In the Biblical book of Genesis is recounted the story of Dinah the daughter of long-suffering Jacob and his begrudgingly-acquiesced first wife, Leah. In adulthood, Dinah grew to become an impressively attractive woman who one day decided to visit with the Canaanite women. While there she was espied by Shechem, son of Hamor the Hivite who was the region’s Chief. He was immediately entranced by the young woman’s pulchritude and almost spontaneously started wooing her. As she was a lady who valued her dignity, she could not just say “Yes”, the first time and rebuffed his advances. Unfortunately for her, Shechem was not of the school of thought that cherished virtues like patience and chivalry and at the capitulation of his ‘game’, he violently grabbed the woman and had his way with her without any more frivolity. As he was still enamoured of the young woman, he asked his father to intervene in the proceedings to get Dinah for him as a wife. Immediately, Hamor made the trip to Jacob’s homestead and with profuse penitence over his son’s petulance, recounted what had happened. His timing was as horrendous as can be because at just the moment he had opened out on the fiasco that has been occasioned by his son, Jacob’s progeny were also returning home with the livestock. They were flummoxed to learn about this slight against the nation of Israel and their beloved sister. Hamor however, had come with a conciliatory and contrite spirit seeking not just the hand of Dinah but future intermarriage among the indigenes of Canaan and the Israelites. He also offered the olive branch of joint settlement with the Israelites, liberal trade and even property ownership. “Set the bride price for Dinah as high as you want and we will verily pay it,” chimed in the smitten Shechem. The greatly incensed sons of Jacob had already purposed to get their pound of flesh from the Hivites and going forward engaged them deceitfully. “We shall never allow our sister to marry an uncircumcised man,” they posited. “Furthermore, circumcise all your males then we can agree on intermarriage. Otherwise, we will take Dinah and leave.” Love and Insanity are similar in many ways as under the spell of both intellectual faculties go out of the window! Shechem lost little time in executing his part of the bargain. The next day; through the pain barrier, Shechem and Hamor trudged to a rendezvous by the city gate and spoke to their fellow Hivites explaining the covenant they had entered into with the Israelites. The circumcision bit was no sticking point to their compatriots as they were assured that the co-operation would be adversely in their favour with the Canaanites having priority over the jointly-owned livestock and other assets of their cohabitation. Little did they know that this was a ruse. Three days after the agreement and with the Canaanites thoroughly sore, two of Dinah’s brothers, Simeon and Levi took their swords and went stealthily into the city, killing all the men and sacking the locale. Neither Hamor nor his errant son, Shechem was spared with their sister also repossessed. On their return, Jacob immediately knew of the young men’s escapades and had a sombre tête-à-tête with his sons. “What kind of quandary is this you two hot-heads have gotten me into? Now the Canaanites, Perizzites and all the other occupants of this land will abhor me,” vociferated Jacob in anguish. “Should they band together, we will all be done for as I have but a handful of men.” However, the aggrieved lads retorted with nary a scintilla of remorse, “We could not countenance our sister being disgraced so.” How sad that the entire community had to pay for the transgressions of their lustful chief.
The situation above is mirrored by the disconcerting news currently doing rounds in myriad news outlets around the nation. A disturbing clip has shown up on social media causing an acrimonious and immutable public uproar. It is of the physical and indecent assault of a female motorist, who has been unfurled as a Zimbabwean diplomat on Prof. Wangari Maathai Road (Formerly Forest Road). This is egregious coming hot on the heels of the week when we commemorate our womenfolk for their invaluable contributions and achievements in society including the aforementioned revered, Kenyan Nobel peace laureate, Hon. Maathai after whom the aforementioned thoroughfare is christened. Even Okonkwo’s unheralded battering of his youngest wife, Ojiugo during the Week of Peace in Chinua Achebe’s literary treatise, ‘Things Fall Apart’ only pales in comparison to this absurdity! The distinguished lady had ostensibly knocked down a pedestrian by accident, braked suddenly being a conscientious individual, descended from her Nissan X-trail to check on the crocked victim who suffered a leg fracture according to Nairobi Traffic Commandant, Joshua Omukata. That is when all hell broke loose as a mob of motorcycle taxi (boda-boda) operators mobbed the foreign emissary lobbing all sorts of insults upon her person, slapping the woman silly, groping her and rending her clothes to ribbons. Her miffed cries were of minuscule concern to the miscreant mob that was hellbent on teaching this apparently ‘disrespectful wench’ a lesson. Indeed, an acquaintance of mine who happened to be in the vicinity at the material instance claims to be still personally paralyzed by trauma recalling the banshee-like hue and cry for help from the woman facing a mortal onslaught by the blood-thirsty troglodytes who partook of this barbarity. I will not even try to contrive the woman’s emotional state. Rattled is the only word that comes to mind. This is an unfortunately disgraceful episode. Currently, a crackdown and man-hunt has been launched for the culprits who engaged in this uncouth imbroglio with the Police putting up the photos of the ring-leader who is said to be at large according to the national dailies. A sizeable number of motorbikes, their riders in tow have been impounded with the fellows currently detained to assist with investigations.
