FREETOWN – Like invading locusts, they are all over Sierra Leone. From Sulima in the extreme south to Mongo in the extreme north, unemployed young men, known as Okada riders, are making a living conveying passengers on cheap Indian made motorcycles.
According to Alusine Dumbuya of the Sierra Leone Commercial Motor Bike Riders Union, 189,000 people are employed in the Okada industry. Former combatants of the Sierra Leone civil war constitute the majority of riders but the industry has also attracted college graduates and unemployed citizens looking to make ends meet. Dumbuya speculates that Okada riding has reduced crime.
Okada is a borrowed Nigerian word. The introduction of movies from and intervention of Nigerian soldiers during the civil war could be the reason why Sierra Leoneans call conveyance by motorcycle Okada.
Okada riding first started in Koinadugu District in the 1970s where the riders were simply known as “Honda boys.” Isolated and served by a poor road network, enterprising young men soon began making money using Japanese made Honda and Yamaha motorcycles to convey passengers all over the district.
The end of the Sierra Leone civil war and lack of opportunities made Okada riding an attractive option for many of the unemployed. Yusuf Kamara, 20, said he makes about Le20, 000 (about $4) for himself after a twelve hour shift. He complained about the cold, congested streets and lack of insurance for riders. Like taxi drivers, Okada riders have to contend with hold-ups. But when Okada riders are held-up, they lose not just their money and valuables but their motorcycles and sometimes their lives.
Ibrahim Barrie, an Okada rider at the Foamex Park in the east end of Freetown called himself “a public servant.” He said he proudly offers his customers good service.
Okada riders are grabbing some unpleasant attributes usually associated with taxi drivers. A caller to a radio station recently complained about repulsive odors coming from Okada riders who refuse to shower. Okada riders are also accused of ignoring traffic signs and police signals which have resulted in accidents where people have lost their lives or limbs.
Now an established part of the cultural landscape, Okada riders are sometimes hired en masse to welcome visiting dignitaries. They ride in front of the convoy with horns blaring. With the 2012 elections looming, many Okada riders said they were looking forward to participating in and benefitting financially from the political campaign.
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