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Monday, September 25, 2023

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Kenya’s boda-boda taxis live and die unruly

ManMay Means eternal silence, but you can hear the funeral of a Kenyan boda-boda driver (motorcycle taxi driver) from miles away. Music blared from speakers installed in the hearse (a minibus laden with flowers), and the cries of mourners were matched by the honking of passing trucks and the beeping of dozens of boda bodas that made up the raucous procession compete.

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Such send-offs are common. Last year, 1,634 boda-boda drivers and their passengers died in accidents on Kenya’s roads, according to official figures. Yet their raucous funerals were more than a sign of the danger they faced (and posed). They also signal changes in Kenyan society that, among other things, are recalibrating traditional calculus.

Many older Kenyans, especially those living in rural areas, still honor the dead in ancient tribal ways, often to please the spirits of ancestors. Ethnic loyalty has long shaped how Kenyans vote. Governments are often tribal confederations in nature, with leaders promising to funnel state resources to their own ethnic heartlands. Now, however, as more and more Kenyans flock to the cities, many young Kenyans are shedding old traditions and ethnic identities and developing allegiances to new politics.

Boda-boda drivers are an example of this trend. Freed from their village and relatives, often seen as an unruly threat by Kenya’s middle class, they have formed their own new brotherhood. “We don’t have any other community,” explained one man who attended the funeral procession of another driver he didn’t even know. “This is our community.”

The brotherhood developed rapidly. Kenya, with a population of about 55 million, may have between 900,000 and 2.4 million motorcycle taxis, according to government and industry estimates.Car & General, a Kenyan insurer, estimates they earn 365 billion shillings ($3 billion) worth of fares a year, equating to a shadow of more than 3% gross domestic product. As such, they are an economic force to be reckoned with.

They are also gaining political influence. William Ruto, elected president this year, campaigned hard to win their votes. He sees them as the epitome of the “state of liars” he claims to represent. That might explain why boda-boda drivers were more likely to vote for him than his opponent, who promised lower fuel prices and more perks.

However, boda-boda drivers can also cause problems. They are often involved in turf wars and organized crime. Their fierce devotion to each other can lead to violence. Last year, hundreds of drivers stormed a hospital, killing two people suspected of stealing motorcycles. Plus, many are unlicensed and gleefully ignore road signs, according to a study by Kenya’s National Center for Crime Research. Many people ride while drunk or on drugs, leading to a horrific death toll on the roads each year — and increasingly rowdy funerals.

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