But when did things come to this? What is the casus belli that sparked the fury witnessed at Professor Wangari Maathai Road?
Due to the sluggish pace of industrialization in Kenya added to constrained opportunities for commerce, many are the highly-skilled, well-learned, industrious young men and women that find themselves unemployed and destitute by no fault of their own. They had done all that was required of them by social convention expecting that at the end of their academic toil, they would be rewarded with a good job, swanky apartment and glitzy ride. The reality is far from rosy. Rural to urban migration is still rife generating a caste of the urban-poor who all contend for the limited resources afforded by the urban centres. In little dissimilitude to the renowned South African anthologist, Mr. Eskia Mphahlele in his treatise, many usually reconcile themselves to the incontrovertible actuality that ‘Man Must Live.’ This is the origin story of the many boda-boda operators that dot our urban and rural landscapes. The bicycle/motorcycle conveyance industry has grown in leaps and bounds to take its right of place as a massive contributor to not just employment but also our economy and indeed the GDP adjunct to being a complementary mode of carriage. It is an open secret that the boda-boda industry currently rakes in revenue in the region of 360 billion Kenya shillings. This can be approximated to 11% of our national budget. A myriad honest and energetic young men are accorded means of livelihood by this trade. We have in recent times been regaled with glorious tales of former motorcycle transport industry professionals who started off being conscripted by the owners of the motorbikes working for basic sustenance as long as the owner gets his share of proceeds for the day with the rest being the daily bread for the rider. A diligent professional in this industry saved enough to ultimately buy his own motorcycle additional to other investments making their incursion into self-employment and eventually entrepreneurship. We today have inspirational chronicles of guys who have bought plots of land, developed the properties, built rental apartments, taken their children through school up to universities abroad and massively improved their standards of living through this crucial trade, personal initiative and the sweat of their brow. Many of the practitioners of this trade are level-headed people with exemplary academic qualifications but only a lack of dignified, lucrative employment pushed them to this sector. Indeed, my own colleagues from Engineering school have variously been involved in the sector while raising hard-to-get capital for their commercial ventures.
For some context on the history of boda-boda in Kenya, this is a Ugandan import. These came to the fore in the late 1960s and 70s during the coffee smuggling boom across Chepkube and Lwakhakha shopping centres on the liberal Kenya – Ugandan ‘border.’ Bicycle transport operatives from across each frontier would shout out “boda-boda” which is the abbreviated version of border-to-border to potential customers who sought to be whisked across the borders at whirlwind speeds devoid of travel credentials. The name soon caught on, with bicycle and motorcycle taxis taking up the moniker ‘boda-bodas.’ At the advent of the NARC era in 2003, many of those with bicycles traded them in for motorcycles due to the facilitation of capital injection for the small-scale entrepreneur, a brain-child of our economics-savant of a 3rd President, H.E. Emilio Stanley Mwai Kibaki. Furthermore, he reduced taxes levied on the motorcycle units which was a boon to the sector.
