“For the people who want to really do something but feel held back by fear, I will tell you this, life is short and it is unpredictable, therefore, if there is something that you feel will free your soul and give you joy, do it and do it now” – Hellen
Anne Hellen Githengu is a remarkable woman who has overcome her troubled past with absolute grace and fortitude. She is paving her own way and breaking barriers in everything she does. Anne is a single mother who rides a Honda motorbike and her ambition is to become a truck driver. She is as eloquent as she is interesting. She talks about her painful past, how her life was changed by a Facebook post and her love for riding.
Tell us a little bit about yourself
My name is Anne Hellen. I am a mother, I have one son. I am also a motorcycle rider. I am currently working in construction sites as a site clerk.
What does a site clerk do?
A site clerk holds all the details of the construction site, records everyday work shifts, prepares payrolls and also records in stock. I am at work from 9-5 pm but I have a lot of free time in between because it is not a job that is too demanding.
Take us back to your background, how was your life growing up?
I was born in Kijabe as the last born in a family of five. My siblings were significantly older so as I grew up, they were already adults who were working. I was fortunate to live a good life where we had financial stability and got everything we required. After clearing high school, however, things changed for the worst and life got a little challenging. My parents separated very later in life when they were in their late sixties and early seventies. The separation of my parents is probably the toughest challenge I have had to live through, and that trauma has led to me being hesitant about the union of marriage. I am scared of getting into marriage because I fear it might turn out as badly as it did for my parents.
My father was an alcoholic and he would frequently become quite violent towards the family. Our minds were tortured because it was hard to see good in life when there was such conflict at home. I would find ways to escape that toxic environment, it had stopped feeling like home and any other place was better.
Through that painful experience of having an abusive and alcoholic father, it became hard for me to trust men in my own romantic life. My fears and trauma got even worse once I got pregnant before marriage and my child’s father left us. Though I have my reservations about men, I try as much as I can to raise my son and mould him into a good man that respects women.
Having such a troubled past, was it difficult for you to move on with life and find your way?
Finding my way was a tough experience because when my parents separated, I had just given birth to my son. I had to relocate to the village to live with my father because I was living in a rented house at the time and didn’t have a stable job to support myself and my son. My experience at home was horrendous because my father was so violent at the time. I recall one night when almost stabbed me and my child.
I experienced so much stress that my breast milk was finished by the third month. I had fallen into depression and my body could no longer produce milk. I had no option but to feed my baby at three months even though the medical rule state that a baby should be breastfed until its six months old.
How did you remove yourself from that situation?
Around the year 2013, my father chased me, my sister and my mother away from home. We went from living on a big farm with a big house to a small rental house. Growing up on the farm, we had gotten used to living a self-sufficient life where we could get all our food from the farm. The contrast of then having to buy everything we needed was a big adjustment for us, but we still managed even though it was a big struggle.
When you moved to a rental house, did you get a job?
I had to because as much as I had my sister and mother, I still had to find a means by which to support myself and my son. I worked in a real estate firm as an agent, my role was to let houses and collect rent, I briefly worked for an NGO the decided to venture into business.
By this time, I had already moved out of my sister’s house, but times were hard, and money was getting thinner and thinner. I had to make certain decisions about the direction I wanted my life to take and most importantly, my son’s future. With the current situation in our country, employment isn’t something that you can depend on.
I talked to a Nigerian friend of mine who is a tailor and he agreed to pay me to run errands for him at a price. I basically did everything that he needed for a tailor shop, from buying fabrics, delivering clothes, buying buttons. I would earn three hundred shillings after a day’s work. My one-way bus fare from Nairobi to Kimende was ksh100 so my actual earnings were just a hundred bob. Later I talked to my matatu friends and they allowed me to act as a tout when I was making my trips to and fro. That way, I earn a little more and saved the amount I was spending on fare.
The more I was involved in the tailor shop business, the more I learnt to make an extra coin. I would charge an errand fee to the clients who needed their clothes stitched but didn’t have time to go to the tailor. Besides clothes, I branched out into carrying out all sorts of errands whether I was taking documents to an office or delivering food. I would carry out all these errands on foot, I walked extremely long distances.
Tell us a about a certain post you wrote that changed your life.
