Tanzania: Bukoba boys earn hard living with bicycles

Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) — Eagle-eyed, Bashiru Rugakingira stands with his bicycle at a street junction, a vantage point in Bukoba town, waiting for a customer. Suddenly he jumps on his bike and pedals off. He has seen a prospective passenger somewhere on the other side of the street and must get there first to beat his rivals.

In efforts to earn an honest living, young men in Bukoba are defying a police chase in broad daylight all in a pathetic attempt to earn a couple of shillings to silence rumbles of hunger in the family.

Rugakingira from Kamachumu is one of the poor youths eking out a living in the heart of Bukoba town. The struggle of Rugakingira and fellow 'esekido' - cyclists who carry people for money -- is simple proof that anything is possible for the willing, the daring, and the hardworking.

Rugakingira works hard and, with the support of his wife who works as a waiter in a restaurant, he can keep his family of two children with relative comfort and a few shillings to spare.

"I bought this bicycle in 2006 with the saving from my job," the 30-year old young man reveals with a proud smile. Rugakingira has two jobs. An 'esekido' at day, he doubles as a watchman at night.

After ferrying occasional passengers in the town of Bukoba to their destinations at day time, Ruga, as he is known for short, goes to his place of work as a night security guard.

It is a job that requires his keen attention and he must remain fully wide awake if he is to keep his bread.

Yet Ruga spends his daytime riding around Bukoba with passengers to destinations instead of recharging his brain with a deep sleep to rest himself enough for another night's vigil.

"This is Bukoba, my friend. If you sleep, you won't eat," he says. "I have to work day and night to feed my family.

The 60,000/- I am paid is not enough." Ruga does both his jobs well without fear that he will falter any time because of sleep. His trick is simple. He has a colleague at his security post.

While one stays awake, "the other one eats jalamba." Jalamba means sleeps in their work jargon. But not taking jalamba and ride a motorbike with a passenger the next day is a risky business.

The pay for bicycle ride is three to five hundred shillings depending on the distance. Carrying a passenger on a bicycle is a risky business. The government has prohibited it in the town centre.

"We want them to do that business in the environs of the town," explains Bukoba Region acting Police Commander, SSP Vitus Paul Mlolere. "Moreover, by operating in the heart of the town where the traffic is heavy, they are risking their lives."

The bigger risk Ruga and his fellow cyclists, the esekido, are running is that of being robbed of their bikes by a gangster who poses as a customer.

"One comes and hires you to take him to some place, but somewhere on the way you just feel bang! There is a knife on your neck and an order to let go of the bike," Ruga explains.

That kind of robbery has befallen Ruga's professional colleague who took a customer to a suburb of the town, Kashai to the Customs by the shores of Lake Victoria. The customer robbed him of the bike in style.

"The man produced a 10,000/- to pay his charge of 500/-," Ruga explains. "The cyclist left him with the bike to look for change. The man fled with the bike." Some of the bike stolen are recovered but most go for good.

Despite the danger, the esekido continue with the business as sole operators, unlike taxi drivers who work in pairs. "Apart from the passenger's seat, I have no more room to carry a second one as a company against robbery," Ruga says.

The esekido work with guarded honesty that has won them steady customers who use them regularly for errands. "If you get even three such steady customers, you have hit a jackpot," Ruga who has some such customers observes with a smile.

"Whenever they have an errand, they will phone you and one errand can earn as much as 5,000/-." For now Ruga and his fellow cyclists are operating freely and openly without fear.

The authorities will keep off and just watch with their claws withdrawn. But the advent of the general elections next year fills them with fear.

"It is the politicians who don't want us," Ruga says. He expresses his dislike for politicians because at elections they make empty promises they know they cannot keep. "To prove their worth, they say they clean the town by removing all esekidos.

They chase us off the streets to impress their voters. But for now they won't touch us. They want our votes but after elections we know they will strike."

Bicycles, once just a family's means of transport, today give would-be unemployed young men work in many places in the country.

As the ruling party, Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) Chairman, Kagera Region from 1977 - 1997, Pius Ngeze, defended the esekidos against the government order that they be removed from operating in the town by saying that their service was needed.

It was also a means of employment that at the same time acted as a security safety valve. "It is not right to prohibit them to operate in the town without giving them alternative employment," he told a political rally in Bukoba town on January 31, 2007.

"Preventing them from doing the work is risking an upsurge of the crime of robbery." Ngeze declared his support for the youths whom he called the poor and directed the Kagera Regional Commissioner then to let free all bicycles seized in the police operation to remove the esekido.

"I support the youth in their endeavour to earn a descent living by using these bicycles. This is a group of the weak. Bicycles today are used as a means of passengers transport both in the rural and urban centres.

Most of the esekidos are ex-Standard VII. Ruga himself, a product of a family of two boys, completed primary school education in 1996 at Rutobo Primary School. "I passed Standard VII National Exams but failed to continue because my family could not afford the fee," he explains.

Ruga may not be classified as a rich person, but today with a daily earning of not less 5,000/- and a monthly salary of 60,000/-, he is certainly not a poor man either.

To keep both livelihood sources alive, Ruga is determined to keep his eyes wide open at night and his brain sharp. "I eat a lot of vegetables and drink much water," he explains. "Vegetables give your eyes power and water keeps you awake."

A father of two, Ruga says the police should consider them as family people with dependants and therefore must earn a living by bicycles as their only means. "They should know I have two children to feed and educate," he says.

Content and confident, Ruga however won't take a passenger to the town's suburb of Mafumbo in the late evening for fear of being robbed there.

"That area is deadly," he reveals.


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