If you are looking for an Uber in Sierra Leone, you won’t find any.
What you will find however, is a colourful history of a commercial vehicle industry that is prone to twists, turns and countless anecdotes.
Buses and Taxis share dominion in most countries around the world in the commercial transportation industry. In Sierra Leone the ‘Poda Poda’ challenged that hegemony. The motorbikes dubbed ‘Okada’ came next which was then followed by the quaint motor tricycle called the ‘Keke’.
Poda Poda’s generally come in the form of mini buses or vans with certain level of local customization work done on them to increase space for passengers inside. The vehicle’s seats are removed to be replaced by metal frames fitted with a thin layered cushioned seat. The driver is usually assisted by a conductor referred to as an apprentice. The experience of riding a poda poda is nothing short of priceless.
I was around 6 when I had my first Poda Poda experience. A family friend, one of the type that had become so close that you gave them the ‘Uncle’ title was tasked with ensuring me and my cousins board a taxi safely to visit our grandpa who lived in the East End of Freetown.
Uncle (let’s call him, Victor) had other plans. Poda Poda fare is relatively cheaper than taxi and uncle Victor had to foot the bills of a date he had planned with a dame the next day. Yes, yes of course don’t ask, we took the Poda Poda and boy was it an exhilarating experience. I was quite confused on what to make of the conductor known as the ‘Apprentice’, who was a pimpled face teen who switched emotions like the colours of a kaleidoscope.
One minute he would be smiling and regaling passengers with funny jokes and the next he would go livid with rage at someone who failed to pay and wanted to sneak out. He was quite skilled in creating very descriptive curse words, I was young then but reminiscing on that moment, I now saw in him one who with the right coaching would have made a great poet. I soon learned that an apprentice had to be vigilant as the driver would deduct the unpaid fares from their wages at the end of the day.
Poda Poda is the premier means for commuters in Freetown and those who live in the outskirts of the city. You’re bound to hear the latest gossip, stories and political bickering whilst in a poda poda as its passengers reflect the vast majority of ordinary Freetonians. The loud booming speakers with the latest hit songs has made poda podas quite popular with secondary school going children who carefully select which poda poda to board based on its stereo quality. In fact, in my secondary school years I looked on in envy as my colleagues arrived and left school with poda poda, the close proximity of my home to the Sierra Leone Grammar School meant I arrived to school by private vehicle, then boarded a taxi or sometimes walked back home.
I naturally had to find a way to break this deadlock, and as things tend to fall into place when we least expected it, some teachers started organizing after school lessons in the far end of town, I was amongst the first to sign up. Poda Poda took us to and fro, and of course my friends and I chose the one with the groovy bass and funky tunes.
The signature yellow of taxis in Sierra Leone feel almost as if they sprung up along with the iconic Cotton Tree at the center of Freetown. Taxi drivers are by far the most garrulous characters and they all share an unspoken code that makes it seem like they all belong to the same family. I used to think that all taxi drivers were related, until I witnessed a falling out over brought about by traffic jam and dangerous driving.
Growing up in the city of Freetown, reading the graffiti-like inscriptions on these vehicles was one of the high points of my day. Ranging from religious quotes, music lyrics and everyday proverbs on life, they had an allure of their own and sometimes, with it a penchant for throwing away the rules of spellings out of the window. As a staple of the city, they form an integral part of Freetown’s identity.
Taxis tend to be free roaming and sometimes territorial, in certain points around the city only taxis registered under a union are allowed to ply their trade along such routes.
The taxis of Wilberforce and Murraytown used to always be subject of jokes due to the derelict conditions they tend to be in, mostly the drivers had no keys to start the engines with and passengers stared on as the car is hot-wired manually with two cables. This experience is particularly unnerving for first timers as this process comes well under way after the vehicle had started moving. Thankfully, the conditions of taxis in those areas are far better than what they used to be.
Taxis are very popular with primary school children. The go to method for most kids to bypass paying the transport fare of two was termed “tote”. Basically what we did as kids that children still do was to have an older kid seated whilst another sat on their lap. Interestingly, this pyramid method can go up to a third kid at the apex just brushing the headliner upholstery of the taxi. Of course drivers had to put their foot down from time to time. Taxis enjoyed a long run on this demographic of clientele until the….wait I’ll touch on this later.
The Okada’s advent in Sierra Leone was not met with fanfare , it suffered from extremely negative P.R which in some cases wasn’t unfounded. Privately owned motorbikes had always existed but the idea of it being used as a method of commercial transportation was very alien to many Sierra Leoneans.
The city of Bo was the first to accept it, it wasn’t long before Okadas roamed the streets of Freetown.
Fast, efficient and able to weave between the spaces during extremely tight traffic jam, available late nights and able to meander through roads that taxis and poda podas couldn’t, okadas won the hearts of many people in quick succession.
