Whether it is to escape traffic, or just using them as a means of transport, boda-bodas have become synonymous with the lives of most Kenyans.
Since their introduction in the market in the early 90s, boda-bodas have slowly taken over the roads and sidewalks with their noisy presence.
Not to mention being a headache to other road users.
And, although the two-wheelers may appear inferior to cars, they are a force to reckon with in the social fabric.
This is mainly evident during political campaign seasons. They have become a key ingredient in political rallies, as politicians seek to woo voters.
“I started working as a boda-boda operator in 1991. At that time I had a bicycle and had not yet acquired a motorcycle. At that time, boda-bodas were still a new thing and not everyone had them. It was very expensive to be ferried on a motorcycle because only a few people had them,” Robert Omumbwa, the Senior Chairman of the Boda-boda Association in Kakamega, recalls.
This went on for a while before an influx of motorcycles during the President Mwai Kibaki-era, which offered tax breaks and made it possible for young Kenyans to buy motorbikes on credit.
“In 2004 a project was launched aimed at empowering the youth through employment. That is providing them with motorcycles. I was among the people who benefited in getting a motorcycle,” says Mr Omumbwa.
“I, together with a few others, started training others; loans became accessible and that is how the number of boda-boda operators increased,” he went on.
The steady increase of boda-bodas on the roads became both a blessing and a curse to many.
Chance to employ themselves
A blessing to the thousands of jobless young people who now had a chance to employ themselves by becoming boda-boda operators. It was also a curse to other road users who have to contend with the new menace.
But it seems their popularity in numbers has made them pawns in plans by the political class to woo voters.
They are befriended during the electioneering period, then discarded shortly after.
Currently, President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto appear to be engaged in a battle to woo boda-boda riders to their various camps as Building Bridges Initiative campaigns start heating up ahead of the 2022 elections.
Just last Friday, President Kenyatta met with the boda-boda leadership at Pumwani social hall in Nairobi where he launched the Boda-Boda Investment Scheme.
The scheme is aimed at helping thousands of boda-boda riders get crucial advice on projects they can invest in.
He urged the youth not to be used by politicians for selfish gains.
A day earlier, the President together, flanked by ODM leader Raila Odinga, had met with more than 3,000 boda-boda riders in Kisii and gave them Sh3 million. They also made a case for the Building Bridges Initiative.
The sudden interest in boda-boda riders by the Head of State comes in the wake of Dr William Ruto’s political strategy of increasing his popularity with the common mwananchi at the grassroots level which he christened the “hustler nation”. His scheme entails capturing the imagination of boda-boda operators and other informal groupings.
The DP has been donating motorcycles, handcarts, wheelbarrows and salon equipment to the youth in an “empowerment” plan aimed at helping them eke out a living in these hard economic times.
According to Mr Omumbwa, usually, aspirants first share their vision with them and then sweeten the pot with empty promises that never come to fruition.
Some of these promises may include creating formal job opportunities for the community and family members, constructing proper stages for boda-boda operators and allowing them into central business districts, among other promises.
However, once the votes are tallied and the winners and losers announced, all is forgotten.
The temporary amnesia lasts for five years, till the next election, where the same old script will be dangled to them.
Political commentator Herman Manyora says that, in any election, optics are important.
“They are many. They are almost a million plus and spread across the country and are actively interacting with members of society. This makes them a target group by politicians,” says Mr Manyora.
“Politicians never create a partnership, what they do is use people and dump them. This is as natural as night coming after day. When you are a politician, you need some noise and these are the people who will make this noise. They have become the connection between the high and mighty and the common mwananchi,” he went on.
But what keeps them dancing to the same song over and over again?
“Hard economic times is what makes most of us be used time and again. You can just imagine someone staying at a particular stage and maybe you only get two passengers in a day. Now a politician comes with bundles of money and says you have to do their bidding first, before getting the money. Then it becomes hard to refuse,” says Mr Omumbwa.
In rural areas, most places are inaccessible by vehicles and only motorcycles can be used as a mode of transport.
“What happens is that a politician will then decide to hire boda-bodas to take them around villages where the voters are,” said Mr Omumbwa.
Titus Isiongo has been a boda-boda operator for more than 20 years. He says he is anxiously waiting for the campaign season to start since that is when he and most of his colleagues make good money.
On a normal day, he says, he struggles to make Sh300 due to the influx in the number of boda-boda operators.
A whole month
But Mr Isiongo remembers when, in the 2017 General Election, an MCA aspirant hired his motorbike for a whole month.
The MCA paid Mr Isiongo Sh1,500 daily for his services. His job was to take him to churches and different locations around the area of his interest.
“That, for me, is good money which I cannot let pass by. Because on normal days just to reach a target of Sh800 is a hustle,” said Mr Isiongo.
Sometimes, he says, an agent for a particular aspirant comes to a boda-boda stage and names are written down.
“Our job is to travel to a particular area and create awareness about their candidate,” he says.
But it’s not all rosy. “I remember one time a group of other boda-boda operators and myself set out to a neighbouring town because the candidate we were campaigning for wanted us to go there. However, things turned chaotic when we met supporters of the opposing candidate. In such chaos, it is easy to lose your life or motorcycle. It is risky sometimes but what choice do you have when you have to bring bread back home?” says Mr Isiongo.
This is a lesson, he says. However, sometimes the temptation to make quick money overrides common sense.
It is all part of the trade, Mr Isiongo says, and people should not think of them as evil.