Ideas & Debate

The soldier ants who oil informal economy cogs


National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) Director of Road Safety Bado Katelo addresses members of the Boda Boda Safety Association of Kenya outside the Pumwani Social Hall in Nairobi on October 23, 2020, before President Uhuru Kenyatta held a meeting with them. Also present was Kamukunji MP Yusuf Hassan (seated centre). PHOTO FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG

Every working person in Kenya has to have “a guy”. A guy to do your plumbing, a guy to do electrical repairs in the house and a guy to sit in the pick-up delivering goods to your construction site so that folks don’t rob your materials en-route to site .

A guy to go chase corrections on an overinflated bill at the water or electricity company. In summary, just “a guy”. So much so that at many social gatherings, where someone is busy giving their travails of an incessant run around at the passport application office, it is fairly ubiquitous for someone to chime in, “But I know a guy. He will sort you pap!”

These ‘guys’ are the soldier ants running around making things happen as they oil the cogs of the informal but critical economy. I have a guy. His name is James and he is by far the best bodaboda delivery guy I have ever come across. I met James purely by accident as I ordered doughnuts from some place in Westlands, whose customer service rating was conversely related to the rating of their superb product. The chap who took my order was quite happy to state that “No, we don’t do deliveries in Kilimani, but we have a bodaboda guy called James who we work with and I can give you his number.”

Now, let me put this on the table right here, right now: I hate giving directions. This is primarily because many of us don’t know names of roads or well-known landmarks such as restaurants or schools. So whenever I am ordering something for delivery, I usually take a deep breath and draw on my extremely limited reserves of calm then brace myself for at least ten incessant minutes of “No, not that road, I’m talking about the one that starts at Department of Defence” for a destination that is at least five kilometres away from that landmark. Anyway, I digress.

I called James. I started to give directions and he got it in like five seconds. Yes. Five seconds. Within ten minutes my office doorbell rang and he had me at “Habari yako?” My friends, James knows every inch of this missing-road-names and potholed-filled city and I have sent him out as far as Sonko’s shrinking fingers of influence can reach. Just give him a building or residential address and the general area it is located and he will pick up or deliver within minutes.

I thought of James’ story when I watched a YouTube video about the herculean task required to acquire a licence to be registered as a London Cab driver. There are about 20,000 of the iconic black London taxi cabs circulating in the city’s metropolitan area and the drivers, unlike their sissified GPS using uber nemesis drivers, navigate around the city’s labyrinthine streets using the maps stored in their brains. To get the licence, drivers have to spend about six hours a day for anywhere from two to four years studying the whole map of London, names and locations of about 25,000 streets as well as all the key points of interest therein including shops, restaurants, churches, mosques, hotels you name it and the average drop-out rate for candidates of the test is about 30 percent. The entire body of information is contained in a framework known as “The Knowledge”. Consequently, scientific studies on London cab drivers has found that the part of their brains known as the hippocampus, which plays a major role in the human body in terms of learning and memory, is highly developed.

James, my bodaboda guy, has “The Knowledge” about Nairobi County seared into his blessed hippocampus. I’m sure there are many more like James out there, who give excellent service, charge extremely reasonably and do not require ten mind numbing minutes of spatially challenged awareness to determine location of delivery. This is a shout out and a glowing tribute to all the “guys” out there who are providing essential services in their quiet and effective way. May the force be with you!

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Twitter: @carolmusyoka