27 December 2012

Kenya: Women Boda Boda Drivers Break Gender Barriers in Kenya

Garissa — The sight of Faith Kabura Makena's motorcycle taxi careening down the roads of Kenya's Garissa town offers a rare sight.

Makena, 30, said she is aware her choice of business has caused some controversy and occasionally waves to dumbfounded residents as she passes by.

Motorcycle taxis, known in Kenya as boda bodas, are a popular mode of transport for commuters seeking to avoid heavy traffic in urban centres. While it offers a decent livelihood for its operators, the business has typically been dominated by men.

However, Makena said she decided to challenge the prevailing norm and become a boda boda driver because it is a good source of income to care for her 6-year-old son and her parents, for whom she is financially responsible.

"At first I was embarrassed by the reaction of people but with support from my family and friends I soldiered on," she told Sabahi. "The first few weeks were tough because I could not get customers. One customer even told me that I was joking and he could not trust his road safety in a female's hands."

Makena said her cousin taught her how to drive a motorcycle for fun. "With limited job opportunities, it dawned on me that what I learnt as a hobby could be an income generating opportunity," she said.

Makena, who previously owned a store, has been driving customers since January, earning about 20,000 shillings ($233) a month on average. She currently works with another driver but hopes to raise 80,000 shillings ($931) by February so she can buy her own motorcycle and become an independent driver.

Her ultimate goal, however, is to become a high school teacher. Makena said she has been saving every month to pay for school, which she is scheduled to start next June.

Garissa Boda Boda Association chairman Joseph Musili told Sabahi that many of the other operators had misgivings when Makena ventured into the business.

"[The hesitation] came because she is a woman," he told Sabahi. But the association educated members that if men can carry women on boda bodas, then women can also operate them. "It [eventually] sunk in and everyone appreciates and accepts her as one of us."

Ben Njogu, 31, a Garissa resident, told Sabahi that he initially decided to ride on Makena's boda boda out of curiosity. "Curiosity morphed into habit and now I often seek her to take me to my destination, unless she is not [working]," he said.

Ifrah Ali Masha, a 24-year-old Garissa resident, told Sabahi she was shocked when she saw a woman operating a boda boda.

"For women to take such business initiatives it is an indication that what men can do, women can also do well given a chance," she said. In addition, Makena provides a needed service for women who shunned male drivers out of security concerns or customs, Masha said.

Makena is reportedly the second woman to venture into the boda boda business in Kenya, after Grace Ruwa Asar of Tana River District.

Asar, who started driving the boda boda in 2010, told Sabahi she had to face her fears of public judgment in order to empower herself economically.

"It is a lucrative business where I can earn more than 50,000 shillings ($582) a month after expenses like fuel and repairs," she told Sabahi.

Kenya's patriarchal society has limited women's business opportunities, Asar said. "Women need to take initiatives on their own and believe in themselves," she said.

With her boda boda income, Asar is able to support herself and two of her brothers who are still in school.

The key to breaking into the business, she says, is to have strong morals, especially to ward off male customers who equate a woman entering a male dominated business as a woman with loose morals.

"Some men think that you have no principles when you drive them," she said. "I had to slap one of my male customers who touched me inappropriately." Nonetheless, she said that handling her customers diplomatically has also helped her maintain good customer relationships.

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