I have always loved writing and literature, the post I did was sort of my breakthrough into writing online. The post was driven by my desire to inspire the youths who were going through tough breaks in their lives because of unemployment. I basically wanted to tell them that it was possible to create their own opportunities and earn a decent living. I shared my own experiences about running errands in town and posted it to one of the popular groups on Facebook.
My post gained a lot of attention from the members of the group. Some of them pledged to contribute something towards my business to help me out. One lady stated that she would buy me a motorcycle to make my delivery work easier and to open more doors for me. Due to the sometimes untruthful nature of social media, I didn’t take her seriously at first. She called me that evening and assured me that once she back from the business trip she was on, she would buy me a bike. That was December.
On January the next year, she called me after she had returned from her trip and told me to find a bike that was the best for me and one that could be most efficient for my work. I picked the cheapest bike I could find. We met at the shop and her husband accompanied her. Once she saw the bike I had chosen, she insisted that a lady shouldn’t ride a bike that needs to be kick-started. Her husband topped up some money and we bought a TVS 125 CC bike with an electric starter and better in every way than the one I had picked earlier.
Having my own bike was such an emotional thing for me and I cried for the next week because it was just unreal how fast my life had changed. Growing up I had seen missionaries in my hometown riding bikes and I had always had a fascination for them. Having a bike that was all new and all mine fulfilled all my childhood dreams.
How did life and business change for you once you got the bike?
There was a significant change in business because, after the post, I got a lot of clients who wanted me to run errands for them and make deliveries. At some point, I was so overwhelmed by work and had to bring other people on board to help me reduce the workload. Generally, the bike made business way easier than before because I could make more runs and, in the process, earn more.
Did you face any challenges with the new bike?
There were a few challenges here and there. Though I knew how to ride a motorbike, I didn’t have a genuine driving license that certified me as a qualified rider. I actually risked riding a few years without a valid license. Ultimately, I got my license the legal way and I don’t have to look over my shoulder every time I approach the police. I would say a good friend of mine who is also a rider helped me a lot to get the license and the motorbike stamp.
I wanted to get proper riding gear because safety is very essential to motorcycle riders. New gear is really expensive because a good jacket costs around ksh14-16k so I opted to source for secondhand items which were more favourable to me which would range between ksh4-5k. When riding a motorcycle, you need to have good riding boots especially in Nairobi when you stop in traffic, drivers can easily run over your feet and are padded to protect the rider’s ankles in case of an accident, therefore, good boots are essential. A windproof jacket with a thermal liner to regulate temperature, it is padded on the elbows, shoulders and the backbone to protect the rider from severe injury, riding pants or knee guards and of course a good helmet. A friend from abroad helped me get quality gear and a am appreciative.
Are there many people who are in the business of delivery?
When I started, there weren’t too many people who had ventured into the field. Though I was based in Nairobi, I would make runs to different parts of the country. I then got in touch with a few people who lived abroad and needed some errands to be taken care of for the family they had left here. I do monthly shopping, deliver it, pay their tokens, change their bulbs and basically everything else that needs to be done.
These days, however, more people have gotten into delivery and competition is on an all-time high. Especially for me being in business with only one bike whereas there are people who have fleets of bikes and many riders. Once a client calls me for a job and finds that I am busy, they will likely move on to another rider who can run the errand within their deadlines.
How are you overcoming competition and the scarcity of jobs?
I am the kind of person that embraces change and sees it as an opportunity to grow and become better. It was then that I tried my hand in boda boda services. I moved to Kijabe, kept some of the delivery jobs that I had and became a boda boda rider. It was quite an interesting business and I used to journal my encounters. Being the only woman boda boda rider, business was really good, and I have no complaints about it.
How did you come to change bikes?
Being in an all women riding group, I was sort of the baby because I had the smallest bike. Though the TVS had taken me to Narok, Kisii, Rumuruti, I wanted a bigger with more engine capacity to help me keep up with the rest of the ladies and basically just to get a different riding experience.
The initial plan was to buy a bike for my son, I met a mzungu man who also had a bigger bike. Once I saw it, I opted to buy it first and get one for my son later. That’s how I got my Honda 250CC. It’s an old bike, the same age as I am but it runs very smoothly. I call it “Vin” which is short for vintage. My nickname for the TVS was “Tiny tequila” because it was small, but it gave me such a high and rush.
