Saturday, February 16, 2013

Hanging out with the Biker Gangs of Tanzania

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It doesn't matter that Tanzania's bikers only ride cheap, Chinese-built motorcycles and that they do not have access to fancy gear. They still ride because it sets them free...

Based in London, Kit Oates is a professional photographer who works with publications like Timeout, Flamingo, The Chap, The Observer, the Japanese edition of Vogue and various others. He’s also been a guest lecturer on photography at the University of Westminster and Eton college and, when not photographing, he says he attempts to refurbish his 1971 VW Camper van.

Kit recently visited Tanzania to do some photography for an American company organizing a volunteering program in Patandi, a small village in the East African country. There, Kit also happened to meet and photograph some of the country’s biker gangs and as he got to speak to these bikers, he got some interesting insights into the biking culture there. Here’s Kit’s story, in his own words:

I was mostly photographing at local schools and orphanages and soon realized that the opportunities the kids had after graduating were limited compared to the opportunities available to students back home in England. Industry was lacking in this part of the country, and most students were destined for a life tending the family farm or hawking souvenirs to tourists.

So it was with keen interest that I began photographing the groups of bikers. Not just a few, but lots, sitting on the edge of the highway, some hanging out, some looking for work or something to courier. In a country of huge unemployment and poverty, they seemed to be so far removed from trouble, casually hanging out as if they didn’t have a care in the world.

I soon spent my days off wandering down to the highway to chat to the bikers. To take pictures, but also to figure out how they had appeared and what they we’re up to. They would line the roadside, keen to drive me anywhere for a few thousand shillings.

The bikers that I spoke to were looking for a job to do or a person to transport. However with the number of bikers waiting and the lack of jobs, I suspected it could have been an excuse to hang out, to sit out in the sun on their bikes – an escape from the hard labour their brothers were probably doing on the farm or in the cement factory. There was also the suggestion by locals that the bikers had unscrupulous tendencies and considered themselves above the law. Many bikers do not have driving licenses and I was warded away on several occasions by locals concerned for my safety. I had heard tales in the village of late night crimes undertaken by bikers – usually petty theft or robbery. However in the daylight most bikers were amenable, keen to show off their bikes to me.

The motorcycle of choice in Tanzania is the ‘Toyo,’ a Chinese make of bikes that reached Tanzania’s shores in 2010. The Toyo is the epitome of the generic motorcycle. In fact it looks so generic and appropriated from other motorcycles, it begins to look oddly unique. The Toyo looks like it was built in a hurry, which is probably how it can be sold at around $1000 apiece. This affordable price has meant sales have skyrocketed in Africa, offering an affordable transport option for low income communities. They come into their strength especially in the rural areas, where dirt roads mean only a small vehicle can easily reach out of the way villages. A transport link that the government could never deliver. Some owners adorn the bikes with flags, scarves and trinkets, leaving the impression of a true pride of ownership.

The Toyo is not without its faults, of course. The low production quality means the bike is a dangerous vehicle, accidents are common and parts give way. I even heard horror stories of parts falling off mid-ride. Toyos also have a tendency to leak oil or fuel and in some cases catch fire, causing horrific injuries.

The opportunities in a rural area Like Patandi are few, and the Toyo gives bikers a chance to not only have an exciting job but also the freedom of riding a bike gives them. Regardless of their situation and their budget bikes, I like to think the Toyo riders share a common ground with all motorcycle enthusiasts around the world. Being able to escape at a moment’s notice and to be in control is surely something that draws bike enthusiasts wherever they come from. The feeling of freedom was quite clear. When I asked one rider why they do it, he said “because I get to ride everyday.”

Visit Kit’s website for more of his work

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We guess motorcycling isn't only about doing 300km/h on the latest GSX-R or Fireblade. If you are inclined to, you can still enjoy the ride even with rather more basic stuff...

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