The life and near-death of a moto driver

Kimironko. Remera. Kacyiru. These are among the handful of words I’ve learned in Kinyarwanda.

I live in Kimironko, work in Kacyiru, and, well, there are bars in Remera.

Every morning–after butchering the name of my destination–I clamber my way through a negotiation with a moto taxi driver. Once the price is settled, it’s time to hop aboard a motorbike and experience one of Kigali’s greatest thrills–a ride that includes weaving between traffic, skidding around uneven bends and lurching over potholes on muddy roads.

This is a typical moto ride in Kigali. And it’s so much fun.

Motos in Gisozi.
Motos in Gisozi.

Moto taxis are everywhere because they are convenient, cheap and drivers will take you anywhere. But there’s a downside that locals constantly warn you about. Motos are dangerous.

To anyone who is even slightly observant, this isn’t surprising. The speedometers are broken (which on the plus side means you can’t worry about going too fast) and when the driver hands you a helmet, it’s almost always severely cracked. But hey, at least there are helmets.

It’s especially nerve-wracking when drivers text and drive, but I haven’t learned the word “stop” yet in Kinyarwanda.

Rwandans have advised me to take motos only when I’m in a rush and even then, they say, ask the driver to go slowly. Taking a bus is the cheaper, but less convenient, alternative.

It seems like everyone knows someone who’s been in a moto accident. The most common scenario is when a moto gets hit by a car or bus at a busy intersection. And I’ve met enough moto drivers with intense scars to know that these stories aren’t urban myths.

This exhilarating mode of transportation made me wonder: What is life like as a moto driver?

I asked this question to a driver earlier today, after a particularly harrowing experience. Throughout the ride, I was pelted with rain and the bike wobbled a little too much going around Kigali’s over-sized roundabouts.

Francois seemed confident though so I settled into the view and ignored the sleek wet road. He told me after leaving his village in the East in 2007, he started driving taxis. About a year ago, Francois graduated onto motos.

Once we reached my final destination, Kibagabaga road, I asked Francois, “Is your job dangerous?”

He laughed. “Yes it can be dangerous,” he said.

The road home, Kibagabaga.
The road home, Kibagabaga.

He added that he’s never been in an accident, because in his words, “Accidents are the fault of the drivers.”

Have your friends been in accidents?, I asked.

Francois looked away and took on a much more serious tone.

“Yes, many. When accidents happen, they’re very bad,” he said. “Many die.”

But with more awareness about moto accidents, conditions for drivers are better now than ever, he said.

Respect for traffic laws and helmets are among the reasons why moto taxis feel relatively safe. But even at press conferences about health care, the issue of moto accidents has come up. It underpins various social issues here. While police officers admit accidents are frequent, there aren’t any statistics readily available.

For Francois, the plan is to retire from driving motos when money allows.

Overall, hopping on a moto every morning feels as natural as grabbing that second cup of coffee, with an added adrenaline rush.

For now at least, motos do seem like the best way to start the day.


11 thoughts on “The life and near-death of a moto driver

  1. Great story Clare! My concerns for your safety aside, it definitely sounds like a more entertaining commute than the London tube. I wonder how long most of the moto taxi drivers want to work in the business for, and what they aspire to?

    1. Good question, maybe until they are in a severe enough accident? I think the money from driving motos is a good wage (you probably average around $1 a ride and if you are riding all day, it adds up.)

  2. Moto Taxis look fun! I guess this means I’m obligated to make the trek there at some point in the future. Clare, you’re awesome!

  3. Great stroy and photos. I wonder what the average life expectancy of a moto taxi driver is? Would it be more than a year from the time they start the job? We had the same thing in Jakarta. They are called ojek there and they are equally dangerous but the most efficient way to get around the city. I have seen them in Yemen and Central African Republic also. I imagine they are used extensively in Sub Saharan Africa.

  4. Loved the post Clare! Broken speedometers were the norm in Ghana too but sadly motos weren’t, just regular ol’ taxis. Do most people wear helmets? Stay safe and enjoy the ride!

    1. Thanks! Yeah, everyone wears helmets, but they’re normally too big and cumbersome. Don’t know how helpful they’d be in an accident.

  5. Very interesting. Pity moto taxi drivers are not in Ireland. Your granny would almost certainly try it at just $1 – Fergus

  6. Great story Clare and well told – I just hope that motos are the way to start the day rather than end your day. Jerry

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