Motorcycle diaries

Observations on Mali

No woman likes to ruin a good hairdo, not even the motorcyclists of Bamako. Mali’s hot, humid capital has been inundated by deux roues, or two-wheelers, in recent years, thanks to an explosion in imports of cheap Chinese motorbikes and the woeful state of public transport, which mainly consists of rickety green buses overloaded with weary, sticky, commuters. Bamako’s roads are treacherous places at the best of times. Traffic lights are scarce and crossroads are a lethal combination of “it’s my turn” and “you go first”. A string of roundabouts, each with a towering monument to a past leader or national event, adds to the confusion. The city is split in two by the gaping expanse of the river Niger, and rush-hour traffic must squeeze over two bridges, though the Chinese are busy building a third that should ease some of the congestion.

Zipping in and out of the dusty cars, motorcyclists pay little attention to the rules of the road. Though Malian laws requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets and display registered licence plates have been in place for two years, there has been little threat that the lumbering authorities would ever enforce them. Helmets are a rarity and illegally imported motorbikes without plates are easy to spot in Bamako’s motorcycle log-jam.

Both motorcyclists and motorists are meant to have a valid driving permit, but lessons and knowledge of the highway code are more difficult to buy than the permit itself, as long as you know the right person to offer an envelope of CFA francs.

Last October, concerned at the rising number of deaths caused by motorbike accidents in Mali, which reached 296 in 2007, the government announced that motorcyclists had six months to buy helmets and register their vehicles. But Malians were having none of it, particularly the rising ranks of women drivers. Blaming the price of the helmets (which cost around CFA5,000, or £6.50), they complained they needed more time to comply. In truth, their concerns were less about cost, than the chaleur and their coiffures.

The motorcyclists complained that helmets were not designed for West Africa: with average temperatures in Bamako above 30 degrees all year round, wearing a helmet is asphyxiating. And it does not do wonders for hair that has taken hours to fashion into the newest style. Faced with dissent and disinterest, in April, six months after the original announcement, the government agreed to prolong the grace period until the end of 2009.

The motorbike has become a status symbol for young Malians. Belying their Chinese origins, the most popular make is the Jakarta, named after the Indonesian capital. Roughly two-thirds of the estimated 500,000 motorbikes in Mali are Jakartas: more fuel efficient than other bikes, but less sturdy and more accident-prone. Prices vary depending on the owners’ penchant for following the law: bikes bought with valid licences cost CFA375,000 (£490) and those without, around CFA340,000 (£440).

Compared to bicycles, which cost around £80, motorbikes are not cheap; but five years of 5 per cent GDP growth have seen disposable incomes rise, and with them young people’s hunger for mobility. “The motorbike facilitates life,” says Souleymane Drabo, editor of l’Essor, a daily newspaper in Bamako. “It’s very practical, more practical than dangerous.”

The Malian government has said it will spend CFA15bn (£19.5m) to improve road safety and set up a national road security agency. Following the lead of neighbouring Burkina Faso, which has created a network of pistes cyclables in its capital Ouagadougou, there are plans to build more lanes for bikes and motorcycles in Bamako. The few that are already in place consist of a line of roughly laid out bricks along the side of the road – easy for motorcyclists to slip out of to cause mischief, like unruly cyclists in any European capital. The government will need to take a tougher line on disobedient drivers. And design a new helmet that keeps the head cool and well-coiffed.