As a low-lying fruit, the demand for bikes in Kenya has been sky-high. This is also a convenient means of transportation for the many pillion-carried customers that seek to weave through the traffic jams typical of our major urban centres. The boda-boda riders also fructify the last-mile delivery for many traders in the formal and informal sectors inclusive of textile and food vendors. Many carriage services exist like Glovo, Bolt, SafeBoda and Uber who have recently launched their own service Uber-eats to leverage on the gravy-train that is the great need for convenient delivery of foodstuffs and meals promptly. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), Kenya imported more than 230,000 motorcycles valued at slightly over 13 billion shillings with a price range between Sh.60,000 to Sh. 150,000. In a sit-down with the Boda Boda Safety Association of Kenya circa 2020, President Uhuru M. Kenyatta enthused riders to flip the narrative of victimhood ciphered about this industry being merely a ‘low-earning’ venture where economic dreams come to be dashed. “If you collect nearly a billion shillings daily, cry why does every boda-boda rider eternally remonstrate over lack of something in their pockets?” The Head of State wondered aloud. The KNBS figures mapped out the reality that 5.2 million Kenyans are direct or inadvertent beneficiaries of this sector. This works out to 1 in every 10 Kenyans making utility of motorbike-based conveyance to run their mercantile endeavours.
The gist of the matter is that a few rotten apples are threatening to mar the good name of the entire enterprise for the ones who keep to the straight and narrow. There are those for whom entitlement is the modus operandi. Some arrogate upon themselves the right of way and zigzag on the road willy-nilly without a care in the world. Speed demons is what others have become reminiscent of the incandescent skeletal character played by acting great, Nicholas Cage in the movie ‘Ghost Rider.’ They are in a hurry not knowing they could potentially be on the highway to hell. This is added to a stubborn intransigence to reform. A few more openly contravene road traffic conventions and etiquette with the potential to imperil not just themselves and their pillion passengers but also other road users. If you live on the outer echelons of urban centres, you have most certainly come across a sturdy boda-boda operator with up to 4 passengers on his carrier with a smaller/younger one sitting on the fuel tank in front of him. How the vehicle is manoeuvred is a marvel of ergonomic ingenuity to me.
Do not even get me started on the ones who transport abnormal loads without any hazard markers or the Wide-load signage and without an iota of regard for other road users! I have myself recently come to within an inch of losing my own derrière after a brush with protruding freightage while minding my own business on the pedestrian walkway.
Others see no need for an important vestment of personal protection (PPE), the Helmet. They will hide behind the fact that they are still trying to break even and also feed themselves from their meagre earnings and as such cannot afford the profligacy of buying a helmet. Such recklessness is always disproved in no time as motorcycle crashes have joined the list of the biggest threat to life and limb termed 1000 ways to die in Kenya. Boda-bodas have progressively become the biggest cause of crashes on our thoroughfares with County Referral, Level IV & V Hospitals being forced to set up wards specifically for the casualties of boda-boda accidents. Limited know-how exists on the causality of the relationship between jets of cold air flowing between a rider’s nasal / laryngeal-thoracic cavities and catching pneumonia. Many are our brethren who have suddenly been taken ill and pass on without even knowing what hit them!
Ipso facto, riding on the wrong side of the dual carriageway is incredibly conceited, however rife among motorcycle taxi operators in Kenya with terrifying glares adjunct to acerbic invective the portion of any motorist who dares to remedially point out this anomaly. Counsel is oft wasted on the prudent. I have in the recent past been compelled to bail out from police custody at least one or two acquaintances who engaged in this misdeed much to my personal chagrin. For some, the turn signal is a vestigial functionality they choose not to use arrogating themselves the right of way at every twist, turn and corner. Most ignominious is the practice by the motorcycle carriage operators to lump nearly half a ton of luggage on the motorbike carrier with the owner of the luggage choosing to take up a vantage location atop clumps of his payload! This thoroughly messes up with the position of the contraption’s Centre of Gravity, but who gives a hoot? ‘Mboka ni Mboka,’ (business as usual) is the popular refrain!
