For the new issue of Klorofyl, Tolu Oloruntoba spoke with Tony Akarah, banker and avid cross-country motorcyclist. The Nomads Issue [pdf, 100 pp., 29mb], is available for download now. Get the full issue here.
Klo: So, introductions… Can you tell us a bit about yourself? Give us some info about your background and current circumstances… How should we approach you?
TA: My name is Tony Akarah. I’ve been married for 13 years. I have a 12 year old girl, I have a 9 year old boy. My life revolves around family. I say a lot more about my family than my career. As a matter of fact, a lot of people don’t know what I do until I tell them, because my lifestyle is a bit inconsistent with what you expect the life of a banker to be. I strongly believe what is said in my church,: your relationship with God first, then family, and finally your calling. This is who I am as a person, now, onto what I do.
I’m a banker; I’ve been in the industry for 14 years. I’ve always been in sales. I work for an international organization called Standard Chartered Bank. Standard Chartered is British owned, been around for well over a century, but has been in Nigeria for about 14 years. I learned the difference between marketing and sales in Standard Chartered. Marketing entails market survey and analysis, while sales involves taking the business to a client.
I’m a sales person, and I think I do a pretty good job (laughs)…. if I say so myself. That’s my primary source of livelihood, asides that, I make investments, because I’ve noticed that if you don’t control your money, your money will control you. It is easy to get into trouble managing your expenses if you don’t have a clear-cut goal. And as Christians, apart from paying tithes, it’s important to differentiate between our needs and wants.
Klo: You have a very interesting hobby, you ride bikes… That’s not very common. Can you tell us about that? It’s very interesting when you see people that pursue things out of the ordinary, and have an adventurous spirit, and I think… people need to hear more of that, especially with your busy schedule, how, and why biking?
TA: Outside of work and family, the next thing that floors me is riding. I started riding motor bikes about 9 years ago, unlike a number of my friends who started riding before they got married. Everybody says ‘Ah, you’re a married man, you have kids, you can’t ride’. I don’t think so. I tell them, if you know how to drive a vehicle before you know how to ride, you ride safer.
Klo: So there’s hope for those of us who only drive cars, then?
TA: (laughs) Yeah, there should be hope for you. I never encourage someone that doesn’t drive to ride a bike. This would mean your first means of transportation is a bike. Such people are a hazard to other road users and themselves. Because I drive, I know how drivers think. When I’m riding, I anticipate what a regular driver would do, and this preserves me.
Also when riding, it’s best to not struggle with people in cars, on tight roads, and intra-city, because they’re protected, your own body is your protection on a bike. So you try to be sensible let them pass. When you see open road, ehen, you can now, let them eat dust (chuckles).
Klo: Why biking?
TA: I’m in the financial service industry. There’s some stress attached to selling credit, or selling debt. People who work for local or international banks need something to help manage the pressure People resort to drinking or other vices. I ride to manage mine. When I get on my bike, everything else pales in comparison. I don’t think of anything else when riding, so it’s a way of letting my hair down, calming my nerves, and it also helps to put things in perspective. When riding, the realization that not all problems can be helped dawns… So many times, just leave it; let it go, take off… When you come back, you look at it from a fresh angle, and then, a solution presents itself.
Klo: Thanks for that. How were you introduced to riding? Had you always harbored the wish, or somebody ‘recruited’ you into it?
TA: First things first, to be able to ride, it’s helpful to learn how to ride a bicycle, because it helps gain balance. Once you can balance on a bicycle then you can ride a motorcycle. I used to ride my bicycle to school, when I was in secondary school those days; I got the hang of riding a bicycle so the natural progression was for me to get into riding motorcycles. I had a couple of friends in town, in Ibadan who ride occasionally, they introduced me to riding. . There’s actually a motorcycle club I am a member of, called Steel Knights Motorcycle Club.
