Nov 24

Seeing in Kampala

Driving in Kampala (Uganda) is challenging. I won’t list all of the things that make swimming in its teeming transportation ecosystem difficult, but I will discuss one aspect that I take for granted in the US — my ability to “see.”

Unlike the physiology that gives us “vision,” the act of seeing is learned. As a result we become conditioned to see what we expect to see. Studies show that the highly valued eyewitness to a crime in the courtroom isn’t always that reliable, not as you would expect due to failing memory (recall), but because they failed to “see” what was in front of their eyes during the event in question. Humans aren’t video recording devices with legs. We do a great deal of processing images through a culturally shaped lens before we determine what we’re seeing. The shapes and colors perceived by rods and cones are open to interpretation and, as we build up these images into objects that we give meaning, we come to expect that certain scenes will be furnished with particular things performing predictable motions.

I’m slowly building up courage and eventually will pull into traffic more quickly. Right now I spend a lot of time looking. Occasionally, by the time I’ve looked in front of me then right and left (or should that be left then right?), the entire scene has changed in the earlier directions and I have to go through the process again. Unlike what I’m accustomed to, the drivers in oncoming cars don’t possess a spot in a regulated lane and plow on certain the drivers around them will do the same. Instead, they form lanes with other cars by mutual agreement through split second collaboration. Frankly, it’s a little more like walking on a very wide, busy sidewalk, but of course you’re encased in metal and running into someone will take more than a brief apologetic “excuse me” — or, you would think it would. I’ve seen a few drivers, moving at slow speeds, bump a motorcycle then sheepishly shrug and move on.

As I’m waiting to pull out and join the dance, cars appear in my field of vision in unexpected places. Motorcyclists zipping around the hunks of metal, along with the still lighter, but not as fast moving bicyclists join them. Pedestrians, a category of which I’m often a member, walk along and through traffic at a practiced, unhurried pace. Yet, vehicles seldom slow down for people crossing the street. They don’t even give a slight cursory deceleration to acknowledge they’re aware of the person in the middle of the road. I suppose this little signal that they see them is completely unnecessary and the drop in speed is rather inefficient when you think about it. The hierarchical assumptions that seem to power the flow of Kampala traffic makes more sense. Drivers assume motorcyclists will get out of the way, motorcyclists assume pedestrians will get out of the way, and pedestrians, well, they stroll through the traffic accustomed to the calculus required to get out of everyone’s way. The larger danger as a pedestrian seems to be paying too much attention to traffic and falling into an unexpected hole.

I’ve become fairly familiar with all the categories of obstacles in Kampala’s traffic, but it will be a while before I’m certain that I’m truly “seeing” everything. It will take even more time for me to be confident that I can accurately predict how the moving objects in front of me will most likely be configured a nanosecond after I attempt to join them. Drivers of Kampala, please be patient with me. My vision is fine (with corrective lenses), my seeing however, not so much.

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