How different is the Honda from the TVS?
The difference is quite significant. The Honda is bigger, more powerful and most importantly it is my size because I am 5’9. It is also faster, and I can use it on almost every terrain. The TVS couldn’t tackle rough or hilly terrain but the Honda comfortably gets through.
Is it typical for women to ride such high bikes?
Very few of us ladies have Hondas, I haven’t seen too many women riding high off-road bikes. I think the reason is mostly because most ladies are relatively shorter and might find the high bikes a bit stressful.
Which riding group are you currently involved with?
I am a member of an all women riding group known as Piki Dada. It is an awesome group and the ladies have accorded me 100% support. Our main core value is to give back to the community, we are passionate about charity and we do it to the best of our ability. We are a close-knit group of women who support each other the struggles that we might be going through in our personal lives. We also mentor newbies who are looking to get into riding.
Which projects have you done with piki dada?
We carry out mentorship programmes for the riders in the boda boda services. We raise awareness about defensive riding and sensitizing the riders about the importance of proper riding gear. We are passionate about mentoring young girls in children homes and showing them that they can be strong capable women in everything they set out to do. Soon we are also planning to do a big event for the boy child well because they also need to be cared for and to be offered direction.
Which places have you been to as a group?
As a group, we have ridden to Kajiado, Machakos, Mombasa, Magadi and Kampala town though I missed that one.
Describe the planning that goes into these long-distance rides.
Before any ride, we have a briefing where we designate a leader and a sweeper. We also set the distance we will take in between stopovers. The leader is typically the one with the most powerful bike. She is the one most conversant with the route and we follow her. The sweeper is at the back of the pack and her role is to make sure that no one is left behind. The sweeper is usually an experienced rider.
Plans for long rides are very precise, we know where to stop over and it makes it easier to account for all the riders. For such rides, we rarely use any specific formations. What happens is, riders are grouped according to the size of their bikes. Some bikes are faster than others, therefore, it wouldn’t make sense to ride as a single group.
What is the best thing about riding as a group?
Riding as a group is quite amazing. You learn to embrace everyone because there are slow riders, faster ones but the essence of being a group is that we are always a single unit. This teaches you patience and the spirit of accommodating every rider.
When riding in the V – formation, the sound is really beautiful. When you put all those different bikes in one place, the engine noises are unlike anything else. It’s exciting to the mind; soul and you just want to keep on riding.
How does your son feel about you riding a bike?
He is my number one supporter. He embraces what I do, he appreciates the sacrifices I put in for the sake of our family. Sometimes he pushes me to do tricks on the bike and he brags a little to his friends whenever I am going for long rides or whenever I am on tv. The general vibe I get from him is that of support and I appreciate that a lot.
Being 5’9 and riding such a big bike, do you inspire some intimidation when it comes to dating?
There is definitely some intimidation especially for the men who do not ride. They rarely even say a word, they probably wonder how a woman would ride such a huge bike. Some men especially the Subaru drivers, can get very competitive especially when you overtake them on the road, those ones are just trouble. There are some, however, who genuinely appreciate my strength and ability to handle the bike.
What does the future hold? How long do you want to keep on riding?
I want to ride till am very old, I would like my grandchildren to find me still riding if God wills it. I would like to own my dream bike the Honda DR 650CC which is bigger and more powerful. With that bike, I would be in a position to plan trips around the continent or even the world.
I am very business-minded and I would like to own a fleet of trucks one day. That is the ultimate dream, to establish a courier business. Before then, I am looking to get my license to become a long-distance truck driver.
Being a woman rider, aspiring to become a truck driver, does it ever occur to you that you are breaking barriers and inspiring women and girls everywhere?
Most of the times it never occurs to me that I am doing something significant. I just feel like I am doing something very ordinary probably because I am used to doing things that most people don’t do. It is only when I tell people about what I do or when I share my plans for the future that I realize what I am doing is of great significance to the lives of people who want to pave their own paths but feel held back by a fear that they might not meet the expectations set for them.
Any last words?
For the people who want to really do something but feel held back by fear, I will tell you this. This life is short, and it is unpredictable therefore if there is something that you feel will free your soul and give you joy, do it and do it now. If you want to be a rider, buy a bike, ride and live your best life. You deserve that much.
Find Hellen Githengu on Facebook.