The life-saving mission of Tanzania's killer taxi bikes
- 23 November 2016
- From the section Africa
Tanzania's motorcycle taxi drivers, often associated with deadly road accidents, are being trained to become life-savers, writes Ross Velton.
Motorcycles used as taxis and known as boda bodas are time-savers for people who need to get somewhere in Tanzania's north-western city of Mwanza.
They seem to be the only way to beat traffic jams. But when you get on the bike and wrap your arms around the driver, you are actually putting your life in his hands.
In the first half of this year, there were more than 5,000 road accidents in Tanzania. More than a quarter of them were motorcycle accidents.
Boda boda drivers are often blamed for causing the problems on Mwanza's roads. They might get you where you want to go quickly, but they have a reputation for driving recklessly.
There are hundreds of them competing for fares, which increases the risk of accidents.
But that is also where trainee doctor Marko Hingi saw an opportunity to turn boda boda drivers into true life-savers.
He was inspired by the fact that wherever there is a medical emergency in Mwanza, there is likely to be a motorcycle taxi driver nearby.
"We have human beings here and we can use them as volunteers to help," says Mr Hingi, who works at a hospital in the city.
Splinting fractured bones
He is also head of the Tanzania Rural Health Movement, which recruits boda boda drivers and turns them into first-responders, acting like paramedics.
"In the past when somebody got injured, he bled while people looked at him until he died," says Anicet Mase, one of Mr Hingi's volunteer drivers.
Now Mr Mase zips around Mwanza wearing a fluorescent orange vest and a backpack full of bandages and other first-aid kit.
He and the other volunteer drivers have been trained in basic first-aid, such as keeping airways open, stopping bleeding and splinting fractured bones.
The drivers also have mobile phones and are linked to a system called Beacon.
Mwanza's fire station receives calls reporting emergencies.
A dispatcher enters the details into the Beacon software, which then sends a text message to everyone linked to the system.
If a motorcycle taxi driver is nearby, he can respond to the emergency.
"We've designed [the Beacon] to be used in countries that don't have the resources to implement a robust EMS [Emergency Medical Services] system," says Michael McGee, the East Africa representative of Trek Medics International, which developed Beacon and runs a similar programme in the Dominican Republic.
This "robust" service involves people calling for ambulances on emergency numbers such as 999, 112 or 911.
But this is expensive and does not exist in many poorer countries. It is up to the sick and injured to get to hospital any way they can.
When Mr Hingi was six he remembers his sick mother walking to hospital, worrying that wild dogs would attack her on the way.
That childhood memory inspired Mr Hingi's dream to become a doctor and bring ambulances to Mwanza.
"Communities are suffering because they lack a good system to help them," he says.
As for Mr Mase, he is driven by the idea that boda boda drivers are now given the opportunity to counter their bad reputation for putting lives at risk on the roads.
A big part of his work is to deal with injuries caused on the roads.
About 90% of the 1.25 million people killed every year in traffic accidents die in low and middle income countries.
However, there is a limit to what motorbike drivers can do to help.
Some of Tanzania's roads are in too bad a condition for them to reach patients and evacuate them safely.
So, even though the motorcycles in Mwanza find it easier to avoid potholes and wind through traffic, there is work to be done before boda boda drivers can really claim to be saving lives rather than putting them at risk.