The thrill of the motorbike taxis in the hilly heart of Africa

The fastest, most exhilarating way to get round Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, is on motorbike taxis, which go by the rather cute name of  ‘ipikipiki’. I like the way it sounds, like birdsong, it rolls off the tongue, is easy to spell, it’s just hard to stop spelling.

If you want an adrenaline buzz, if you want a caffeine-free pick-me-up, a swerving, air gushing, death-defying way to get from A to B, with at least one close shave, then get on one of these. Hold on to your potatoes!

Summoning a motorbike taxi is relatively simple. They are plentiful near my house at Remera before 8pm, and it’s best to find an elderly rider for they are the safest. Make sure he has a green helmet and tabard for his bike will be more powerful, maybe over 250 cc perhaps up to 750 cc.

The acceptable way to summon a motor bike taxi is to make a sound which to western sensibilities would appear rude but in Rwanda is used to attract attention from a roadside peanut vendor to a waiter in a fancy restaurant. The sound is made by pushing the tip of your tongue to just behind your front teeth, making an air pocket and pushing air till it compresses behind your front teeth and escapes along the length of the front teeth making a sound similar to a deflating car tyre. The sound travels surprisingly well, sometimes over 50 metres for its frequency is loftier and rides above the deeper frequencies of sounds from rubber tyres beating the road, and engine rumbles. It also takes remarkably less energy than a shout or even raising an arm. If you’re reading this on a train, try it. All those glances? Told you so.

Once the motorbike taxi rider stops by, he’ll see that you are a Mzungu (westerner) and he will be contemplating how much to overcharge you. Firstly, establish the language he speaks. Most know a few words of English or French. Exchanging a few minor pleasantries like “comment ca va?” or “amakuru?” (how are you?) is customary in Rwandan dialogue.

Then you can start the haggling. Get your bid in first; if he shows you a fist, do not be alarmed, he’s not up for a fight, this hand-gesture simply means 500 Rwandan Francs; if he shows you two fists, again, this is not something to be perturbed about – it is simply 1000 Rwandan francs which should be enough for a ten minute ride from Remera close to the centre-ville should cost a double-fist; so start at about 700 Rwandan Francs; he will say 1,200 Rwandan Francs, so hopefully the final price will settle at around the two fists mark. If he doesn’t come down, don’t worry; this is a buyer’s market and the motorbike taxis of Kigali are plentiful so walk away and he’s more than likely to come back to you with a lower offer. (Authors note: these are 2008 prices)

Then he will unclasp the passenger helmet from a piece of elastic between the handle bars. This is when having a head-scarf or handkerchief to cover your hair is advisable for, in the cushioned nylon interiors of the helmets, in the dark and dank places where the sun never shines, emanate the heady smells of hair grease and congealed sweat from the multitude of fluids that can only be loosely classified as “head-juice”. There they suffuse in to a pungent aroma that assaults the deeper recesses of the nostrils. They smell of brie. (If you don’t have a headscarf try not to think about this.)

Boarding the bike is a rite of passage that provides an abject lesson in philosophy and working in Africa: this lesson is knowing that some things are in your control and some things will be out of your control. ‘Type As’, control-freaks or micro-managers may have problems with this. Wisdom comes from realising what events sit in which category. Embrace the fact that the entire ride is outside your control; squirming at his speed, shouting at him to go slower, using your will-power to control the bike will all be ineffectual but it is best to save your energy. Put simply, your fate is in his gloved hands not yours. Don’t worry your, by now, brie-smelling head about it.

Never get too hung up about the scare stories you hear about the motorbike taxis, a ride is much more pleasant without such mental baggage; your chances of surviving the ride are close to 100%.

Be careful where you place your feet. There is a hot exhaust pipe below the passenger’s right foot and you should place your feet on a small plate just above it. There are many a red scalds on the shins of Mzungu tourists (who seem to be the only people in Kigali to wear shorts, excluding schoolboys and footballers) to vouch for this. My colleague Sam from England, once complained that motorbike taxis “always smell of burning rubber.” Only weeks later when we saw him walking with a limp, did we realise the rubber heel on his right shoe had melted right off as he had been resting it on the exhaust pipe.

As you speed up, you will have to pull the plastic visor of your helmet down; sometimes these are cracked, or worse non-existent in which case you will have to position your head right behind his helmet to get out of his slipstream. Just hope he doesn’t sneeze, but even that is preferable to a fly hitting your face at 30mph .

If he gets fascinated by you and stares at you, remind him to look at the road in front for Kigali’s road are filled with a litany of hazards, motorbikes racing one another, cars reversing in to roundabouts, buses just pulling out, people jay-walking with chairs, or watering cans carried on their heads. A friend, Louise, was once proposed to by a rider in the middle of a journey and he even suggested a detour to meet the parents.

