Featured image: Running out of gas in the Eastern Province.
By Claire Zalla
I stood alone in the middle of a rust-colored dirt road in the rural Eastern Province of Rwanda next to a complete stranger with whom I shared no common language, listening to the engine of his small, red motorbike rev and die.
The bright sun beat down on us, and I removed the lopsided helmet from my head and let it shine on my face. I was filled with an inexplicable calmness. I’d already accepted that moto rides were unpredictable—that was a certainty.
Motos, taxi-motos, or motorcycle taxis are the most popular form of transport in Rwanda. They are small motorcycles that have a seat big enough for one driver and a passenger sitting behind. The driver wears a helmet that envelops the head and clips under the chin, and he carries another for the passenger. There’s no seatbelt—only a small handle in the back—but none of the locals touch it. They are all so accustomed to the weaving and darting of the small bikes that during my stay I saw many of them just sitting on the back of the seat casually examining their purchases, polishing their nails, looking at phones, or holding babies as the motos sped along.
Motos are the most popular mode of local transportation.
It seemed that everyone in Kigali rode on motos: businesspeople in suits, women in traditional dresses, adults and children alike. According to The New Times (“Rwanda’s Leading Daily”) there are 45,000 motos across the country with 25,000 in Kigali alone.
The first time I rode a moto, a fellow journalist and I were traveling to Kimironko Market. We wandered down to a grocery store outside of which many drivers in red vests gathered.
How much? Combien?
700? No, no, no, 500.
500 is what I have.
Once the obligatory haggling was complete, I put on the proffered helmet, sat on the leather covered seat, put my feet on the narrow side ledges, and white-knuckle-gripped the back bar with both hands. As the engine turned over, I whispered a quiet Sorry, Mom.
I’d been told to say “buhoro!” (“Slowly!”) if the moto went too fast, and I was prepared to start shouting the word immediately. But when the engine revved and we pulled away from the curb and dove into traffic, the words vanished from my thoughts.
The driver wove between cars, pedestrians, and other motos. We passed huge plants for which I had no name and stores with goods spilling out onto the sidewalk—– fresh produce, clothing, and bright yellow cell phone service stalls. The people walking by in colorful fabrics were a blur. The experience was fast-paced and exhilarating—surprisingly smooth, too. I found myself smiling widely behind the helmet’s windshield all the way to Kimironko. Riding a moto is one of the most ordinary, “local” activities one can do in Kigali and for the first time since arriving, I felt like less of a tourist and more like part of the city.
Motos are certainly not the safest nor most reliable mode of transportation. They often weave in between cars on the road and engage in somewhat aggressive driving. I also found that helmets could be quite large and loose fitting. In fact, The New Times wrote that almost 400 people were involved in motorcycle related accidents (from minor injuries to fatalities) between January and March of this year, according to the Rwanda National Police. Furthermore, moto drivers don’t utilize addresses or Google Maps like Uber drivers might. They orient themselves based on landmarks or familiar streets. While trying to find the location of an interview during my trip to Rwanda, I showed multiple motos the address with a Google Maps screenshot and was twice taken to buildings other than the organization’s.
And of course, there’s the possibility of just running out of gas.
We had driven about half of the nine kilometer distance between the school I’d been visiting and the bus stop that would take us back to Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. The engine had died and been revived twice already on the road, but now it had petered to a halt with great finality. Thankfully, by now the fellow journalist who had come with me to the school had caught up to us on his moto, so I at least had a friend with me. We shrugged at each other, and I gave him a “what can you do?” look.
The driver honked the horn and a woman came out of her home near the side of the road. After they conversed in Kinyarwanda, she brought out a small, plastic water bottle filled with about an inch of clear liquid. The driver gave her some money and poured the liquid into the tank.
Murakoze, I said to her gratefully.
She waved us goodbye, laughing a little, like “well, it happens to all of us.”
Climbing onto a moto is a marvel of the human ability to trust—trust that the driver, who is most likely a complete stranger, knows where he is going, that he is a capable driver, that the oversized helmet will stay on your head, that you won’t be flattened by a white Yego Cab. Or perhaps that trust is just another example of our willingness to shut our eyes to danger in order to accomplish something expediently. I’d only just met this person with whom I could barely communicate, and now we were practically sitting on top of each other, dodging exhaust-spewing delivery vans and potholes, speeding along a route I had no way of verifying was correct.
But as I engaged in this not quite safe activity, I saw Rwanda as I’d never seen it before. The red, dirt road blurred beneath us, and the lush green hills of the Rwandan countryside rolled by under a vibrant blue sky. Wind buffeted my skirt and kicked dirt on my shins. There was no window glass, nothing between me and this incredible view. However unpredictable and somewhat dangerous though they may be, motos are one of the best ways to truly experience the country.
Claire Zalla is a junior in Pauli Murray College. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.