Mwanamkuu had our attention immediately coz she was the only female who rode a ‘Boda Boda’ or a ‘Piki Piki’ (motorbike) that transports goods and people in Hola town and its environs. She looked like she could fit in Nairobi and other town more urban than Hola town. For example, unlike other women and girls we had encountered, she was not dressed in the traditional flowing ‘Dira’, she wore shorts and a t-shirt and had a general tom boy look.
The 24 year old is originally from Kole County, in Tana River, but her parents settled in Hola Town. She was the only lady her age, we came across who neither married nor had kids. She’s the last born, with five (5) siblings and still lives at home with her mum and brother with his wife and kids. Her parents are separated.
She was a carpenter before she became a Boda Boda rider. Woodwork was her first passion, and she has a bed, stool and coffee table to show for it. Her father, who once did Carpentry, discouraged h4er from picking it up as a career and took her to a Mechanic’s shop as a preferred more profitable profession. She hated it, “too technical,” she said, “just not my style,” she hated being confused for a boy as being a mechanic involved lying on her back under cars where only her lower torso was visible.
She’d always had a thing for bikes and when her brother bought one, she’d take her mum to the ‘shamba’ (farm) and back. On her way from dropping or to pick up her mum, she’d get people willing to pay her from rides, which she’d take on so she could buy fuel for her mum’s rides to the shamba and back. Eventually, she realised it came naturally to her and so she turned it into a job. She however avoids the collection point where her fellow riders gather to await clients. In Tana River, a tom boy, is a girl defying traditional standards a woman should keep, and is hence is open to ridicule and rebuke. The men constantly taunt her asking her if she’s really female, pointing at her muscular legs exposed by her shorts and telling her that girls’ legs look nothing like hers. She says all these as she laughs and we laugh along to help put her at ease, even while we see the pain in her eyes.
Mwanamkuu has faced a great deal of discrimination because of how outward appearance and her refusal to go by the norm by her society’s standards and her courage to do so is more than a lot of us can master, her strength and determination to do better by her and for her family made us think of the privileges we have and what we take for granted, her feminine strength was beautiful to observe as we talked to her, and as she rode off (into the sunset) with her bike, we were not sure we’d ever see her again, but we knew she’d left a mark.