Birth by Boda Boda: Bumula riders who provide free emergency transport to women in labour

Gordy taking a woman in labour to hospital in the company of a nurse    Photo:NamedAfrikaStudios

The man arrives at the health centre late at night. He is helped by a community health volunteer, and between them, they support a wailing, pregnant woman as she struggles to walk into the facility. A nurse takes the woman to the labour ward while the man gets someone to sign a little book and then leaves.

He is back two hours later, in different clothes, wet and bloody, but this time he is holding a baby in one arm, while supporting a tired woman with his other. The nurses rush towards him and relieve him. They know him well. He is here almost every night. He is not staff; he is a Good Samaritan.

We travelled to Bumula village in Bungoma County to find out from the 34-year-old father of three, Godwin Simiyu Wanyonyi (Gordy), just why he does what he does. Many men would rather walk through fire than assist a woman in labour. But in Bungoma we met quite a few. They are ordinary men, boda boda riders with a calling to assist women in labour, to support them by taking them

— free of charge

— to a health centres for medically assisted deliveries.

“I don’t know why, but most women give birth at night,” he begins in Kiswahili. “Some nights I get as many as three urgent calls. I respond to all. Many of them are in advanced stages of labour and this for me means that we sit on blood and water all the way to the health centre. Sometimes we make it. Some- times the baby comes on the way to hospital.

I never shy away from the challenge of helping out. Most times the lady is accompanied by a birth companion, a community health worker, her mother-in-law or a female relative. Sometimes, like last week, it’s just the two of us.” Even at the best of times, the rush to hospital is uncomfortable with the ever-present risk of losing the mother or child during the journey. This is even more challenging in the counties outside the capital.

In some places, women are ferried on the back of lorries transporting quarry stones in attempts to save their lives and those of their babies.

“Many places in the county are inaccessible to regular ambulances due to climatic and infrastructural challenges. Many homes are kilometres away from the nearest health centres and can only be accessed through footpaths, sometimes mountainous ones like the ones in the Mount Elgon area. Some women are brought in on makeshift stretchers while others come in on wheelbarrows. Boda bodas, though considered dangerous by many, are the most popular means of transport,” says Bernard Mare, a transport officer at the Ministry of Health in Bungoma.

Gordy has been a boda boda rider for 9 years. In June last year, there was a Government campaign to recruit riders to transport villagers to hospital, especially at night. In partnership with GlaxoSmithKline and Save the Children, the Government published a list of requirements.  The riders needed to be sober-minded, dependable, always available, and possessed of a volunteering spirit. Criminals and habitual drinkers were not encouraged to apply. They were looking for people who would best represent the community.

Gordy decided to try his luck. “The requirements were deliberately stringent. With the challenges in the area, including security, we needed mature men, with good reputations, valid riders’ licences, insurance and a log book showing that they owned the bike they were riding,” explains Felix Makasanda, a community development officer at the Boresha Programme.

By the end of the call for riders, the community shortlisted five men and Gordy got the most votes. Now he could fuel his bike for his mercy errands and have something left to care for his family.

“It’s not easy,” his beautiful wife Janet Nafula contributes. “Many of the women get pregnant in the harvest season and give birth during drought. Many times these calls come in at night. As a human being there are times I feel bad, but I have learnt to wake him up and release him with a prayer. The night holds many issues. I am proud of what he does. Sometimes it rains, and on those nights, he can get as many as three calls. This means I have to wash more clothes, but I do not mind. I know he is out saving lives, and I trust him totally,” she says. “He is a responsible father and husband. We have never slept hungry, he has bought us a home and my children are all in school by God’s grace, the last being in a private school. He has also helped set me up a small hotel business. We also farm goats, chicken, maize and beans, which is where we started off.”

But speaking of the other women in his life

— the women in labour

— how do they get in touch with Gordy? “My mobile number is like a hotline around here,” he says. The chiefs announce it during funerals, in churches, at the hospital during clinics and at meetings. Traditional birth attendants and community health volunteers also have it.”

Mildred Simiyu is one of his beneficiaries.  She had her baby in March this year and when she went into labour, she had no way of getting to the hospital. It was dark and raining and the path from her home in Bonambobi village in Bumula was narrow and full of twists and turns. Her home is about two-and- a-half kilometres from Gordy’s. Her mother-in-law had heard about a boda boda ambulance that transported women to hospital for free.

“I was surprised by how fast he responded. He rode fast and it was just the two of us that night. My mother-in-law had to stay back to care for my other children. Gordy saved my life and that of my baby Hilda. If it was not for him, I would have died because Hilda’s chin presented first,” Mildred says.  

Jessica Wamalwa had a similar experience. She got Gordy’s number from a neighbour at around 11pm in the night. It was raining. “I was overwhelmed but he was gentle and encouraging. Sometimes he would use his arm to hold me steady. My mother-in- law rode with us. By God’s grace I had baby Prosper at 3am,” she says.

Gordy confesses that there have been some challenges. The weather. Bad roads especially on rainy nights. His susceptibility to frequent bouts to malaria and pneumonia. Lack of proper riding and safety gear.

“I also wish that they would train us in basic first aid so that we would be more useful in cases where the babies come before we get to the health centre.” Gordy’s colleagues are grateful for his commitment to the cause, which has impacted all of them. Like Gordy, thanks to contributions from Government and civil society, many have bought land and built simple homes. Some are educating children all the way to university. Reflecting on the service he provide, Gordy is philosophical. “I am convinced I was born to do this. While I am grateful for the help I have received from civil society partners, I did it before and I will do it long after they leave.”