To wear or not to wear a helmet? That is the question boda-boda passengers struggle with every time they climb onto what has quickly become Kenya’s most popular — and most dangerous — form of transport.
The internal debate is not informed by safety concerns in the event of an accident, but by the rather more pertinent matter of hygiene. How safe are the helmets motorcyclists issue to their passengers? How often are they cleaned? And with what?
Those were the questions we sought to answer when we embarked on a small observational study in Nairobi, home to tens — perhaps hundreds — of thousands of boda-boda operators.
Our study found that quite a number of boda-boda operators, about two in every eight, carry extra helmets for their passengers. Not much to write home about considering the huge risk of riding a motorcycle without protection, but still a small step in the right direction.
One of them, who only identified himself as John, said that even though he has a helmet for his passengers, not many use it.
“They say it is dirty, or that their skin is sensitive and they might be infected with a skin disease,” he said. “A lot of women also do not want to mess their hair, so they ride without the helmet.”
But is his helmet as dirty as his customers suspect? He said not at all, as he wipes it with a damp cloth every day.
“There’s a sponge inside, it will take a very long time to dry properly if you wash it with soap and water,” he explained.
Another operator, Mr Lai Magani, agreed that most passengers do not like wearing helmets. Their excuses include the claim that they are just riding for a short distance, it feels heavy on the head, and it is not comfortable to wear. But Mr Magani admitted that he does not clean his helmet.
“This one is new, I haven’t cleaned it yet. I only got it two months ago,” he said, displaying a blue helmet with a brown layer on the inside, where one’s forehead would touch.
Josintar, another operator who has only one helmet, said it is futile to have a helmet for passengers.
“There’s no time to help a passenger into a helmet. If the kanjo (county enforcement officers) find us here struggling to wear helmets, they will catch us and fine us,” he explained quickly before zooming off to evade the city council askaris, as he was in the city centre illegally.
The fear pillion passengers have of catching a disease from helmets is valid. A 2012 study conducted in Nigeria on the microorganisms found inside shared commercial helmets discovered several types of infectious bacteria and fungi.
The study by Ms Betty Edeghagba and three other scientists, whos findings were published in the Journal of Microbiology, Biotechnology and Food Sciences, sampled 300 helmets from two popular destinations in Lagos — the Yaba College of Technology and Lagos University Teaching Hospital. Two sterile swabs moistened with sterile water were rotated along the lining of the helmets and cultured to determine which organisms would be found.
They found microorganisms that cause boils, impetigo, food poisoning, cellulitis and toxic shock syndrome.
They recommended regular cleaning of the helmets with sterilisers to minimise the risk of transferring diseases from one passenger to another.
A discussion on the etiquette of sharing helmets on the social platform Stack Exchange suggests that passengers can provide their own shower cap to limit the contact of their skin with the actual helmet.
Others suggest a cap or other forms of headgear to keep the dirt and germs at bay.