Your ride may suddenly stop because he has run out of fuel, and fuel is always kept at the empty mark, the amber warning light is always on. At this point the motor bike driver will ask you to get off and stand by the side of the road. He will turn the motorbike upside down to get the very last drops of fuel to seep in to the engine. He will hold the handle bars and move the bike up and down left and right, in a sort of fast paced salsa serenade, strictly come dancing but mechanical, on the roadside.

When satisfied he will right the bike, push the start pedal and as if by magic, the engine will roar back to life once again. He will go straight to a petrol station and may ask you for a short loan to pay for it, which is deducted from the fare.

If your rider suddenly starts to talk in Kinyarwanda, he is most likely to talking in to his mobile phone. If you cannot see a mobile phone it is because it is lodged within his helmet right next to his ear; he may poke his right finger up into the gap in his helmet to switch it on. It is a feat of some dexterity, high speed multi-tasking considering his other hand at this point is doing all the steering, often clutching a wad of Rwandan franc notes. too.

Beware of the motorbike taxis whose riders have blue helmets for their machines are small mopeds of 50cc engine size. All seems well and good on level ground; the problem is when you reach an upward slope which, in a hilly city like Kigali, is highly likely. Suddenly the ride slows down, the moped engine gains in pitch, it screams in excruciating discomfort.

This may mean the passenger has to physically urge the bike on by pushing his body weight forward in rhythm. These movements start off with a slow forward rocking motion, at the shoulders, the head and neck nodding forward again and again, egging the moped on in short bursts as the upper body weight pushes forward. It can be likened to the funky chicken dance, but on a bike. It looks like the passenger is having a fit on wheels. But as he tires and the peak of the slope becomes tantalysingly closer, the motion acquires a new energetic dynamism; the forward gyrations start to emanate lower down in the body, from the hips, and the whole propelling action becomes distinctly sexual in nature. It becomes a rhythmic pelvic thrust just to gain some extra metres to get him to the peak of the hill.

Now roadside onlookers stare with lowered brows: he looks like he is humping a moped; this is a a new meaning to riding a bike.

He is in his own little world, his own personal battle with the slope, gravity and a two stroke internal combustion engine. But then the engine screams some more, a howling pitch, the moped slows down and the optimistic passenger may try raising himself off the seat in short bursts, and suddenly no longer is he riding pillion on a moped (or performing unsavoury movements on the plastic seat) but rocking as if he was going through the motions of a winning jockey on Derby day. Suddenly he is on the home straight at Epsom, and if he had a horse whip he would be using it on the rider, his back, his helmet, the wing mirrors on passersby, anything, even on himself in that blinkered obsession to just to get up that slope.

Suddenly pelvic thrusts have transformed in to energetic and rhythmic sequence of sitting, crouching and standing bent, then back to sitting, lifting him in regular bursts completely off the seat. It is horse power in its purest form.

People from a passing packed bus are now staring at the spectacle and give the now rising and falling passenger whose thighs have started to ache, a glance that says “oh look an overweight mzungu, poor thing, he thinks he is on a horse.”

Alas, Isaac Newton’s laws are affirmed. All factors considered, a 50cc engine, a passenger of 75kgs, and a gradient of 60 degrees means that the moped is unable to get to the peak of the hill. Now theoretical physics can prove that an elephant can hang off a cliff with its tail tied to a daisy, but in the hilly reality of getting to work on a Kigali morning, gravity, tiny mopeds and uphill inclines never collaborate in partnership to speed one’s passage.

And then the moped engine comes close to a slow and agonising death, last moments as the engine splutters and screams, it is in pain, red-lining on the rev counter, the exhaust pipe is belching black fumes and it is starting to overheat. It may combust soon. It needs mechanical CPR. It may soon be an ex-moped and is now moving at walking pace as it slowly canters to a grinding, ear-piercing halt. At this point the right thing to do is to accept the humiliating predicament, concede you are not a jockey, just wallow in defeat, and alight. Just walk alongside the moped and rider till you get to the top of the slope; the engine will roar back to life in a lower, less strained pitch. And the passenger remounts, dignity lost somewhere behind, speed regained ahead as the taxi rider under the tinted visor of the blue helmet, grins a toothy, cheeky grin for he’s seen it all before.

Like everything in Rwanda, life goes on. The journey continues, it’s all downhill from here.


(This post is part of a serialised blog called ‘Letters from the Heart of Africa’ about my time as a volunteer in the Genocide Memorial Centre in Rwanda. A full table of contents can be found here


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