For about, I suppose, ten years now, Chinese motorcycles have been over-running East Africa. Tanzania is awash with rip-off fake bikes, with names like “Sanyam” or “Toyo” (actually this has become slang for motorbike) and boda boda is the name for the driver and bike, who pick you up. If ever you wanted evidence of how China has changed Tanzanian lives, this is it. Providing the means for literally thousands of young men (there are no female boda bodas to my knowledge) across every town, village, dusty plot in Tanzania.
So this is Frank. Or coyboy. Or Emmanuel. I started knowing him as Frank (in 2010) and then realised his friends called him Emmanuel. And then in December 2015 I was told his nickname is Cowboy. He sold me my second bike. It’s still going strong, four years later. Which is a miracle. Given the shoddiness of Chinese imported parts.
Everyone is self taught. Or they teach each other- some of the mechanics are really very good. Some are just chancers. It’s very male. The workshops are always in these weird back-alley stuffed up places reeking of infamy and the lash…(there’s no evidence of this. Just my imganination), everyone’s short of money, more than anything. The workshop is throbbing. The thing is: these ruddy bikes break all the time. So they require non-stop maintenance. (My own battery has just conked out. The second in three months, how is it even possible to make a fifth-rate battery?). Tanzania gets all the sub-quality Chinese imports. They’re plentiful. They’re cheap. They break. Fordism at work.
The boda bodas work long days, from 7.30am until 9pm and then Sunday is a busy day because everyone needs to get to church. The prices are low, about a pound to go 3-4 kms. These guys are a definate sub-culture, batchelor boys renting one room in someone else’s compound, always looking for money, and mostly, a girlfriend. Trouble is boda boda has no prestige in Arusha. Girls in Arusha are remarkably ruthless and money-focussed. Mussa said to me “One girl actually insisted I bought her a power pack phone charger before we went on a date. Apparently that was so, ‘she could ring me’ and then she asked for pay as you go credit for her phone. We’d not even been on the first date!” He stops to cackle with laughter.
Way out in Kilosa, down long dusty roads, Masaai are tending their beloved cattle (which are incidentally, the subject of a massive furore… as the government want to tag them, and they regard this as insulting. Afterall, they have their own tags. Cattle are more like children than animals to the Masaii, plus they are worth a huge amount of money). But even out here, where there’s no public transport at all, there’s still boda boda…