Moreover, there is also the disturbing practice of young men who tap onto youthful exuberance and after one or two training sessions auto-coronate themselves motorcyclist virtuosos ready to do a ride around the gaffe in street lingo known as ‘squad.’ Many have been seen around our estates trying the Almighty’s patience by performing daredevil stunts like riding with legs dangling from the handlebars, wheelies (riding with the front wheel in the air), drifting until tyres are laid threadbare by friction. This is patently irresponsible and in antipathy to the 10,000-hour rule to master any functional skill. Maybe the 10,000 hours is an overkill but probably 168 hours would be somewhat adequate. Use of unlicensed motorbikes for such forays also sticks out like a sore thumb.
Another quirk that casts the ‘bodas’ in negative light is the practice of taping upon their sheer numbers to become a law upon themselves. In this guise, they will hide behind vigilantism to harass innocent victims. Many are the times when a slight scratch compliments to a coming together between a motor vehicle and a motorcyclist will result in the latter baying for the blood of the motorist. All civility will be cast by the wayside as one calls on the solidarity of his brothers in arms. Woe on you if the warmth of your heart supersedes the brightness of your intellect and you commit the unpardonable indiscretion of disembarking from your vehicle and trying to reason things out with the motorcyclists. Such behaviour is anthemic of the deep frustrations among the practitioners of this trade who suffer from low self-esteem and feel as if other owners of motorized transportation look down upon them which is seldom the case. Everyone is busy trying to make it in a difficult economy.
A bad situation is contemporaneously being exacerbated by capricious political opportunists who have taken advantage of the destitution of majority hoi-polloi to craft the fallacious narrative of victimhood that is the ‘Hustler Nation.’ The convener of this movement will have you believe that our nation’s biggest problem is the disenfranchisement of the proletariat class who live from hand to mouth by some cadre of monied elites who live large on patronage as opposed to corruption and financial pilferage by state apparatchiks. This is an unfortunate conundrum as the sanctimonious, populist politician is keen to rope in vegetable vendors (mama mboga), maize roasters, street hawkers and you guessed it, professionals in the boda-boda sector. This cantankerous warmonger is poisoning the minds of boda-boda operatives to within an inch of a class war with the eternal crybaby sentiments accusing the well-off of the amorphous mongrel of an attitude they christen as ‘madharau’ (disrespect). We’ve had incidences of flimsy roadside tiffs escalating into the burning of people’s vehicles by the boda-boda operators who gang up like bullies against innocent motor vehicle owners. The voice of reason is apparently not their cup of tea. They have coined the incantation ‘dynasty’ to describe the driving class and the invocation of this term always coincides with one’s goose being cooked. We are not merely telling fibs here as the week anterior to this, a Matatu belonging to the Latema Sacco was set ablaze and charred to ashes after it killed a motorcyclist in Kinoo, Kiambu County. Much as I commiserate with friends and family of the fallen rider, I equally empathize with the matatu owner who lost his money-minting asset, probably acquired on an expensive commercial loan from an unforgiving banking institution, the star-crossed a victim of their station in life. The Boda-boda operators are slowly taking on an ominous hue evocative of the dark days of the Mungiki Movement that was mercifully kicked to the curb by the dutiful, no-nonsense President Kibaki-era enforcer, Hon. John N. Michuki.
Imperative to note is that the motorcycle transport industry is slowly mutating into a trojan horse for criminals, playing the role of an easy getaway vehicle after a mugging, robbery, stabbing or drive-by shooting by criminal elements. I have in the past written in this very forum, capturing in heart-rending detail the sad, swansong of the M-Pesa service agent in Mombasa who was caught on CCTV Camera being shot severally in cold blood with her handbag being callously snatched from her lifeless grasp. Self-regulation may be a bridge too far but it behooves every conscientious, reasonable and law-abiding citizen to report suspicious nay veritably delinquent characters to the lawful authorities. Remember that a perpetrator of crime albeit injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. The blackguard you see grabbing a woman’s purse in the street corner and you allow to flee scot-free despite cognizance of them, all the while invoking some hogwash about ‘hustle’ is the same one who will in due cause maim, kill and deprive you of your motorbike potentially in that very same street corner!
