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Sierra Leone News: CHETANYA’s View: Trip to Bo, part 3: Okada drivers

CHETANYA

CHETANYA

One of the most striking things about visiting Bo was the huge number of okada motorbike taxis. It seemed that no matter what part of Bo we were in, there was always an okada around the corner. Even on the less-travelled and pothole-ridden dirt roads in Bo, it didn’t take more than a few seconds to find one. In the city center, swarms of them swerved around the roundabouts on the lookout for passengers.
We used the okadas as transport every day we were in Bo, but on Saturday we hitched rides with them so many times I lost count. My colleague Betty was sick of it, but I started to enjoy the rides — as long as I didn’t think too much about safety.
The drivers weren’t exactly reckless, but they behaved like the average Sierra Leonean driver, which is to say that their goal seemed to be moving as fast as possible, and coming to stops at the last second. Sure, I was usually given a helmet to wear, but some of these were as flimsy as a plastic bowl.
To make things worse in retrospect, I didn’t realize at the time that Bo’s hospital was essentially without staff throughout the weekend. The first time we visited the hospital to interview staff about any shortages or difficulties it was experienced, my colleagues had a brief conversation in Krio with a nurse, and then we left. The next time I went there, with our guide Aruna Kamara from Kiss Radio Bo, he told me that all the main staff at the hospital had left for Freetown that weekend. What if someone needed treatment over the weekend? I guess they would just be out of luck.
Though we never got the chance to talk to the hospital staff, walking around the grounds reminded me of Connaught Hospital in Freetown. But Bo’s hospital seemed more dilapidated. Many of the buildings were capped with rusting tin roofs, and I saw a rat (or some animal of that size) disappear into a drain. As rats can carry lassa fever and other diseases, this was not a good sign.
I was interested to see a small mosque on the hospital grounds, with a plaque saying it had been built with the support off Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. My colleague told me that Saudi Arabia sponsors and funds many such mosques and Islamic schools in Sierra Leone.
It made me think about just how dedicated Saudi Arabia must be to spreading and supporting Islam that they would pay for such projects all the way in West Africa, in a country like Sierra Leone that’s not strategically powerful. It made me think of the influences of other foreign countries here  China, Lebanon, India, the United States and European countries. It’s a side of globalization that I as an American don’t often think about.
After hitching so many rides with okada drivers, I was curious about their lives and whether they could make a real living from it. And why were there so many of them in Bo?
I got some answers when Aruna and I went to the hospital to talk to some drivers. There was a small crowd of them gathered there to support a driver who had been injured in an accident and was in critical condition. We talked with members of the bike driver’s union about issues the drivers face.
According to one man, 70 percent of young men in the country work as okada drivers, which if accurate is an amazing figure. It’s a full time profession, which became more common after the civil war as a way to provide jobs for young people. Now, some drivers are able to sustain themselves, buying houses and raising families on their okada driver salaries.
The next day it was time to leave the okadas behind and drive back to Freetown. The proliferation of okadas isn’t without problems  I thought about the pollution caused by more vehicles on the road, and it’s clearly a job that has some risks.
But it also seemed like a hopeful story. I don’t know whose idea it was to provide the unemployed youth, whose lives had been torn apart by the civil war, with accessible jobs. But it was a brilliant idea. It’s an example of Sierra Leone’s resilience and ability to recover from tragedy. I hope these kinds of solutions, and others like the recycling program I saw in Bo, are given the support they deserve.
*Chetanya Robinson is a journalism intern from the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the 7th intern in as many years in an internship program with Awoko Newspaper
Thursday September 08, 2016

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