Boda Boda Brotherhood: Nairobi’s Tobin Jones Showcases Motorcycling Culture in East Africa

Sep 3, 2019
Photographer Spotlight

It takes a certain level of, shall we say, chutzpah to drive a motorcycle in Nairobi, Kenya. It’s dangerous work, usually done by individuals who are trying to scratch out a living by transporting people and goods around the East African city. Photographer Tobin Jones, himself a motorcyclist (Boda Boda driver in local parlance), knows this all too well.

There's something about voluntarily driving a motorcycle in Nairobi that does feel a little stupid. Road rules are generally seen as optional here. Speeding’s normal, indicating’s optional, and sidewalks are often seen as just another lane to use when traffic gets busy.

Tobin has operated a motorbike for about two years now, which helps him sympathize with his fellow Boda Boda drivers. The combination of his experience handling these vehicles and his desire to make typologies led to the creation of a recent project focused on the helmets worn by motorcyclists in the area.

Boda Boda Typology

I’ve both been driving a motorcycle in Nairobi and been really interested in photographing typologies for several years. I feel [typologies are] a fairly underappreciated photographic style. I’ve also wanted to do a story about Boda Boda drivers in Nairobi for some time but hadn’t been sure how to do it until I thought about using their helmets to tell the story.

A well-worn helmet

You’re probably wondering where the name “Boda Boda” originates. There are two main schools of thought regarding this. One is that the phrase “Boda Boda” is onomatopoetic and is, as Tobin puts it, “reminiscent of the sound that 120cc motorcycles make when driving around.” The other etymological explanation is that these bikes can transport people across a border without any need to complete paperwork. This would not be the case if those people were in a car or truck, so 'border-to-border' eventually became “Boda Boda.”

A very rebellious helmet which liked to disobey its helmet parents

Still, this story isn’t about nomenclature. It’s about tough people who make a difficult living and do so with compassion. It's not a stretch to assume that the folks who risk their lives every day by driving motorcycles through a bustling metropolis are unfriendly, reclusive, and generally difficult to approach. Tobin’s interactions with these individuals proved otherwise.   

I feel like there’s a mutual respect amongst motorcyclists in Nairobi. I have also found that the Boda Boda drivers are really easy to approach and talk to; most were more than happy to lend me their helmet for a few minutes.

My favorite helmet

That “mutual respect” to which Tobin is referring begets a fraternal bond shared by the city’s motorcyclists. Nairobi’s rampant traffic problems have forced commuters to seek out public transportation, which has simultaneously created a market for motorcycle drivers and made their jobs exceedingly difficult. Boda Boda drivers need to traverse suboptimal, congested roads in order to deliver passengers or goods to their destination safely, for pay that’s modest at best. It’s a line of work a person can’t truly appreciate unless they do it themselves. This creates a communal, we’re-all-in-this together atmosphere, one in which the drivers look out for each other’s property.   

I’ve been using a Boda Boda for years, but until this project hadn’t quite realized what a close-knit group [this was]. Drivers in Nairobi organize themselves into groups and station themselves at particular locations they call ‘stages.' At each of these stages, the drivers all know each other and watch each other’s bikes.

Helmets from every angle you see

Across Nairobi, motorcyclists seem to look after each other whether they're acquainted or not. In a city infamous for its crime, it's amazing how Boda Boda drivers will leave their helmets and jackets on their bikes completely unattended. There seems to be an unspoken rule about drivers protecting [each other's] property from theft and that’s something I was really impressed to see.

Through this captivating set of still-life images, Tobin aims to shine a light on the trials and tribulations a Nairobi motorcyclist faces each day. The helmets are gloriously lived-in, lovingly reworked, and constantly cared for and thusly speak to the makeup of the drivers who use them.

Go home helmet, you're drunk

Each helmet says so much about the profession. From the dings and scratches on each helmet — which show how dangerous riding can be — to the homemade repairs, indicative of what hustlers the drivers need to be. And the decorations show the pride that so many of these drivers take in their profession. 

This story is about helmets

I want to use these photographs to tell the story of the Boda Boda culture in East Africa. Each ding and repair on these helmets has made them utterly unique and says so much about their history. I see these images as just another form of photojournalism and a way to tell a story that might be hard to photograph otherwise. On the other hand, I also see them as art. 

For many reasons, Tobin was the right person to tell this story. He’s put himself in harm’s way by working in places like Somalia, so he’s not exactly a risk-averse individual. Tobin also has a deep appreciation for the motorcyclists of East Africa, so much so that he’s the proud owner of one of their helmets, shown below.

Tobin's favorite helmet

What I really love about this helmet is that it had cracked along the bottom but was then stitched up so that it could still be used. It’s sitting on my coffee table at home and I can’t get over how much I love to look at it! I feel like it really epitomizes so much about the differences between African and Western culture. On one hand, it shows the poverty of so many on the continent. On the other hand, it shows how resourceful people can be in order to fix an item that most people in a place like the U.S. would have just thrown out [and replaced].

Thankfully, Tobin’s admiration for these brave bikers does not lead him to emulate their often-reckless driving style. He continues to keep his head on a swivel whenever he rides his Boda Boda about town and has avoided big accidents as a result. Tobin also knows how to stay grounded if he’s ever feeling himself a little too much atop his motorcycle.

Fortunately, I haven’t had any major incidents. But perhaps that’s because I also do try to be very careful. Whenever I do feel myself becoming a little too cocky on the roads, I’ll watch a few YouTube videos of motorcycle crashes. That usually sobers me up and makes me more careful!

Check out more of Tobin's work at tobinjonesphotography.com.

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