum.
The words ‘DAPU’ (Disability Art Project Uganda), the organization Batale founded and directs, and ‘Is the city our space? Accessible? Zebra crossing? Taxi?’ are painted on the back in white. From where I’m standing the car’s front hides 30-year-old Batale’s legs. When I meet him later, he’s walking with his thin legs bent, using his hands to move, and has kneecaps protecting his limbs, which stopped growing when he was just four.
Batale’s mother blames his disability on either polio or traditional spirits. Her son wriggled the 1km to school in his village, Lutale, in eastern Uganda, until a priest donated him a wheelchair and later a tricycle. The graduate of The Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts (MTSIFA) at Makerere University now lives in Kansanga, a busy suburb in Kampala, a chaotic city with about two million people and notorious gridlock. Batale, 30, moves around the capital a lot, thanks to a tricycle donated by Handicap International and a wheelchair and kneecaps, donated by 32º East. But the artist still faces huge physical and social challenges, compounded by the lack of urban planning, which doesn’t take into account the disabled.
According to lawyer Gerald Abila, Uganda has passed a number of laws outlawing discrimination against people with disabilities. These include The Traffic and Road Safety Act 1998, which provides for protection of disabled persons on the roads and insists that special tracks and ramps for use by these people on roads and sidewalks must be constructed. But unlike many of the east African nation’s other laws, they are not enforced mainly due, Abila says, to ignorance of their existence.“The lack of pedestrian access on most of the roads makes it nearly impossible for persons with disabilities (PWDs) to access certain parts of town,” says Abila. “If they are to move with wheel chairs, then they will have to use these on the main road, together with cars and other road users.”
I spoke with Fred Batale about his car, his art project, and what it’s like using public transport as a person with a disability in Kampala.
Amy Fallon: How did you come up with the idea for the car?
Fred Batale: The theme (of LaBa!) was “the city is our space”. We wanted to show that yes, the city is our space, but in actual sense it’s not for some of us. In Kampala there are lots of cars and in Uganda you’re considered successful when you’ve bought one. We thought this vehicle would attract attention.
AF: Can you please tell us about DAPU?
FB: It started in 2013. We were four people with disabilities who thought if we could start sharing skills with others, including those on the streets, we could empower them. Every Saturday we meet here (at 32º East, who offer space and support) with a group of people with disabilities from Kampala slum areas. We have one blind person. There are people who are deaf, hunchbacks. Some are illiterate. We train them in batik painting, basketry, mat making. We do recycling projects. The aim is for people to make things they can sell. We also want to lobby the government, Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) and the public about disability rights.
AF: How are the attitudes from those driving, and using, public transport towards you as a passenger?
FB: Some people sympathize; some are very rude. Matatu (minivan) drivers, when you have a foldable wheelchair, they’ll stop and say “how much are you giving us for your wheelchair?” One time I quarreled with a driver badly. When I reached Jinja town (about 80km outside Kampala) he said, “you’re paying for yourself and for your wheelchair”. I said, “I’m not paying until everyone in this taxi pays for his legs.” All the passengers supported me. They said, “we’re not going to pay if you charge him for his wheelchair.” There’s a national policy in place that you can’t charge a person with a disability for wheelchair space on public transport. But it doesn’t work.
AF: What about the ubiquitous bodabodas (motorbike taxis)?
FB: Some bodas are really friendly; some of them refuse to take us. It’s happened to me several times. You stop but they continue driving. One time a driver told me, “Abo abalema nabo balina sent zaboda boda”, meaning in the local Luganda language “people with disabilities have no money to pay you”. The best option is to get a tricycle, if you can. But in Uganda, for a person with a disability to get a tricycle or a wheelchair, you need to have money. A tricycle goes for 650,000 Uganda shillings ($250).
AB: Does the government help?
FB: There is no government support. When I went to the department of disability and elderly to get a tricycle, they told me to write to the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda (NUDIPU – an NGO). They told me they had no money for a tricycle.
AB: What’s your next project?
FB: We’ve been selected to participate in the Kampala Contemporary Art Festival (KLA ART) 2014, in October. We are creating something new for that, focused around the theme of accessibility to transport for the disabled. We want to show the public how they can create accessible transport for people with disabilities. For the time being we’re taking the car to different events, such as rugby matches, to show people what disability means. People always stop and ask us what it is.
Amy Fallon is a freelance journalist based in Kampala, Uganda. She is Australian-born and has also lived and worked in the UK for various newspapers, magazines and websites. Follow her on twitter @amyfallon
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