Uganda's boda-bodas: Meet Naume, Kampala's only female taxi driver

25-year-old Naume Awero is the only female boda-boda, or motorcycle taxi driver, in Kampala, Uganda.

With more than 70 percent of Uganda's youth currently unemployed, bodas - or motorcycle taxis - provide much-needed income and opportunity. Now, one woman is defying the odds to join the male-dominated industry in the capital Kampala.

It's 8am on Monday and Naume Awero is experiencing her first "jam" of the day in Kampala. No, it’s nothing to do with what she had for breakfast. "Jam", an abbreviation for "traffic jam", is the term locals use to describe the Ugandan capital’s notorious gridlock.

"It’s really too much," says Awero, sitting on her Bajaj Boxer motorbike surrounded by bicycles, cars, trucks, minibuses, motorbikes and other vehicles in Wandegeya, downtown Kampala.

She may not be going anywhere literally at this very moment. But as the only known female boda-boda, or taxi rider, in Kampala – the first among thousands and thousands of male drivers – Awero is metaphorically powering ahead of other women in the east African country.

"You know riding in Kampala there are too many accidents, accidents everywhere," says Awero, 25, who’s been a taxi driver for about 18 months.

"Other women fear motorcycles and cars. But I always tell them to come and join me."

A former security guard, Awero became a motorbike cabbie after she asked her friend Samuel Baker, a boda driver of three years, how she could make more money.

Baker, 33, suggested charcoal making or working in a salon: female-dominated professions in Uganda. When he said boda driving, Awero thought he was joking. But she’d defied the odds in her personal life, having been abandoned by her mother as a teenager after her father died and then raped by a neighbor, becoming pregnant at age 13. The then struggling single mother of two was determined she could also succeed professionally and took Baker on as a dare.

"I said 'okay you get a bike'. I taught her how to ride properly and helped her get a driving permit processed," he recalls. "I said 'okay you join our stage' (a stand where drivers wait for customers)."

Laughing, Baker adds, "Now it’s like Naume’s famous and she’s getting more customers than us men."

Today Awero shares the stage with nine men seven days a week, making up to 50,000 shillings ($20) a day. "In my old company I'd wait for a month to make good money but the children would have to go to school," she says. 

"I would even go to sleep hungry. But with boda-bodas you won’t go to sleep hungry."

Able to snake their way through the traffic, the motorbikes are inarguably the fastest mode of transport in Uganda. Numbers are hard to come by, but one local news report said there could be up to 800,000 in metropolitan Kampala and neighbouring districts Mukono and Wakiso alone.

Bodas began as bicycle couriers in Uganda’s eastern district of Busia in the 1960s and 1970s. People and merchandise would be transported across the border to Kenya, their owners shouting "boda-boda" ("border to border" in Swahili) to customers. People later upgraded to motorbikes, which reached most of Uganda's major towns by the 1980s.

Today, more than 70 per cent of Uganda’s youth are said to be jobless. While the bikes have been branded "death traps" – scores of people maimed in boda accidents lie in Kampala’s Mulago Hospital on any given day – thousands depend on them for their livelihoods. Tugende, a firm providing loans in the form of motorbikes to recommended drivers in a hire-purchase arrangement, have recognised this. Last October they put Awero on their books.

"We interact with hundreds if not thousands of drivers all over Kampala, and as far as we know, Naume is the only female," says Michael Wilkerson, co-founder and CEO.

"This not only shows how brave she is, but the level of enthusiasm she generates shows how much potential there is for other women to buck stereotypes and join the industry." Just a few other female drivers exist in rural parts of Uganda.

Today, with her cropped hair, and normally wearing overalls while at work, Awero is often mistaken on the road for a man. 

"Some ladies don't believe I'm a woman riding a boda when they stop me," she says.

"Many women fear riding bodas."

She’s proud to be Kampala’s first motorbike taxi lady, and Baker is proud of the role he’s also had in this.

"Some customers hire her for fun to see whether she can ride properly," he says.

"Most men say a woman cannot carry me, but after a while they realize that women can do the same business."

And while he could be worried about other women obtaining some wheels and snapping up the customers, Baker says sharing the road with the opposite sex is "no problem for us men".

"We welcome others who have a heart for the profession like us," he says.