When Faith Khakai started up work as a motorcycle taxi driver in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, it scandalized her neighbors.
“They say, ‘Women are weak,’” she recalled. “They say, ‘There are things that men can do but women can’t.’”
People warned her she would become infertile. Men whispered sinister warnings to her husband.
“The neighbors say I could be cursed and have an accident,” she said. “There were some who even told my husband that now that he has allowed me to ride a bike, I will befriend other men and I will not be a good wife.”
The motorcycle taxis that zip passengers through the city’s choking traffic are widely loathed for their daredevil antics. They weave through small gaps, cut off drivers and buzz through traffic jams. Known as boda bodas, they have some of the highest motor fatality rates.
It is considered a man’s job, attractive to unemployed young men who have few other means to make a living. Established drivers told Khakai that she would have to be crazy, foolish or desperate to take it on.
She may not have been crazy or foolish, but, with four children to support, she was desperate. The money her husband earned as a motorcycle courier was not enough to support the family.
She had her first child at age 12 and had to drop out of school. She later married the father.
Living in Kibera, a slum outside Nairobi, she settled on the job for the same reason most men do: It is something an unskilled person can easily learn in a sector that is not regulated.
It’s against our culture for a lady to ride a motorcycle. In our culture, it’s like a bad omen.
“I just thought because I didn’t have a good education, the only job that I could do was to ride a motorcycle,” said Khakai, 27.
She knows the neighborhood gossips would like to see her fail. “If what I’m doing is helping myself, it’s no help to people who like to talk about me,” she said.
Khakai, a quiet, serious woman who wears her hair in dreadlocks tied under a bandanna, is proud that she can put food on the table and pay the cost of her children’s schooling so that they can get a better education than she did. But when she thinks of her parents in a rural village in the west of Kenya, those good feelings shrivel.
If they knew she worked as a boda boda driver, they would be ashamed. She can’t bring herself to tell them.
“They would never accept it…. It’s against our culture for a lady to ride a motorcycle,” she said. Her family are members of Kenya’s second-largest tribe, the Luhya.
“The Luhya culture is very strict. We are not even allowed to wear trousers as women,” she said.
Nor did her husband approve of her decision. “He told me it wasn’t safe for women because there are no other female boda boda drivers in the whole city,” she said.
It took her eight months, but she finally persuaded him, and he agreed to pay for her motorcycle lessons. She fell off more than once.
“I didn’t even feel frightened because I was determined to do it. I loved riding,” she said. “I want to do something that is not done by many women.”
Her first two months, she steered clear of Nairobi and its perilous traffic and worked the crowded dirt alleys of Kibera.
“There are so many people in those small alleys. Learning how to maneuver along alleys taught me how to maneuver through the traffic in Nairobi,” she said.
She makes nearly $8 a day, exceeding the minimum wage of $132 a month.
Each morning, Khakai stands in the throng of boda boda drivers on a street corner in Kibera waiting for her first ride. Sometimes her competitors tell her about their injuries and accidents, to put her off. But being the only woman is a bonus: Passengers trust her, because they know they will be able to find her again.
Harassment goes with the turf. Some customers refuse to pay and accuse her of being a prostitute. Frequently, passengers pinch her breasts or squeeze her bottom.
“Usually they do that when you are on the highway. When I complain, they say, ‘No, it is your work.’ I just persevere. You just take him to his destination. Then you know it’s over.”
Many Kenyans see boda boda drivers as reckless and dangerous.
“Boda bodas are flies flitting over the carcass of our rotting city,” Daily Nation columnist Mutuma Mathiu wrote in May. “They are also ridden by people who have no idea how to use a public thoroughfare and are clearly not socialized for peaceful co-existence.”
In 2016, the National Traffic Safety Authority passed regulations that boda boda drivers must carry two reflector jackets and two yellow helmets. The regulations were ignored. A year ago, then-Nairobi Gov. Evans Kidero banned boda boda operators from downtown Nairobi, a law they also disregarded.
Khakai knows the risks are high. Amend, a non-governmental organization focused on improving road safety in Africa, surveyed motorcycle drivers in Thika, near Nairobi, in 2014 and found that 38% of drivers had experienced a crash in the previous three months. Of those, 62% were injured. Only 4% were wearing helmets and only 8% reported the accident to police.
Khakai believes the real reason for the high casualty rate is that drivers neither like nor respect boda boda drivers. But she has a theory: If drivers see she is a woman, surely they will treat her more carefully. On this fragile logic, she carries a helmet but never wears it.
“I know it’s risky. But at least when I go without a helmet, people don’t see me as a boda boda rider. I want them to see me as a woman so at least they can give me some respect.”