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.”
Check out the Author & Awesome Photographer: Kit Oates