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Boda bodas may drive you mad, but they have become a necessity

GULU, UGANDA - 2020/05/13: A man uses a boda boda (motorcycle) to transport chickens to the market during the coronavirus crisis. A nationwide transport ban was imposed in Uganda in March, in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, though bicycles and (boda boda) motorcycles were still allowed to transport cargo up until 5pm. (Photo by Sally Hayden/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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In the tightly organized society of the Netherlands, fast e-bikes are causing a stir because they can drive with high speed.. Meanwhile on the notoriously chaotic roads of Kenya, motor bikes are causing increasing controversy. After a perilous ride with a boda boda, every Kenyan has vowed never to risk his life on such a motorcycle taxi again. But in Nairobi’s often gridlocked traffic, sometimes there is no other option.

Sure, the ride is usually exhilarating. It brings out the reckless child in you as the rider swerves back and forth and manages to hit the brakes and accelerator almost at the same time. The boda boda’s  speed aggressively into the wrong lanes, ignore traffic lights and drive on pedestrian paths. “The entire transport system in Kenya is unable to cope in its current state, and as a result very large numbers of people are losing their lives,” the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) concludes.

In the Netherlands you drive with the traffic, in Kenya everyone has their own rules. The boda boda’s can easily transport four passengers and a bunch of chickens hanging from the luggage rack, or with a towering pile of bags of flour with a passenger triumphantly on top of it, or in more nomadic areas with a few goats, even a cow.

Chinese imports

Transport with boda boda is the favorite means of transport in Kenya. Kenyans know how to deal with chaos and chaos requires tolerance and understanding, especially when the poor earn their money from it. They don’t curse motorcycle taxis, any more than they respect the traffic-slowing, heavy-sweating puller of a handcart.

There are a few on every street corner, they penetrate deep into remote rural areas, they can maneuver on bad roads and narrow paths, they beat the car in snarling traffic jams and drop the passenger in front of his house. The name, boda boda, has its origins in passenger transport across the border with neighboring country Uganda.

In 2008, the Kenyan government zeroed out the import tax on motorcycles up to 250cc, leading to a 1,773 percent increase in the number of registered motorcycles. Statistics from the NTSA show that in 2008 there were 130,307 motorcycles, in 2016 there were more than one million and in 2022 more than two million – mainly polluting motorcycles from China. Lifting the tax marked a huge success in combating youth unemployment. An estimated 1.2 million motorcycle drivers earn around 1,000 Kenyan shillings (around 7 euros) per day from their rides.

The boda boda drivers are also good for the business of coffin manufacturers: they cause one in three traffic deaths. Last year there were 4,324 deaths and 18,561 people were injured. Some hospitals have set up a special department for victims of motorcycle accidents. Certainly, it is not only the poor driving behavior of the mostly young motorcycle drivers that is responsible: the roads are bad, without traffic signs, and police officers can be bought for next to nothing. Sub-Saharan Africa is a graveyard for road fatalities, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), three times as many as in Europe, even though only 2 percent of the world’s cars are in Africa.

No free pass

Two years ago, the controversies over the boda boda riders became a bit too much for the Kenyan government. They became increasingly adept at robbing pedestrians’ phones and jewelry. Boda boda’s beat and abused a female driver because she had hit one of them. An angry president Uhuru Kenyatta ordered them all to re-register. “Riding a boda boda is not a license to commit drive-by robberies, and certainly not a license to deprive women of their dignity,” Kenyatta fulminated.

But boda boda’s have now become a political factor. Willem Ruto, Kenyatta’s successor, tried to placate the boda boda’s. He presented himself during the election campaigns as the helper of the poor hustlers. Ruto gave the boda boda drivers money to participate in his campaigns, a smart move because the riders go to places where no politician is visible. Now that the boda boda’s have become a significant factor in the political power game, it is very possible that obstacles will be put in their way.

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