The value of a motorbike

Aber Diana on her boda outside her home in Layibi, Gulu. Photos by Travis Sanderson

Against the odds, Aber Diana is a single mother thriving in a male-dominated industry

We turned right off the main highway that runs through the city of Gulu onto a rough, stony road that jostled the motorcycle enough to remind me to tightly grip the rear of the seat.

After only a few hundred metres, the driver pulled over beside a cluster of seven small, circular huts with thatched straw roofs, typical of northern Uganda. These modest homes, with their short cement walls, measured only a few metres across and two metres tall at the peak of their conical roofs.

As we dismounted the motorcycle—called a “boda”—and I took in my surroundings, the boda driver began to walk amongst the huts towards one at the back, furthest from the road. I was fumbling with my recorder when it occurred to me that I was finally about to meet Aber Diana.

Three boda drivers, or “boda men,” on their motorbikes while they wait for customers outside the Elephanté Café in Gulu, Uganda. Photo by Travis Sanderson

I first heard about Diana in a 2012 article from a local newspaper called The Daily Monitor. As a communications intern tasked with finding people in the community between the ages of 18 and 35 who have overcome tremendous odds, I knew I needed to find out more about this woman.

Diana is unique, not only because she works in an industry dominated by men, but because she works at night in an industry dominated by men. By day, Gulu, the commercial centre of northern Uganda, is generally a safe and friendly city of about 150,000 people. At night, things change. As interns from Canada, we were discouraged from venturing out at night. It made me curious about what lay beyond the front gate of our compound on Onono Road. The list of reasons we were given varied, but mostly we were warned about running into the mysterious, aggressive “Iron Bar Men.”

In this city, Diana is a boda driver by night. It is important to note that people tend to become boda drivers as a last resort, often because they are uneducated or cannot find another type of work. The job demands long hours for little pay, not to mention the higher-than-usual overhead costs in the form of fuel and boda maintenance. There is also a significant level of stress that comes with navigating the chaotic roads of Uganda where no one really obeys traffic regulations and police are more concerned with taking bribes than enforcing the law. Finally, keep in mind that it is a very male-dominated industry—Diana is one of only three female boda drivers in all of Gulu.

Your security is your brain, and you should not rely on anyone to take care for you during the day or at night.

This is the reason I find Diana so interesting. Why would a 27-year-old single mother of five boys risk working such a dangerous and stressful job, let alone at night? After speaking with what seemed like half of the boda drivers in Gulu—many of whom gave no indication of knowing Diana—I was finally standing at her doorstep thanks to the help of a boda driver I met at the city’s main market.

Diana was outside hanging laundry as we approached her hut. When she noticed us, she was quick to smile, as if she already knew why we were there. Perhaps she did—I had been asking about her for a few days, and it would make sense that the boda driver community talks. Diana is tall and stocky; a solid woman who looks like she can take care of herself. Yet her soft, kind face and gentle smile give her away as a lamb dressed as a lion. Her delicate handshake, light and timid, twined my fingers with hers, and I knew this female boda driver was not being reckless or rebellious. Rather, she was a woman doing what she needed to for her children.

My friend, colleague and translator, Nyeko Geoffrey Augustine, explained the purpose of our visit, and we were immediately ushered into the small hut that was Diana’s home.

The white lace drapery that kept the entrance to her house private got tangled around my arm when I entered. As I tried to sort myself out, a stream of Diana’s family members, including a small child, made their way past me as they exited the hut, barely noticing my graceless entrance.

Typical bodas parked outside the Elephanté Café in Gulu. Photo by Travis Sanderson

Once inside, I realized the space was much larger than it looked from the outside. A pole in the middle of the room appeared to hold up the peak of the roof, and the short cement walls supported its base. The ground was covered with an old, circular sheet of linoleum. The whole space felt like a cozy farm house and instantly made me feel at home. To my right, the blanket that divided the space in half was a bit worn, but clean and in keeping with the atmosphere of  the home—lived-in, but not the least bit run down.

I soon learned that Diana has seldom had the dice roll in her favour. She was born into a poor family in a village called Anaka, in the Alero region of northern Uganda. Her childhood was darkened by a brutal civil war that raged from 1987 to 2007 between President Yoweri Museveni’s government troops and the guerilla group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by  Joseph Kony. At the age of 14, Diana was orphaned when LRA soldiers stormed her village, killing many of the residents, including her parents.

