Kenyan Cyclists Protest, I Get a Face Full of Tear Gas

IMG_6034When in Nairobi, we usually park in the lot of the Catholic Basilica (it’s cheap) which requires crossing between Nairobi’s City Hall and the Parliament Building.

Today, we noticed that there were more motorcycle taxis than usual. One of the riders was angrily chastising the other cyclists and waving his helmet around. It was pretty clear 1) this guy was bad news and 2) something was going on.

As we approached City Hall, we came upon a loud demonstration of hundreds of cyclists, who are protesting rising harassment from the Nairobi police. “Boda bodas”, as motorcycle taxis are known here, are equally as much of a trusted form of public transportation as a public menace. Riders will swerve in and out of traffic, cross lanes haphazardly and are known to run over pedestrians. Mostly, as a car rider, I find them to be nuisance. Some of the drivers can be seen drinking in the middle of the day.

Listening to the angry chants of the riders, I quickly noted to my driver that the US State Department specifically advises Americans to stay away from any and all political demonstrations. They can turn from peaceful to extremely violent with little warning.

I tried to take a couple of pictures with my phone, but as soon as I pressed the button, I heard what sounded like gun shots. Totally familiar with guns, I dropped low to the ground and started trying to run, but was quickly overtaken by a crowd of suits. Shots were still cracking and I was in panic mode trying to get across as many bushes as possible. When shots are going off, you really don’t have much chance to look around and see where they’re coming from, so you just run as quickly as possible in what you think is the opposite direction.

Finally, a cloud of tear gas wafted over and everyone around me started hacking. I quickly realized that the gun shots were actually the sound of police firing tear gas canisters at the crowd of cyclists, who were now spreading everywhere. Fear turned to annoyance. All the suits around me acted like this was a daily occurrence. No screams, no shock, just collective annoyance. “This happens all the time” is how it was put to me.

We crossed the street where the demonstration had been, got what we needed and we back through. Soon we could hear the drivers again. Seconds later, there were hundreds of them blocking the streets. Joseph signaled that we needed to leave, and again we heard the cracks of tear gas and followed a couple hundred people running away.

Oddly, we went and took care of our business without even mentioning the event and walked back again in front of City Hall. Stones were all over the street. The bodaboda drivers probably started throwing them at the police. I wanted to think that pedestrians were tossing them at the cyclists, who clearly didn’t give a thought to how dangerous the situation could have become.

Being tear-gassed is no fun at all. I was struck, however, by how indifferent Nairobians were to it. They seemed to view it as just another common annoyance of city life. In the States, the event would have made the front page of every newspaper in the country, and would have been a long subject of debate.

After I got out, I started to dig in to what exactly they were protesting about. Apparently, rival gangs of bodaboda drivers are killing each other, stealing gas and hacking security guards to death with pangas. In addition, locals have had enough of them, even blocking off entire highways to get the government to do something about the motocyclists. The bodaboda guys are apparently angry because the police are doing their job and arresting them.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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