In the hot Freetown mornings in which Alimamy took me to town on the back of his bike, the last thing I wanted was a conversation, concerned as I was that it would take his attention away from the road. Freetown traffic, to be sure, is no joke. However, a few weeks before leaving Alimamy told me a story that has come to be very important in my understanding of how young people navigate their daily existence in a complex city.
As we sped down the winding roads that take you down the hill from Wilberforce to the city centre, Alimamy told me about a dream he had. He dreamt a flying device. I wasn’t quite sure what this meant; he said it was a bit like a helicopter. Alimamy had never been trained as a welder, certainly not as an engineer. But his dream also gave him a number, which he knew he must repeat over and over again while building this flying device. The dream shook him, it left him certain that he must build this contraption, not only that, but also sure that he would be able to do so armed only with a numerical combination. A few days later, intrigued but also a bit out of politeness, I headed to Alimamy’s workshop to see this creation, which I was assured was almost ready. The workshop was outdoors, essentially a collection of metal scraps, wooden planks and wires covered with some tarpaulin to shield the workers from the unforgiving tropical sun. I don’t know what I was expecting, but Alimamy’s invention both amazed me and moved me. He would not have put it in these terms, but what he had built was essentially a flying motorbike. Made out of a collection of recycled materials, Alimamy’s was the skeleton of a motorbike turned into an airplane with propellers and a sail. As a mode of transport, it didn’t look particularly safe; it was unfinished so it is questionable whether it would work. However, in my eyes, Alimamy’s flying motorbike meant a lot more.
Being a commercial motorbike rider in Freetown is more than an occupation; it is, though often unwillingly, a social identity. Thousands of young men in Sierra Leone’s capital make a living transporting passengers across the busy city, often riding bikes that belong to wealthier others, but are rented for approximately 50% of daily earnings. Okadas, as they are known, have come to represent a social menace, the embodiment of a feared “crisis of youth”, which envisions young underemployed males as “loose molecules” (Kaplan 1994) ready to unleash their frustrations through violence. And indeed, the ten-year civil war that plagued the country in the 1990s is widely understood a manifestation of precisely this. Today, this public imagery depicts okada riders as ex-combatants who have emerged from the bush and need to be controlled. They are, in other words, a reminder of a violent past and of the possibility of relapse. Some of them have in fact played an active role in the war and bought their bikes after reintegration projects failed to offer sustainable livelihoods, and are now struggling like most Sierra Leonean youth to make ends meet. Others, a majority, have never fought, but it is not relevant, the riders represent the threat of youth. Their reckless driving, their flashy clothes, their road rage have all contributed to their negative reputation and to the devaluation of what is actually a job that is essential to the functioning of a city constantly engulfed in traffic. This means that regardless of how much they make in a day, being an okada rider is not perceived as a job, it is a temporary thing, “I am only doing this for now, because there are no jobs”, is the standard explanation. The rider’s permanent mode therefore is one of impermanence. As they whizz through the city, often dodging police extortion, these young men are constantly plotting their escape, their path to “being a somebody”, as they would put it. Alimamy’s bike to me embodied this search for escape, to be somebody else somewhere else, some time.
Dreams of escape however are too often seen negatively in scholarship on youth. Youth is seen as a dead end, or “social death”, because of the inability to transition to adulthood and therefore to figuratively escape a generational stage characterised by economic dependence and lack of socio-political influence. These approaches, while undoubtedly accurate, sometimes forget to take seriously the power of dreams that are only afforded by the certainty that a different future is possible. Being young, and extending the boundaries of what “youth” means in order to keep oneself inside the category, makes it possible to imagine that change will happen. It allows for fluidity and represents a rejection of definitive categories such as adulthood that close too many doors. So, while being in a state of “youthood”, especially as chronological age increases, is deeply shameful, especially for men, in Sierra Leonean society, it is also a space of possibility and imagination. Dreams of escape, furthermore, are complex and full of tensions. Alimamy incorporated his identity as an okada rider in the construction of his getaway machine. While thinking of ways of no longer being “an okada rider”, it is that very identity that underpins his social networks, as other riders are his friends, the only ones he can go to when he is sick or has an accident in the absence of social security. Others envision “Babylon” (the wealthy West) as the ultimate promise of a different tomorrow, yet they also engage in daily critiques of Western culture and the deportees that frequently populate Freetown’s ghettos are often summoned as examples of the dangers of migration. So dreams can also be a way of reflecting on one’s current reality, a way of making sense of it.
Alimamy’s flying motorbike is a bittersweet image in my mind. It reflects the depth of “stuckness” experienced by many young Sierra Leoneans, but it also portrays their creativity and the power of dreams that is too often obscured in our engagement with “youth” as a social category.
By Luisa Enria