How to survive the cycle of life


China produces 58 percent of the world’s bicycles, and after cheap televisions and tools, bikes are one of the country’s biggest imports to Kenya. They end up on the busy streets of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu and small towns such as Machakos, where some are then converted into bike-taxis: boda-bodas. “Boda-boda,” a contraction of “border-to-border,” is an expression coined in the 1990s by smugglers, who used their bikes to run goods and people across the border between Kenya and Uganda.

81_bicycle_taxis_illus16.00am: The day begins. Splash water on your face. Get ready for the chaos. Reach out for your most-treasured possession: your bike. Check the brakes and the air in the tires. So you’ve been hit four times; it’s no big deal. You’re one of the fastest boda-boda drivers in all of Machakos.

6.25am: Fill the tank: have breakfast. Suggested menu: ugali, a stodgy ball of cornmeal, and a coffee. This will be your fuel until noon.

7.10am: Temperature, 24ºC. One foot on the floor, one on the pedal ready to hit the streets. On the corner a lady with a package is looking for transport. So go! Two honks will let her know you’re hers. First passenger: Basma, 58. In the morning traffic a matatu can take half an hour to travel five kilometers, but your boda-boda can do the job in just eight to 10 minutes. It all depends on your legs, boy.

7.30am: Move your ass and start to sweat. Final destination: the marikiti market. Price for this two-kilometer ride: 30 bob (US$0.40). On a normal day you’ll travel about 35 kilometers. It’s like riding the Tour de France four times a year – with someone else sitting on your bike.

9.30am: This is the busiest time of day. Crack on. Pedal hard. Competition is everywhere – there are more than 800 boda-boda drivers in Machakos. A silent war for passengers has spread across the hot asphalt of the city’s streets. So shake off your laziness and get the clients.

As I have to live or die, I opted for boda-boda.
Peter Wanyonyi, 26, boda-boda driver, Bungoma, Kenya

10.00am: You’re already feeling tired and your T-shirt’s soaked. Take a sip of water. Pat your pocket. You’ve made 100KSh (US$1.20).

11.00am: Your next passenger is Chitundu, 35, a chef. He asks you to step on it. Go! Go! Go! Dodge the potholes, matatus, that handcart, a tuktuk, those donkeys, two trucks, and the lady with the baby. Run a red light, turn a blind eye and keep going. The police are on the corner. Hope that they don’t stop you; you don’t want to have to bribe them. The recklessness of boda-boda drivers like you has become a national-security issue. Ten percent of fatal road accidents in Kenya involve cyclists. To stop this the government now says you have to wear a helmet, a reflective vest and attend a road-safety course. But why bother? Nobody else does.

12.00pm: Take a break; the sun is at its peak; it’s 34ºC. Right now even the lions in the Masai Mara are taking a nap.

3.00pm: Back to work, but these are the dead hours between lunchtime and the evening rush hour. Perhaps it would be better to drive a matatu; you could earn 15,000KSh (US$175) a month. But hey, every month you make 6,000KSh (US$70), twice as much as a teacher makes. Think about your wife and eight kids. It’s not so bad.

7.00pm: Head home. Stop and buy some charcoal so the family can cook tonight.

8.30pm: Clean the bike. Empty the bills and coins from your pockets. You’ve earned 700KSh (US$8). Save half for the house expenses, put the other half under the mattress to keep the bike going. The evening is yours now, but don’t go crazy – this all starts again tomorrow.

81_bicycle_taxis_illus2The Soundsystem
  1. Cut and weld sheets of metal to make a box. (Watch your fingers.) Fix it to your handlebar with two long screws. Put your battery-powered radio inside.
  2. Cut a circle in the box where the radio’s speaker sits, so that the sound can be broadcast at full volume and unimpeded. Morning customers like to hear the news, while afternoon customers prefer music such as Les Kilimambogo Brothers Band, so don’t forget to cut another small section from the box to allow you to reach the frequency dial. Your radio will transform the rush-hour ride into a far-more pleasant trip.
  3. Stretch a wire from your radio to an antenna fixed on the front wheel. This will link you to the two major Kenyan radio stations: Kiss FM 100 and Easy FM.
81_bicycle_taxis_illus3The Seat
  1. Go to the local dump. Jump the fence, evade the dog, and try to find several thin steel rods.
  2. Cut and arrange these to create a structure that looks like a small grill. Weld it to the rear axle of your bike. This is going to be the passenger seat and footrest.
  3. A block of wood attached to the grill will be the base for the “cheeky spot” – where the shavu (Swahili for “cheeks”) will comfortably rest.
81_bicycle_taxis_illus4The Horn
  1. Purchase an air pump and an incredibly noisy horn in the local market. This is not Zurich or Montevideo: here you can honk your horn at will. Don’t be shy. Noisy bikes get the rides.
  2. Attach the pump to the main frame of the bicycle with bits of tire found along the Mombasa-Nairobi highway. Squeeze it in so that it doesn’t interfere with your pedaling.
  3. Fit a length of hosepipe over the mouth of the pump, tape it onto the frame of the bicycle and attach the other end of the hose to the horn. Secure the horn to the front axle with pieces of tire.
  4. Learn the boda-boda horn code:

     – Single honk: a friendly greeting to other boda-boda drivers.
     – Two honks: you are unoccupied  and ready for a passenger.
     – Three honks: the girl walking on the sidewalk drives you crazy.
     – Extended honk: a shameless f*** you to matatu drivers.


From the pages of COLORS #82 - Shit.