I am seated at the Kiira Road stage, as I wait for my host, Naume Awero, boda boda operator. I cannot seem to imagine her physique or dress code, because I have never seen a female boda boda rider. As I click away on my phone, a motorbike parks right in front of me. A young woman who looks to be in her mid-20s disembarks. She is wearing a two-piece grey trouser suit, with a grey shirt underneath. This is teamed up with a stylish blue pair of shoes that matches the scarf around her neck. This is no ordinary boda cyclist because she is so composed.
After we exchange pleasantries we head to her house, down in Mulimira Zone, Bukoto. I must confess it was my first time to ride on a boda boda operated by a female cyclist. Her ease and charisma cannot go unnoticed as she carefully manoeuvres the bends. Along the way, she tells me about her encounter with her first customer. “It was a woman. And sadly I lost control of the bike and we fell down,” she narrates. She also has a great command of the English language.
Determined to survive
As we approach her one-roomed rented house, her little boys rush to meet her. She seems to be very popular among the locals and neighbours, as they all greet her warmly.
Inside the house, the floor is covered with a tattered plastic carpet, and there are a few cooking items in one corner of the room. The one item you cannot help but notice is the 21 inch television set that sits on a table in the room.
She tells me that after losing her father at the age of 12, Awero was left in the hands of her mother, who abandoned her a year later in their rented room, in Jinja. “My mother and I don’t share a very close relationship. She has never really cared about me. After she left, I had no one to turn to. So one of our neighbours, who happened to be a man, offered to take me in, and look after me,” she says.
What looked like great gesture instead turned into her worst nightmare. The man used to rape her and a few months later, she discovered she was pregnant. “I didn’t even know I was pregnant. It was the woman who lived next door that told me I was pregnant.” Shortly after giving birth to her son, the man threw her out, marking the start of her daily struggles. However, luck was on her side and she got a job as a housemaid for a family that took her in with her son but later moved to Kampala where she got a job as a security guard.
One may wonder what could have driven her, to this male dominated field of work. She joined the boda boda business, early in January. “I worked with a number security organisation as an askari, and the last place I worked at was at the International El-science University. The boda boda business was just an idea that came to me one day,” she says.
She adds that to cut costs she rode a bicycle to work. “One day I was late for work, so I decided to get a boda. When I got to the stage, one of the riders, who happened to be a friend, suggested that he lends me the motor bike and I ride to work. Initially it seemed like a joke, but he encouraged me,” she says.
She admits that this was the point that the idea to begin her own business sprung up. The only problem was she has no savings; nor could her current job get her the Shs5m that she needed to buy her own motor bike.
“I talked to my employer at the time, and although she thought it was a crazy, she seconded my suggestion,” says the rather reserved young woman.
She goes on to say that she received Shs3m from the university, and she used this top up on her Shs2.3m loan that she had acquired from Crane Bank.
A few weeks later, she took her first real lesson, with the help of her boda boda friend, and a week later, she was on the road. “It took me one week to learn. On my second day, when I was taking my lessons, I almost got knocked by a trailer, and luckly I managed to shove myself off the road,” she adds. A few weeks later, she had mastered the art, got her registration, and was ready to go on the road.
After acquiring the new motorcycle, she then proceeded to look for a permanent stage to operate from.
“Many of the places I went to, they needed a lot of money. For instance, at the IHK, stage, they asked for Shs1m, then I tried Garden City, they asked me for the same amount, and after much searching, I finally settled at Kiira stage, where I paid Shs500,000.
The rampant crime rate has not spared boda boda riders, with many of them being robbed, and in worse cases murdered. That is why I can’t help but wonder if Awero put this into consideration before venturing into this line of work. “I have had some challenges, especially with people that take advantage of the fact that I am a woman and refuse to pay me,” she says sadly. She recalls a customer who made her ride him up to Bweyogerere only to disappear without paying her. However, she on the other hand, has had some good moments, especially when people tip her.
“Sometimes, the customers get impressed by my courage, and the zeal to penetrate this male dominated line of work. One lady I drove to Namuwongo apartments gave me Shs10,000, instead of the agreed Shs7,000. There is also this kind white man who bought me my reflector overall, helmet, and boots,” she says with a grin on her face.
Her new self-employed status has also enabled her to take care of herself and her four sons.
Awero lives with her two sons, Gaddafi, and Saddam, plus two of her siblings’ children. She describes her brood as the reason for getting up every morning, to go out and work even hard.
It’s very clear to see that she is all they have. For this very motivated and optimistic young woman, even the sky may not be the limit for her. When I inquire about her future plans, she reveals that she plans to acquire her own taxi, which she will drive while one of her sons will be the conductor.
At the stage where she operates from, most of her fellow cyclists are full of praises for her.