Human dignity is inherent in every person and the right to have that dignity respected and protected is indeed a cornerstone stricture of our current constitutional bill of rights. We should no longer stand idly by as we embolden goons masquerading as boda-boda operatives to continue with the dishonour and sexual harassment of our womenfolk. The fiasco that went down at Wangari Maathai Road should be a clarion call to the national executive authority to put the kibosh on the impunity running amok in the boda-boda sector. This roguish conduct can no longer be allowed as it mars the esteemed standing of this dignified profession. Even the President and his Cabinet Secretary for Interior have been sufficiently disgusted to pronounce themselves on the ongoings last week. Regulation would be the earnest endeavour for even fire is as good a servant as it is a bad master. Lawlessness in this sector has to be nipped in the bud. Indeed, I’ve even been compelled by rhyme and reason to close ranks with my chum turned archnemesis from the civil society, Mr. Boniface Mwangi who last week opined, “Boda Bodas are the biggest threat to national security, worse than terror. Some are gangs that rob, maim and kill. Regulation is needed before it’s too late.”
What are the steps to take to rein in the runaway licentiousness pertaining to moral restraint in the boda-boda sector?
- Formalization is required. In a similar token to what Hon. John Michuki did for the Matatu sector, it would be imperative to organize the motorcycle transport sector under SACCOs as bodies of accountability and auto-regulation. These SACCOs will act as a deterrent to errant members as the power of the majority will forestall misconduct by those who may aspire to smite the goose that lays the golden egg. Criminal elements will thus be weeded out. Insurance is also a crucial part of formalization as a boda-boda operator will need to indemnify the other party in case of an accident due to erratum on their part. A product called Oye developed by Oye Platform Solutions has been mooted to the Boda Boda Safety Association of Kenya as a zero-cost insurance cover. Taxation would be crucial as the grey area of conjecture needs to be removed from the boda-boda sector.
- Retooling, reskilling and upskilling – A renaissance mindset is in order for the boda-boda interest that is geared at no longer looking at this as just another run-of-mill pastime but as an important cog of the Small, Micro and Middle-Income Enterprise (MSME) continuum. The membership of the motor vehicle carriage sector should start looking at themselves as small business owners who are duty-bound to reflect the values to aspire to see in society. Certificate of Good Conduct (Police Clearance Certificate) should become a prerequisite for every boda-boda operative to uproot incorrigible criminal elements from the sector. Refresher training and testing should be scheduled by NTSA before members can resume imbibing of the benefits of this trade.
- Digitization and Automation will salvage this industry – As a pronounced spate of digitization and automation sweeps many other industries, the boda-boda sector cannot stand with hands akimbo and allow themselves get left behind by this revolution. A system is currently being developed to coruscate the established online and mobile taxi-hailing services and applications where mobile phones will be used to request and afterwards rate the service received. Additionally, a GPS / Mobile Network-based trackable smart meter will be used for tracking and monitoring purposes. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Blockchain algorithm features will be used in future opening up the market to new players who will leverage past trends and data collected by the system. This will optimize coverage added for integration with a GSM (Mobile)-based cashless system of payment together with live features to monitor traffic conditions. A nationwide database of all practitioners in this sector is to be cached to streamline the industry. The GPS-based smart meter has already been adopted by Rwanda and as such is not merely a fairy tale.
- Customer sensitization – Customers should by now be conversant with the existence of rogue elements in the motorcycle conveyance industry. Quoting Narok North Sub County Police Commandant, Joseph Kisombe verbatim, “Anyone hiring a motorbike in Narok should ask the operator for his registration number prior to the journey. This will come in handy in case of anything.”
- Hitch your wagons with leaders and not loafers canvasing as political operators devoid of an all-encompassing ideology and policy – The Boda-boda sector should divorce itself from the grime of populist politicians that seek to exploit the economic station of the young men /women that engage in this business to push their parochial, narrow-minded agenda. This sector is a subset of society and as such will benefit greatly from cogent policy on entrepreneurship and industrialization as opposed to baseless pronouncement from hollow conduits for innuendo and mindless rhetoric.
In closing remarks, the boda-boda sector is here to stay but will have to toe the line of regulation if it is to achieve its ultimate goals of being a cheap, effective, ergo a safe mode of transportation. Lest we forget the ode of Dinah about how the besmirching of one woman led to the downfall of an entire nation.