Since 2005, I have been on okada rides in several countries that I have visited, so I always asked myself, ‘why not in my own motherland? My first okada ride in Sierra Leone was in March 2013, this was during my research into the mining sector in Sierra Leone for my MA thesis. I had an interview with a geology specialist at Tengbeh Town and I did not want to be late. My okada journey was from Murray Town Junction to Tengbeh Town and cost me Le10, 000 (roughly £1.50/$2.50). I did not bargain a price, I just jumped on it and said, ‘let’s go!’. It was quick and safe, so there was no reason for me to think this would be my first and last okada ride in Sierra Leone.
Since my recent trip to Sierra Leone in December 2013, 5 weeks and counting, I have used okadas more than taxis or the family car. My reasons for travelling by okada are simple; I do not know all the designated taxi stopping points so to save myself from looking stupid to the cab drivers I take an okada, which takes me direct to my destination, without intermediate stops. Where I am currently based at Murray Town, hailing a taxi near the main roundabout is sometimes very difficult, and waiting times can reach 30 minutes at times, and during that period over 20 available okadas would have driven past. At present it is very hot in Sierra Leone even though it is supposed to be the cool Harmattan season. When you are stuck in a traffic either in a cab or someone’s car without a air conditioning it is a discomforting experience.
So far there have been no limits to where I have journeyed to on an okada. I have taken okadas to church (my Aunt was not happy when she saw me getting off it), visit friends/families, meetings, interviews, bars/clubs, restaurants, etc.
The earliest time I have been on an okada was 7.30am for an 8am meeting, I was there on time. The latest time I have travelled by okada was around 4am after a good night out at the popular O Bar. For me, the best time to enjoy an okada ride is after 2am on a week day; I recently had an okada ride from Campbell Street to Lumley just after 2am on a week day, the street was clear and the ride was smooth, with a cooling breeze and scenic view, and even though some of the areas we went through were dark and a bit scary, it was fun. My longest journey on an okada has been from Wilberforce Street in downtown Freetown to Juba Hill on the outskirts of the city (less than 30 minutes ride), which was Le15, 000(roughly £2), which I believe has been my most expensive ride thus far. My cheapest journey was Le1, 000(few pence) from Old Bitter Kola Factory, Murray Town to Murray Town Junction (less than 5 minutes).
There are some risks involved when riding an okada; the majority of the okada drivers do not have a licence or a permit to be driving the bike and most of these okadas would not pass an M.O.T. test. The brakes on most okadas are not good, so the drivers often turn the front tyre to the left and right whiles pressing the brake to either slow down or stop the bike. At night the majority of these drivers are high on drugs which makes them less attentive on the roads. A lot of these drivers are very bold and take chances (50% of the time I say to the drivers ‘Dude I value your life so please value mine’ and they will reply ‘nor worry Sa we go reach dae jis nor). If you have a driver that listens to you, your ride will be quick and smooth. If you do not have a driver that listens to you, you will either have to stop the journey and get on another bike or pray that all goes well. I have had a few minor accidents thus far and there have been a few incidents where I had to take control of the bike myself. I found the most dangerous and nerve-racking areas for okada rides are Juba Hill, Kingtom Bridge and Buttom Mango, this is due to the fact that on certain bends you cannot see oncoming traffic and I have witnessed a number of horrific okada accidents in these areas.
The majority of the okada drivers I use are based either at Murray Town Junction or Kingtom Bridge. Murray Town junction is close to my house and I often walk to Kingtom Bridge after my few run-arounds in town. I now have 5 okada drivers’ numbers on my phone. I find them to be more reliable than taxi drivers; in my experience, when an okada driver says he will be at your house in 10 minutes, he is there on time, but when a cab driver tells you he will be there in 30 minutes, he means 1 hour 30 minutes. I also try to build a relationship or understanding with them. Some of them have actually been to university but were unable to find a job in their field of study so ended up driving an okada. Others have families they are responsible for, some were ex-combatants, but the majority of them are high school dropouts, whose families could not afford to continue to pay for their school fees or were expelled from school due to bad behaviour. They are like a band of brothers. They look out for each other whether it be by informing each other where police stops are located, or to tell the other driver where there is heavy traffic. They also take it in turns to ride the bikes because not every driver is allocated a bike for himself, by sharing the bikes the other get to make money too. I have also heard them discuss among themselves who should visit one of their colleagues in hospital who recently had an accident.
The more time I spend with these guys I realise that they are fully aware that the community does not value them and people look at them as one of the least in the Sierra Leonean class structure, a scourge on the streets of Freetown. However, they are also aware of their importance in modern Sierra Leonean society and that if they were to strike a lot of people would be adversely affected.
There has been discussions as to whether okadas should be taken off the streets of Freetown. There are arguments for and against. My two cents in the matter is that okada is a form of livelihood for lots of unemployed young men. If they were to stop driving, what forms of mechanism is there to help them sustain themselves? We can either embrace the okada system, discover ways it can be regulated and operated in a disciplined manner; or for the meantime start creating positive initiatives in which these okada drivers can slowly transfer to an official okada occupation. I will leave you with the words of Papa, one of my okada drivers ‘Die nah die bra, die nor pas die, we all dae go nah same dorty so nor frade yah’
by Leslie Gordon-Browne