The sight of Kenya’s all-female motorbike gang, the Inked Sisterhood, often shocks people in the socially conservative East African nation.
The group recently completed a 270km (170-mile) ride from the capital, Nairobi, south to Loitokitok town. Their black leather boots, guards, jackets and helmets are the only protection from the notoriously dangerous red-dirt roads.
Some residents of the town, which is on the border with Tanzania, did a double take, but these women are used to faces of surprise.
Patience Mehta (above), a farmer and administrator, started the Inked Sisterhood two years ago as a way to connect and empower women who ride motorbikes. It grew out of the Inked Bikers training school in Nairobi, where many of the women learnt to ride, and currently has 46 members.
The gang is one of five all-female biker groups to have sprung up over the last few years, including the Throttle Queens, Piki Dada and Heels of Steel.
Nicknamed “Empress Peanut” because of her small stature and admired leadership, Ms Mehta was inspired to take up riding after watching the 2010 US TV series Nikita, whose star rode a motorcycle in full black leather.
She rides a Hero Karizma ZMR 223cc – which she has named Babezy – and says the name of the gang is more of a metaphor: “The ink is what we use to tell our riding story – it’s not because we all have tattoos.”
Motorbikes, called “piki pikis” in the Swahili language, are a common mode of transport in Nairobi. Motorcycle taxis, known as “boda bodas”, also throng the city but some people find their drivers’ reputation for unsafe driving, catcalling and harassing passing women as they wait for customers off-putting.
While it is rare to spot a woman owning or riding a motorbike – more of them are seeing the benefits of donning their leathers to plough through the city’s congested streets.
“For the longest time we have had clear roles for men and women and motorbikes, as they are perceived as rough and dangerous, and therefore more masculine,” says Bettina Bogonko.
A medical professional who owns a Lifan 250cc cruiser – named Dragon – she says: “My turning point that fully got me on the road confidently was when my father gave me his blessing to ride and said he was proud of me.”
Hope Makwali, a project manager who rides a 1991 Honda XLR 250, agrees that despite Nairobi’s cosmopolitan nature “biking is considered a man’s domain for the most part”.
“The danger, grit, and courage it seems necessary to ride is not appealing for most women,” she adds.
Before she started motorbiking, social worker Amanya Kuchio was spending between five and six hours in traffic each day.
After thinking about it for three years she was finally ready to take the leap – on to a Hero Karizma ZMR 223cc – to save on time and spend more time with her family. “It is very therapeutic, cost effective, and I love zooming past vehicles stuck in traffic and feeling totally liberated. In addition, the support and unity in the biking community is just amazing.”
The Inked Sisterhood meet up every few months to take group rides. Their next one will be a 56km trip to a small town called Kimende, north of the capital. They are also in communication frequently to share tips and encourage one another.
They get together with the other female groups for big occasions, like International Female Ride Day at the beginning of May, but the gang has no affiliation with any of Nairobi’s several male motorbike groups.
Agi D’Costa, an accountant who rides a G-Wizz Puzey 150cc scooter, recounts how she overheard two men in a rural petrol station asking: “Do you think this woman can have children?”
She rang her daughter to prove them wrong, but they held to their belief that women riding motorbikes become infertile.
Human resources consultant Njeri Mbogo finds a heightened awareness and spirituality when on her Suzuki Gixxer 155cc: “I notice things that I don’t usually notice when travelling by car.
“I can feel the air, temperature change, smell, the views seem clearer and my senses are generally heightened. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
Sylvia Thiong’o, a microbiologist who rides an TVS Apache RTR 180, likes to escape the city and dreams one day of riding north on the newly tarred A2 highway from the central town of Isiolo to Moyale, which is on the border with Ethiopia.
The 500km trip would pass through several national parks with beautiful scenery.
Lawyer Doreen Murang’a says she is not big on material things: “But my bike [a ZMR Hero Karizma] is something I love. I’ve named her and I talk to her when she’s having a bad day and refuses to start.”
It is also a way of escape: “When riding you have to focus entirely on what you are doing, not an impending work deadline or life’s usual stresses. It’s you, your bike, the road and the wind in your hair and if you’re like me, a good playlist.”
Her advice for women who want to ride: “Life could end at any point, so fear should never stop you. If you want to learn, there is a community here waiting to learn with you, grow with you, ride with you.”
Nyambura “BlazeLife” Njuguna, resting above on her Kawasaki Z1000, agrees. A farmer who learnt to ride in the savannah grasslands, she says you also have to ride for yourself – not for show or for prestige.
The Inked Sisterhood urge other women to join them so they too can gain a sense of freedom.
“You don’t realise how the Nairobi you experience is shaped by transportation – whether cost of cabs, traffic, or time of day. Having a more flexible mode of transportation opens up a new dimension of the city,” one of the gang says.
Pictures: Katie Cashman, an urban planner and photographer living in Nairobi