A few days into my stay in Songea, I needed to pop into town. Ordinarily, I would be picked up by my contact in the car, but on this occasion the car was broken and so I was going no-where. "Perfect", I thought, "A great chance to try out a bodaboda for myself". The guesthouse where I stayed was set back about 2km from the road, so I went off in search of Norbert, the cook and general go-to man for anything that required practical help. Norbert, it must be said, is an excellent individual of high standards in all things. I think you'll see what I mean.
Anyway, after not too much searching, I found Norbert out on the back terrace squatting on his haunches as he attended to several small burbling cauldrons of stock and trays of fish laid out on coal burners on the floor. On his head was a magnificent and pristine tall white chef's hat, which I'd not seen before on him. "Love the hat, Norbert", I said with gusto, "Great look! Do you mind if I take a photo?". Norbert looked up and broke into one of his usual ready grins. "Ah, Crala, yessy, but please one moment for the shoes! Notty with the sandals!" he insisted with a waggling finger, as he dashed into the kitchen to slip off his casual rubber flipflops, soon returning wearing a much smarter pair of lace up leather shoes instead. "Is better!" he confirmed, as he posed happily for the photo.
"Smashing, thanks Norbert", I said. "Now I just wanted to check. I'd like to take a bodaboda into town. Its OK to just walk to the road and flag one down, right?". Norbert's smiling face dropped into a mask of horror. "No, no Miss Crala, please do not do this", he implored. "These men, very bad! They rob you! Please waity, I call one I am knowing, is good man". After a brief call on a very battered mobile, Norbert confirmed. "He is coming". Much as I was grateful for the help and advice, I was a little unsettled at this reminder of what the ladies group had told me and immediately worried about who I might be trusting in this rider.
Within 5 minutes, a man arrived on a motorcycle that had clearly been lavished with much attention. Over its tank was a unique bumblebee inspired faux-leather tank cover in alternate black and yellow stripes, and out of the front wheel nut, a fake sunflower was held in place by the speedo-wire. However what caught my eye the most was that this rider, like so many in town, had ridden in with his helmet resting on his tank. This was frankly baffling.
"Norbert, would you ask this man why he doesn't wear his helmet on his head please?", I requested. After a brief exchange, Norbert gave me my answer. "He is saying, he is keeping the helmet in cases of the traffic policey. But, he is not wearing it as it gives him the wet head." My brow furrowed as I tried to translate this. "Do you mean sweaty, Norbert?", I asked. Norbert laughed like a school-boy in a biology lesson. "Yessy, I am meaning sweaty!" he confirmed. I had to laugh too. "Righto, thanks Norbert, but please tell him, it would make me very happy if he wears it for this trip. I'm sorry about the sweaty head but its honestly safer for him and I'd like him to live a long time."
Rider's helmet duly donned, I gave Norbert a wave goodbye, though not before he had urged me, with a uniquely pained expression, to please fold down the collar on my shirt as my appearance was untidy. I tried my best to explain that this was a deliberate manoeuvre to avoid a burnt neck, but he looked so distressed by my disorderliness that I decided to fold it for him just to placate him, reasoning that if I was commanding people to risk a sweaty head, it was probably right that I should give a little too. Anyway, as I headed off down the track behind this rider, a mixture of nerves and excitement gripped me. It felt fantastic to be back on two wheels again in Africa, even if I wasn't the rider. I had missed that feeling of the wind on my face, that contact with the elements and the community. But I can't pretend I wasn't a little nervous. Yes, this man had been recommended by Norbert, but all the same I'd never met him before and I began to understand how vulnerable these other lady passengers might feel doing these journeys with strangers on a daily basis, especially on the remote sections of bush heading out to the villages.
Before we had set off, I'd asked this man to ride "pole pole" (slowly) with the usual downward hand motions, which he seemed to be following really well, but what was more worrying was the total lack of any indication. Or blind spot checks. Or mirror usage. Or horn. All of which, as I'd seen observing so many other riders, was entirely standard issue. It made for a hair-raising ride. But what I hadn't quite noticed before was that on the downhill stretches, the drilling vibration through my footpegs mysteriously disappeared, as I realised that the rider was holding in the clutch all the way down in an apparent bid to save fuel. Having just covered the clutch module in college, I cringed as I thought about the massive damage this would be doing every day in this hilly town and groaned inwardly as I started to notice that all the other riders were doing it too.
For all the substantial room for improvement, I'm thrilled to report that we made it into town and back again in one piece that day (thanks surely in no small part to the continuous stream of prayers I was sending up to any of my old, trusty guardian angels who had taken such good care of my on my big London to Capetown trip). And a day or so later, when the need came again, I was happy to find that Norbert was able to ring this man again to come and fetch me. The best bit? When he arrived, he was wearing his helmet...on his head this time! Norbert was also there when he arrived and noticed the same thing. After a few words of greeting, Norbert told me "this man is telling me he is wearing his helmet because he remembers what you tell him". I was thrilled. "Ah, good man!" I said to him, only remembering after he registered no recognition at all that he spoke no English. So instead I kept it simple. I tapped my head, pointed at him and gave him a big grin and thumbs up. He laughed, turned the bike around and off we went, on another adventure.