It’s not a strange sight these days to see individuals park their private vehicles, disembark and wave down an okada bike to transport them to wherever they are going.
Zooming and zig zagging along the highways of the city has not made them pals with the traffic police who periodically declare okada no go areas. These rules are mostly flaunted and sometimes lead to Hollywood movie type chases and encounters between the cops and okada riders. Cops resort to methods like whips in hand which they lash riders with, barricades are sometimes used, or plain clothes tax force units who remove the keys from unsuspecting bike riders waiting to pick up passengers at stop points.
Okada riders are distinct in their appearance. Garbed in large top coats with several layers of clothes under and a distinct aura of menthol to safeguard against the breezey and cold winds when at top speed. The helmets or ‘He-lements’ as most call it comes in varying degrees of types, shapes and form that meet or do not meet the Sierra Leone Road Transport Corporation (SLRTC) standards.
Skateboarding, Construction worker, Formula One, Pilot, Skii, Firefighter and Cricket helmets can be seen on the heads of passengers who take okadas.
There was one time I was so fascinated with a NFL helmet I encountered that came with the logo of the Vikings and had the autograph of Brett Favre. How the rider came to have it is still a mystery, I offered to buy it but the rider refused, he needed the helmet for safety from the popos, and so a possible collectors item slipped by me.
Kekes came with a bang to Sierra Leone, with the novelty and allure from seeing it in the maiden movie, “Ong Bak’’ of now popular Thai actor Tony Jarr, the dainty and cuteness of the tricycle looking vehicle stole the hearts of most Sierra Leoneans.
They arrived in many colours with slight variations but all airy with window blinds and a touristic feel. My first Keke ride was fun, and a friend who saw me remarked to me later in Krio, ‘You bin sidom and relax some kind way insai the keke lek na you private jet’ – (You sat relaxed in the Keke as if you were in a private jet you owned’). A Keke ride for many first timers is documented by selfies, it is undoubtedly a transportationsystem that doubles as a euphoric experience.
The commercial transportation industry is a sector that has always flowed with the tides of inflation in our nation’s economy and global fluctuation of crude oil which influences the price of fuel that has a direct ripple effect on fare costs.
Most commercial vehicles are not owned by their drivers, the arrangement is a fixed amount that the driver must return to the vehicle owner at the end of the day known as the “Head Money”.
The amount is subject to the cost of fare and the type of commercial vehicle.
- Poda Poda is based on the seat capacity; Four Row Seaters Le 200,000, Five Row Seaters Le 250,000 and Six Row Seaters Le 300,000 and the Coaster Le 400,000
- Taxi- Le 70,000
- Okada-Le 90,000 or Le 100,000
- Keke-Le 100,000 and the larger 3 row seater Le 150,000
Presently, the standard fare rate for a fixed point to the next stands at;
• Poda Poda -Le 1500
• Taxi- Le 1500
• Keke-Le 2000
• Okada- Le 2000
*Note: 1USD is Le 9000
A commercial driver is responsible for minor vehicular maintenances and care, an owner may only step in for serious issues. A major drawback for many drivers is the corrupt portion of the police force who harass them for money. During conversations with drivers they will bemoan on their run ins with cops, passengers who refuse to pay and owners who are never understanding of their plight on the streets.
Owners also tend to narrate their own negative experiences with drivers who treat the vehicles with abject disregard of its value because it was not purchased by their own money.
Depending to whom you want to believe, it is safe to say the dynamics of any business has its positive and shortcomings.
There is an intense rivalry amongst these commercial vehicles to win over passengers and popular opinion.
A friend’s sister once related to me a story on how one time she was hailed by a Keke driver but when she responded that she was heading to Dovecot market and thus her cheaper option was a poda poda.
The Keke rider hit her with a classic line, “Well you go dance reggae tay you reach’’ (You will dance the reggae moves until you arrive at your destination) indicating the swaying motion she would encounter on her trip due to potholes and the rickety poda poda she boarded.
Taxi drivers have no love lost for Keke and Okada rider who they perceive as usurpers and uncouth thugs with no respect for traffic rules. The importation of the three seater Keke has made many a taxi driver to curse and swear loudly of the of unsafety conditions of these keke hybrids.
The Keke and Okada riders on the other hand will tell you that the taxi riders are just bitter since keke/okada riders make double their wages.
Many companies in the nation have lately been making bonanzas and promotions which feature the Keke as a top prize.
AfricellSL, the premier telecoms network in Sierra Leone gave up to 30 Kekes in their Christmas promotion. The Keke has featured heavily in music videos and has even been used as motorcade entourage for weddings.
Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora who came last December for the holidays were big patrons of the Keke. The Keke it seems is here to stay, but in an ever evolving world of ideas, innovations and new trends it will not be a surprise to see a new commercial class type vehicle dock on the quays of Freetown that will once more overhaul the status quo.
As was inscribed on my favourite taxi, “Only Time Will Tell’’.