It is a scene, previously unimaginable in many contexts. A rowdy crowd is gathered outside a police station, daringly unafraid of the consequences of unruliness at the law enforcers’ door. They are hollering, demanding the release of their colleague.
Their colleague is not innocent; indeed, he was riding his motorbike on the wrong side of the road when he crashed into an oncoming car. This incident happened in Liberia. It is, however, interesting that many people, on first hearing about it, said they would not be surprised if it had happened in their own country, somewhere in Africa.
The motorcycles, known as boda boda in East Africa or okada in Nigeria, have created employment for many, mainly young males with or without some level of formal education.
Boda boda now appears in the Oxford dictionary as an English terminology, defined as “a type of motorcycle or bicycle with a space for a passenger or for carrying goods, often used as a taxi.”
They are a low purchase, fairly fast, fuel efficient, common, cheap and convenient mode of transportation. Boda boda are particularly useful on roads inaccessible to vehicles, when weaving through heavy traffic or on narrow paths in informal settlements and villages and in delivering parcels.
The motorcyclists have carved a niche for themselves. No politician can run a campaign without them. No serious non-governmental plans for activities such as advocacy and awareness raising on issues without factoring in motorcyclists into the list of the usual “stakeholders”.
It is fascinating to study how social and group identities created by African public motorcyclists are. Their social relations in organisation, structure, behaviour and actions are interestingly, quite related across the continent. This is quite a feat, as they have done so without international conferences, benchmarking tours to foreign countries, or representation through formal regional organisations.
Their professional identity, values and ethical standards, however, are frequently negated by breaking traffic rules, speeding, driving recklessly, and ignoring safety regulations such as driving without helmets. Motorcyclists don’t have the protection provided by a car and each corner, taken sharply is a dance fraught with risk.
Motorcycle injuries, expected from this kind of driving, contribute significantly to severe road traffic injuries. Motorcyclists have also been blamed for a rise in crime, serving as convenient getaways for purse snatchers and robbers.
The cultural and collective identity of motorcyclists as a group frequently rises beyond any ethnic or religious divisions they may have. WhatsApp groups allow for frequent exchanges on concerns. Negotiation and construction of identity and a creation of sense of belonging happens frequently as newer motorcyclists are inculcated into the culture of a collective sense of identity.
They are able to subsume their individuality into belonging to the motorcyclist family going to great lengths to defend it. If any is injured, they raise funds for medical care. When any is in an accident involving a car, they quickly rush in their numbers to his ‘rescue’ and beat up the car’s driver, often getting away with it.
The strong sense of belonging and cohesiveness of the collective has seen boda boda members saving money by contributing small amounts to bail each other out of police custody, buying members their own motorcycles and paying school fees.
A much-lauded phenomenon in three Kenyan towns — Nakuru, Kitengela, and Nanyuki — is the joint effort by motorcyclists to take loans, buy land and build impressive and affordable homes collectively.
Several countries have passed legislation to provide meaningful solutions to public motorcycle operations. What philosophy, going forward, will define the corporate personality of public motorcyclists which ultimately, will inform their professional identity and potential to transform society?
Creation of an environment where motorcyclists understand and assume responsibility for their roles is needed. This includes formal capacity building in road safety and etiquette and being held accountable if they commit any crime.
Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism, Mukami Kimathi: Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides. E-mail:[email protected]