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Bold and beautiful

THE THROTTLE QUEENS, a group of six bold, biking women rode from Kenya to Kigali to challenge themselves and raise awareness on road safety. HARRIET JAMES caught up with them on their experience and more...

It’s early Friday morning in April and a group of six women is set to begin an audacious adventure that will see them ride their motorbikes across Kenya, cut through Uganda and wind down in Kigali, Rwanda. Riding an average of 120kph and covering 1,163 kilometres, Aisha Mohammed, Rhoda Omenya, Njeri Mwangi, Victoria Musyoki, Ciku Njenga and Mary Wanjiku were on a mission to raise awareness on road safety. According to a WHO report, as many as 3,000 Kenyans lose their lives to road accidents every year, most of whom are vulnerable road users like pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. Up to a third of the deaths are of passengers killed in unsafe modes of public transport.

“The promise of adventure beckoned. We hoped that other women would see us make this incredible journey and be inspired to ride or to dare greatly, whatever their mission. We also wanted to make a statement on road safety,” says Njeri.

Njeri, 38, whose husband, activist Boniface Mwangi, is also a biker, began riding for the convenience, as it made it easier for her to reach her place of work in time. She was lucky; her husband supported the idea fully, going as far as buying her a bike. Her parents and siblings, however, had concerns. “They considered it too risky, especially because I am a mother. They have since come to terms with it and only ask that I be careful when on the bike,” she says.

For Rhoda, 33, it was about taking inspiration and running with it. “A lady biker walked into my former workplace one day and I knew I wanted that to be my thing. I got in touch with a motorcyclist friend who introduced me to her trainer and that was it,” she says. Her first time on the road was scary and she had difficulties, especially balancing the clutch, but she managed to get a week’s escort from Inked Bikers. Her parents were resistant, but after engaging with other bikers she had invited home, they came to accept it.

Aisha, 37, an adrenaline junkie and human resource manager, knew she would be met with disapproval, which is why for a long time, she hid her riding from family, friends and co-workers. She remembers feeling panicked and overwhelmed when she was starting out.  She has since overcome her fear and let her friends and family in on her biker lifestyle.

Victoria, 32, has been riding since 2004 on her mother’s recommendation – a rider herself. She took up riding to overcome other phobias. “Growing up I was afraid of a lot of things. I was afraid of the dark, of my own shadow, of latrines, of snakes and of the unknown. My mum said that if I overcame the fear of falling, then I could overcome anything,” she reminisces.

On her end, Ciku, 46, was a tomboy who had wanted to ride ever since she was a kid. Her first lesson was a godsend. “My church organised a three-week riding trip – I was elated. They also arranged for a certified teacher to train us.” Her husband thought she was having midlife crisis when she took it up later. She has had her son trained to ride, although she says she is not yet ready to see him on the road. Her extended family is generally supportive, forwarding her clips of herself, when she has been spotted riding on TV or social media.

This would not be the Throttle Queens’ first cross-country trip: they had previously ridden to Masinga Dam, Kereita Forest, Pelican Lodge, Nakuru and to Moshi in Tanzania.  Victoria and Ciku founded the group in February 2017, hoping to redefine the biking culture and debunk stereotypes around female bikers in a field dominated by men. With this trip, the queens wanted to push their limits further than they had before. The furthest they had travelled to up to this point was Moshi in 2018, on invitation to attend the Miss Kilimanjaro pageant.

Due to its distance and charm, posing various challenges physically, emotionally and even financially, Kigali seemed like the next best destination.

Planning

Planning such an ambitious trip wasn’t easy. They had begun planning it two months earlier, saving up the money they would need. “We couldn’t afford to go with the wind. Bikes have considerably smaller fuel tanks than cars and due to a tough economy, fuel prices were high. Luckily, Vivo Energy Kenya agreed to sponsor the fuel charge from Kenya to Kigali. Still, we had to plan out our fuel stops. We also had to book accommodation in advance in towns we planned to sleep over. But this wasn’t hard; we received a lot of love from Uganda and Rwanda. Word of Kenyan female bikers making a trip through the three countries got out and people were cheering for us even before we rode out,” says Aisha. The group also received mechanical training in the event of a breakdown. They learned how to change and pressurise tyres, jumpstart their bikes, change the coolant and check for broken fuses, snapped cables, torn chains and jammed gears.

On the road

“We rode 439km from Nairobi to Malaba on the first day. It took us about eight hours and 30 minutes with three stops in Naivasha, Nakuru and Eldoret to eat, rehydrate, fuel our bikes and see off fellow bikers who accompanied us to say goodbye,” says Ciku.

The scenery was breathtaking. The horizons converged in perfect V-shapes with the roads rushing to meet the patches of vegetation and the sun spilling over distant mountains. It was like watching a painting come alive. On the second day, the Throttle Queens rode 221km from Malaba to Kampala. The Malaba-Kampala leg took them about five hours; they lost two hours at the Kenya-Uganda border and stopped in Jinja to have brunch. “We loved the bridge where River Nile passes – the view was spectacular,” recollects Victoria. They received a mixed bag of reactions from passersby and drivers, some enthusiastic, others disparaging. “Some drivers were supportive and gave us way, but others purposefully rode us off the road. A few pedestrians clapped when we whizzed by. They surrounded us when we made a stop, with questions about our venture,” Mary adds.

On the third day, the ladies rode the 515km from Kampala to Kigali, making a stop at the Equator to take photos, another stop at Masaka to eat and a final stop at Mbarara to fuel. The queens arrived at 10pm in Rwanda’s hilly capital. Biking through Kigali attracted curious stares from Rwandans, who are unaccustomed to female motorcyclists. Their visit attracted a lot of media attention and a meeting with Rwanda’s chief of tourism.

They had wanted to use the Tanzanian route on their way back to Nairobi, but their bikes’ fuel capacities were too small. “It’s a long, strenuous stretch, which means we’d be rushing to the next fuel stop, denying us the chance to take in the scenery or enjoy the trip,” says Njeri. After nine days on the road, the Throttle Queens arrived back in Nairobi to a warm reception from press and fellow bikers.

Challenges

While it was a rewarding and exhilarating ride, the Throttle Queens faced a number of challenges. First was the muscular fatigue and persistent pain in their backs and behinds from hunching for long periods. Second was the concern for safety and risk from reckless drivers. “Considering the disconcerting number of distracted and idiotic drivers both on two and four wheels, the danger on highways is magnified many times. People think public highways are their personal property. They will heedlessly drive in the opposite direction or perform a U-turn right in the middle of the road. Slow down at turns because there will always a driver waiting at the end of a blind turn to ruin your day. We counted at least 10 poorly designed intersections in a stretch of a few hundred kilometers that are actually at the end of a long sweeping turn!” exclaims Victoria.

In Kampala, they had to maneuver through congested traffic stemming from narrow roads. “We had a difficult time getting through, but we received assistance from local bikers who helped pave the way and showed us alternative routes in and out of the city.”

In Kigali, they had to adapt to riding on the right-hand side but again, they received assistance from the Kigali Free Bikers, who helped them navigate the city’s hilly terrain.

Future plans

“Our BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) is to ride to South Africa and back. We hope to do this in the next three years. One of the things we need to do prior to the undertaking is to upgrade to bigger bikes, which are quite expensive. We hope to have made the upgrade by then – if there is anyone reading this that’s willing to support us in that, we would be immensely grateful,” concludes Victoria.

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