“The most we can do is to write — intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.” Oliver Sacks. “To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart,” Henri Cartier-Bresson
A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece called Black Humour about how, in the event of my untimely death, I’d like my body to be transported to the graveyard on the back of a boda-boda.
Yesterday evening, I was walking home from work at dusk when I saw a boda-boda motorbike with a lurid black, red and white sofa lashed onto the pillion seat with rubber straps. I took a photograph, of course. I was shocked as the rider drove his bike into the courtyard of the hospital morgue.
I asked Maggie, who has moved her wreath-selling business to the mortuary gates, what was going on. She said that he was going to collect a corpse. “And fasten it onto the sofa?” I asked. “Surely he can’t do that?” “Who will stop him?” replied Maggie.
I waited a while, but no shroud-wrapped body was carried out of the mortuary. Maggie tried to sell me a pack of biscuits, but when I refused, she insisted that I say it in Kikuyu, “Ka!”
It gets dark swiftly in the tropics. Our security rules insist I can’t walk outdoors at night time, so I hurried home without seeing what happened at the mortuary. I’ll have to ask Maggie the next time I see her.
Walking home from work, my housemate and I passed a new coffin on the grass verge. It wasn’t a typical casket; it was painted yellow with red swirls.
In jest, I told my colleague that if I died here in Embu, I wanted to have a coffin like this and to be transported to the burial ground on the back of a boda-boda motorbike. It could be mounted crosswise on the pillion seat and secured with elastic ropes.
My friend said we should make a YouTube video with the casket falling from the back of the boda-boda and my body being tipped onto the road, rolling over and over like a Brazilian soccer player who had been fouled. I don’t think it would have gone down very well, but he said it would go viral.
We have seen many things transported on the back of boda-bodas. Just that day we had seen a boda-boda with a bundle of black, plastic tubes 10 metres long, trailing behind it. My colleague told me that he had seen this before, but a vehicle following behind had run over the trailing edge of the tubes.
On my way to Kanja Health Centre last week, I saw two men on a motorbike carrying a sheet of plywood. It was flapping either side of them like the wings of a primitive aeroplane.
Kenyans call motorcycle taxis “boda-boda”. They are ubiquitous; they reach the parts of the country other vehicles cannot reach. Out in the bundu, visiting a remote health centre, I saw a petrol station with a lone pump, miles from the nearest decent road – of course, it caters to the “boda-boda”.
By the market and shops, there are always knots of riders looking for fares. The driver will help you to carry your purchases back home, even if it is a bed frame and mattress.
All the riders are males. They see me as a possible fare, so I get approached frequently. If they see I have my camera, they usually want me to take their photograph. Some are real posers.
To protect them from the wind, some riders fit a fairing made from rubber flooring material. It is custom-made, cut to fit the bike. The one above cost £2.
They carry furled umbrellas across the handlebars during the rainy season. When the rain starts, they hoist the umbrella which is specially elongated to cover the pillion passenger.
I learned that the word “boda-boda” comes from a time when motorcycles were used to cross national borders using rough dirt roads, bypassing the official border crossings.
A saloon car driving up Embu’s Main Street (Nairobi – Meru Highway) decided to turn right into a side street. Coming down the hill, a motorcycle taxi (“boda-boda“) driver spotted me walking on the opposite side of the road and was distracted. Even though I’m not the only muzungu in the village (there is a blond, young, Danish man working with us), I still can attract rapt attention. The car driver cut the corner, probably expecting the motorcyclist to slow down or take evasive action, as they usually do.
It’s live and let live here, rather than obsessively obeying the Highway Code.
It was too late for the motorcyclist to react, so he laid the bike down and slid into the front of the car. The pillion passenger and the driver of the boda-boda were not injured. The bike sustained some damage from scraping down the tarmac. There was also some minor damage to the radiator grille, front bumper and number plate of the car.
I didn’t need to intervene medically, though I do have access to a magnificent emergency backpack at the office. It is huge, bright red with yellow reflectors and two extra panniers on each side. It weighs about 25kg so I don’t relish having to yomp a long distance to attend an incident. There is so much equipment inside that I could probably perform major surgery.
As well as doing the “day job” supporting Kenyan health workers in providing high-quality care to people in rural areas suffering from chronic diseases (such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, epilepsy, and hypertension), we have to be on the alert for other medical calamities which could occur in our locality. My predecessor picked two of the most likely outbreaks (cholera and methanol poisoning) to prepare for and stocked up on specific equipment and appropriate medication. But even if we are called upon to help in these situations, I don’t think I will be lugging the massive red rucksack.
Post Script: Methanol poisoning is caused by drinking illicitly distilled liquor. Ethanol – ethyl alcohol – in beer, wines, and spirits, is metabolised in the liver to acetaldehyde (which wakes up you a few hours after overindulging, making you feel unwell) and finally acetate. But methanol – methyl alcohol – is metabolised to formaldehyde and formic acid, which can be fatal. It might seem odd to non-medics, but the treatment for methanol poisoning is to give the patient ethanol.
So perhaps I ought to have a wee dram in a hip flask attached to the emergency backpack?