She was afforded a bit of good fortune when an elderly woman from her village took her in. She was able to feed and clothe her, but just barely. The ongoing civil war and the old woman’s financial situation prevented Diana from attending school. When she became pregnant at 14 with twin boys shortly after going to live with the old woman, getting an education was next to impossible. Two years later, pregnant again with another set of twins, Diana said she just decided to accept that she would never receive a proper education.

Now, with a fifth child and the father absent, Diana is left with a lot of responsibility and few options for supporting herself and her children. Yet she refuses to be seen as a victim.

“I do this so that my children forget the meaning of poverty.

The old woman, now 105, still lives in Anaka, and Diana speaks of her as if she were her mother. Diana’s only expressed regret about her upbringing is that she was not able to attend school.

When asked why she chooses to ride at night, Diana got straight to the point. A ride that costs 1000 Ugandan shillings (about 34 cents Canadian) during the day earns twice as much at night. Therefore, she can double her money if she rides at night.

“People often ask me why, being a lady, I would ride at night. And they ask if it is not very dangerous. One thing I tell them is that your security is your brain, and you should not rely on anyone to take care for you during the day or at night,” she said. “You must protect yourself. These words help me to always be careful whenever I ride a boda at night.” After many years of experience, one way she has learned to stay safe is by carrying people she knows whenever possible.

Through Geoffrey, I asked her how she gets along with all the men. I expected her to tell us it is like the Wild West, and that she is ostracised because of her gender. Yet she responded with positivity. “The only way is to live with each other the way you would live with your brothers and sisters at home,” she said.

Diana started riding a boda in 2006, and in her words, learned how to ride a motorcycle “a long time ago … from some men who teach people motorcycle riding at only 200 shillings.” She referred to herself as “a stubborn kid” who would “use part of the money that I got from selling fruits for learning to ride the motorcycle and take the rest back home.”

By the time she had her first set of twins, Diana had at least some knowledge about riding motorcycles, but this was not an instant solution. She still needed to earn enough to support her children. “I then prayed to God to at least help me use this little bit of knowledge that I had to feed my children, at the minimum,” she said. “When I realised that this job really fed my children, I give a big thanks to God.”

Diana’s three-year-old son, Pius, and a neighbourhood friend giggle at their reflections in the camera lens. Photo by Travis Sanderson

Although Diana does not have a motorcycle of her own, she is able to borrow one from a fellow driver for a fee, which she pays every morning after work. “The rest of the money, I use it to feed my children and other things,” she said. The extra money she makes riding at night helps her pay the boda owner with enough left to support her children.

However, riding at night while raising a family is not without its challenges. First, she requires the help of a neighbour, who agrees to stay with the children after Diana leaves for work around 6 p.m. Then, Diana must return home in time to get four of her five children ready for school each morning. She said she sleeps from the time the children leave for school until about 11 a.m. when her youngest son wakes up for the day. After that, she has household chores and three-year-old Pius to care for.

“I do all these things so that my children can live like the other children in their school and neighbourhood,” Diana said. “I also do this so that my children forget the meaning of poverty. And there are some times that I don’t have money, but I make sure they don’t know about it because I want my children to always be with a clear mind of having everything they need.”

I didn’t know how to respond, probably because I am fortunate enough to have never been in such circumstances. She continued, “So if [my children] ask me why I ride a boda and being the woman among the men who rides a boda, I always tell them to not worry. All they must think of is that I do all these things for them.”

As I began to wonder if Diana was the kind of person who has the power and potential to inspire the masses, I asked her if she had any advice to give based on her experiences. “To my sisters out there,” she responded, “I say don’t fear to do something that you feel will get you out of the situation that you are in now. Always remember the reason why the idea came to you in the first place.”

Community, Empowerment, Education, Development—or CEED—is a non-profit organization based in both Montreal and Gulu, Uganda. It works to empower youth to be change agents in their communities through cross-cultural skills development and information sharing.

Each year, students from Concordia University travel to Uganda and work alongside Ugandan interns on various community projects that aim to benefit the youth of Gulu.

Travis Sanderson spent three months working as a communications intern in Uganda this summer. He has produced both written material and radio documentaries that reflect his experiences with the people of Uganda.

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