I’m no Attila or Sha Las Pablo, Sullay Costello, Johhny Wisdom, or Alex Jabbie. I cannot afford a Mercedes Benz. In a country where most cannot afford fare for a taxi to very long distances, and where the traffic is crazily unending, Okada or Keke are the best means to navigate your way through the busy streets.
‘Okada’ is a motorbike used as a means of commercial transportation in Sierra Leone and other parts of West Africa. The name is a borrowed word from Nigeria that probably made entry into our everyday parlance through Nigerian movies. In neighbouring Liberia, it is called ‘Pempe,’ derived from the sound of its blaring horn much like the vuvuzela in South Africa. Like Sierra Leone, Ghanaians have also adopted the name Okada for motorbikes from Nigeria. For Guineans, it is called Taxi-Moto.
I’m a very unapologetic Okada rider. I do so every day. If you take your time to look, you may see me in the mornings on my way to work and in the evenings on my way back home. For me, it is not only a routine, but it is also a way of life.
It was a very stressful morning because I had a lot to do and time was not my friend; while struggling with one Okada rider coming down a very rough Momoh Drive on the Juba Hills axis, I frantically flagged down another for the second leg of my journey. As always, I was sceptical about how careful the ride will be on top of an Okada from that point to the always busy and chaotic Lumley.
Samuel who is going to be my Okada rider for the morning asked me to climb aboard. While handing over a helmet to me, he quickly made a caveat, but in a good way. Samuel told me he was not one of the regular riders along that route. “Bra steady sidom saful normor, ah dae kerr you go saful,” he said.
I’m always the one to start some funny conversation with riders. In this case, Samuel beat me into it. “Every day, ah dae pray mek ah nor get accident ehn for mek God answer me prayer, ah need for be very careful,” he started.
Jolted, the journalist in me kicked in. Something tells me that Samuel, my Okada rider is some ways different from my previous riders from the Lumley/Juba axis or say even around Freetown. I was curious to find out what makes him stand out from the rest of the bunch.
I have had my fair share of mishaps with riding Okadas from one point of the city to the other. Once, I fell off a bike while climbing Juba Hills. For merely cautioning one to respect the road traffic signs for our safety, an Okada-rider once gave me a severe tongue lashing. As if that was not enough, I was almost mobbed when I argued with another on his reckless riding. Sometimes, the language barrier dealing with these Okada-riders can be an added challenge.
Amazingly, my new rider, Samuel was neatly dressed, well-shaven and ‘well-perfumed’- he was a fantastic rider. He is a breath of fresh air both literally and otherwise. Maybe, other riders may want to borrow a leaf or two from him especially with the way he dresses, talks or smells. His perfume was inviting. Sorry, this is not meant to throw shade at the other hardworking riders, but I want them also to be a little bit closer to God. Were we not taught in primary schools that cleanliness is next to godliness?
Samuel, a 19-year-old student of the Services Secondary School; started riding Okada less than a year ago, after the death of his grandmother, and not long after he reunited with his parents whom he says he had not met until recently. He was introduced to them by the dying woman on her sick bed for him. Grandma was everything- a father and mother figure who never mentioned about his biological parents until her final moments.
“Even though I’m still surprised that they never visited, I have accepted them in my life and moved to the family home at Kaningo where all of us are staying,” Samuel explained while navigating the busy traffic along the way.
He stops work at 11:00 am every weekday to prepare for his afternoon classes from 12 midday to 5:00 pm. “I have been doing this since I moved to Lumley. I ride in the morning starting as early as 7:00 am before handing over to my cousin who runs in the afternoon to the evening. This is our main source of income,” he told me. A good samaritan neighbour bought the Bike that Samuel and his cousin share. “He gave it to my cousin, and he has been delighted with the way we have conducted ourselves.”
I was speechless. This cannot be true, I said to myself. I asked if he was honest. “Bra why ah for lie,” he responded. As an inquiring mind, I have heard many stories on top of an Okada, but this Okada story is very telling. It is compelling, and it is the first I have heard of a young man in Freetown who rides one every day yet, still finds time to go to school. Outside of Freetown though, most young guys do ride and go to school.
Many a time, I have heard stories of how some young people dropped out of school and joined the business of plying Okadas along our roads. Others, fresh from the University or some technical institutions have taken to riding Okada because they could not secure a job and are tired of being unemployed. Samuel, on the other hand, is doing the opposite by taking time off every day to go to school. His disposition and respect for road traffic signs explain it all.
As we got closer to the Lumley roundabout, I asked if he could take me up to Spur Road as I was rushing to a meeting at the World Bank Office not too far from Bottom Mango. He emphatically said no! Instead, he advised that I find a Taxi or Keke. “I don’t go beyond Lumley. That’s a no-go area, and the Police will arrest me if I do it,” he stressed.
Samuel is a respecter of the rule of law. He is meticulous not to get into the hands of the Police. As I disembarked, I handed over his helmet which was greeted with a broad smile and a reminder that he promised me a smooth ride and he delivered on that.
Indeed, it was a smooth and exciting ride with Samuel. After posing for a selfie, I thanked and told him that I wish he will be my second Okada rider. Up to meeting with Samuel, I have come to rely on a guy called Aruna for my travel. Though very reliable and disciplined, Aruna keeps travelling to his village outside of Freetown for business.
I first met Aruna when I moved to Momoh Drive at Juba. He was my neighbour, and we had a deal for him to be picking me up every morning for work or other related issues. He was prompt and time-conscious -a married man with one child. Aruna secured the money to purchase his Okada from his previous jobs. His dream has always been to buy stuff from his village to sell in the city. Lately, he has been doing much travelling to his village on his business venture, and I have been left on my own to look for another Aruna.
Some percentage of the country’s youthful and unemployed population are mostly into commercial bike riding in major towns across the country. Okada is now part of the country’s transport sector and a significant form of commuting especially in the capital Freetown.