Coming out of Arusha’s Empire Club late at night, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to get on a motorcycle for the ride home. Despite my request, Sulley stopped to chat with the two riders who were sitting by the main entrance. “These two will take us” he says, “it will be cheap–hop on.” Alcohol impairs one’s judgement, and there is no one to blame but myself, yet something told me it wasn’t the smartest decision I was making.
Much like the previously written about dala dalas, the boda boda, or motorcycle, is a ubiquitous public transportation option in the regions of East Africa that I visited. They sit at most junctions, ready to take the disembarking dala dala rider up off the main drag and into the back roads or to quickly crate someone, or something (firewood, packages, sheep, chickens, GIANT sacks of things, a cow’s head, etc) around the city. Sometimes the driver wears a helmet; sometimes he, and they always present as male–least ways the ones I have seen, will provide one for the rider, too, but that seems infrequent. The m.o. of these riders is that no real laws or conventions apply to them. Whether it is speed, lane direction, pedestrian use, stop lights, etc, there is no observing of it. Oversized loads, five riders to a bike, riding on the sidewalk, weaving through standstill traffic and operating without proper lights are all standard operating procedure. And they get you there fast and get you there cheap.
Earlier in the day, I had taken my first boda boda ride through Arusha, a moment Sulley had thought to capture on video. A couple more rides that day as we bar hopped before ending up at the Empire Club for the evening. Even in my slightly intoxicated state, I knew that Sakine and the Boma Guest House were a good distance away on an open road. Self-preservation told me that meant high speeds, no helmets, and drivers of questionable reliability. And at that point I hadn’t experienced the night riding of the boda bodas, the way they ride off to the side, often without taillights, being passed at high rates of speed by traffic of all sizes and directions.
I put my hat on backwards, pulled my sunglasses down and hopped on. Guess I wasn’t one to argue. Sulley seemed non-plussed (reference to FACETS). We pulled out onto the main drag, and were soon moving at rapid rates of speed through the maze of streets. Quickly we transitioned out of the city streets and onto the highway that would take us to Sakine and qwa Iddi. The two bikes raced off into the darkness, slowing only slightly for the occasional speed bump, but frequently swerving around them. I suspect my knuckles were white and made multiple promises to myself that late night, alcohol impaired, high speed, boda boda rides would be stricken from my repertoire of actions. Before long we turned off the tarmac and onto the rough dirt road that would bring us to the home of NOLS East Africa. I let out a long breath, recognizing the dirt road meant reasonable speed. Three minutes later, we dismounted, handed over some shillings, hopped the gate and stumbled to our rooms.
Turns out though, it was just a warm-up, just a training ride.
En route from Arusha to Naromoru in the Kenyan Highlands, I had to transition from one shuttle to another in Nairobi. Of course the city’s reputation gave me pause, and a co-workers son, Kevin, was volun-told to help me through the transition. Once off the bus, and after a hundred “taxi” offers, it was only a minute or two before I heard “Jared!” and turn to see Will crossing the street toward me. I smile, walk over, and we shake hands. I load my pack in, introduce myself to Kevin. We do a few errands, grabbing lunch and cash, then Will drops Kevin and I off on a corner. “I don’t really want to drive into that part of the city” Will says as he turns his purple Land Cruiser Prado down a narrow Nairobi street. “It is kinda dangerous and so congested. Plus it’ll take forever” he continues. “You and Jared can grab a boda boda” he says to Kevin, the other Nairobi local in the vehicle. I let out a breath; “at least it is daylight” I think to myself as I peer out the passenger side window at the contradiction that is everywhere.
Since those formative rides in Arusha so many weeks ago, the Toya, a frequent make of boda boda, and I had a few encounters, mostly relatively slow rides up the rocky roads to the branch. It was day, I was sober, and being in the city, maybe the speeds would be low. Plus Kevin would be with me.
Three on the bike with me in the back, wearing a backpack; Kevin holds onto the bag of lunch, I hold onto the bike and him. It was wild from the start. Wrong way. Oncoming traffic, bumping the curve as we squeeze past on rushing vehicles. The two busses are still moving closer together as he eeks the wide mirrors through the ever narrowing gap; I squeeze my legs tighter onto Kevin and hold my breath. The other side only offers more of the same. Through the red light. I see the driver’s head turn, scanning. Out of the alley, one person, then two then more, stop abruptly, jump back as the motorcycle nearly runs them over. Up, onto the curb, now the sidewalk. Weave left, into the stalled traffic. Across the median, another squeeze, another red light ignored. And on and on.
We start to push down into the crowded Accra Road bus station, but Kevin tells the driver we will walk from there. I exhale for the first time I can remember and slide off the back. I hand the operator 500 shillings. I get three hundred back. This time I know all others will be tamer. “Hold onto your phone” Kevin orders as we walk into the world of the Tea Room: commerce, transportation, habitation all rolled into one. In my pocket I keep my hand on my phone.
A man shuttles pipe on his shoulder. A woman sells shoes while a squatting man rustles through the pile. To their side is a pile of socks and gloves; squatting women sift through it. People hawk electronics and rings. A woman on a bicycle with a basket and a severed cow’s head. A passed out mechanic being pulled to his feet from under a matatu only to limply fall back onto the ground. Four live chickens in a plastic crate, squawking and pecking. A child, sitting on the ground, a toothless man asking for change, matatus and dala dalas all vying for space. Coke, Vodacom, tigo, Nestle, mpesa, Nike and everything else is sold here. I try not to stare at the man walking with a skinned goat slung over his shoulders.
Two bucks for a ride I’ll never forget. And that was only the beginning.
Featured Image: No cow heads, but the Tea Room none the less. Nairobi, Kenya