TA: There was an adventurous spirit in me that my friends noticed. They knew I was Christian and though I didn’t chase girls or drink or smoke with them, they thought I had a zest for life. So they asked if I would like to ride a motorcycle, and I said ‘Sure, when can I start?’ But there was a catch. Motorcycles are expensive, nobody is going to give you their motorcycles to learn on and they are different from the common okadas. So I scrunched up some money, and a bought a semi-wrecked motorcycle. My friends took me to Awo Hall in UI and they pushed me and said ‘change to gear one’. I rode on Gear 1 from Awo to UI gate, that’s about 4km.
My bike was going hhrrrrrrrrrr!!!!! (screeches) all the way to outside of U.I. Interestingly, 4 days after, I went for my first out of town ride, to Calabar. It was crazy! (chuckles)
Klo: All that way? Wow! That’s cross-country biking, basically. What prompted that first trip?
TA: Well, when the number of people riding motorcycles in Nigeria grew to about a hundred. People came together and said, ‘Wait a minute, we’re becoming a bit significant, let’s start a convention where everybody can come together and get to know each other’ The convention was a yearly event The first convention took place a year before I started riding, and the next, was a week after I’d started learning to ride.. So my friends said ‘Tony, you started riding, ehn… Stop claiming you can ride if you don’t go out of town’. That’s what prompted that. I’m a daring and pretty competitive person. I used to play basketball for UI, I played for Oyo state as well. Competition was something I was used to. And I never let go a challenge
They mentioned it but I didn’t think about it because I hadn’t even perfected my riding. When I was told they were headed to Calabar, I said ‘Guys, I’m not sure, you know I’m not so good at it’. The next morning, they were at my door.
TA: It was early and I was still sleeping. I had made up my mind that I wasn’t going to go. They pressed my bell and five of them were revving their bikes in front of my house, saying ‘Tony let’s go to Calabar’. I said, ‘Are you guys crazy?’ My wife was dazed. I said No, no, no, I can’t go, but I changed my mind and decided to go. I went in and told my wife ‘Tope I’m sorry I’m going to Calabar o. She was like, are you nuts? I said don’t worry, look at the guys, I’ll be fine. The trip should have taken six hours but it took me 2 days. I slowed down the rest of the pack because everyone was trying to protect me. Also, my bike was faulty, I had problems with the battery, charger, but it didn’t deter us. I still made that Calabar trip. There’s a national motorcycle club of Nigeria, there’s a mag. There’s a picture of me in that mag… I was riding a green bike. It was a 750 Kawasaki ZXR… green, blue and white, I’m remember very vividly. My battery was tied to the back of the seat so that I could still ride into Calabar. They gave me an award that year…
Klo: (laughs) for what?
TA: Most dogged biker (laughing)…
Klo: Would you consider yourself an adrenaline junkie?
TA: Let me put it in perspective (clears throat) I went for a convention in Port Harcourt about 3 years ago. I left Port Harcourt by 9am and got home by 1:30pm, so you do the math.
Klo: That’s an average of about 200km per hour? 200? 250?
TA: My average was 200 depending on how good the road was, but I got up to 300 and even 320, I don’t like the word junkie but sometimes … (trails off)
Klo: How do you keep yourself safe?
TA: First things first, you don’t compromise on your kit. Every year, my kit costs me between 350 and half a million. Every year, I need to upgrade, get a new kit, get additional kits. Helmets are important too. Right now, I have 3. Once you land on the helmet, the helmet is useless. Any okada guy can use it. Once you drop, you’re no longer sure of effective your helmet is going to be if anything happens in the future. You also have to keep yourself abreast of safety riding skills. There are some schools in Lagos, once in a while, stop by and check. There’s the biker community in Nigeria, there’s an online forum where people share skills on staying safe, but having said that, I think it’s still God that keeps us. I’ve had 2 accidents…2 really bad accidents.
Klo: Were they high speed collisions or…?
TA: One was the other one wasn’t. The first one, it was a cager. Bikers call people in cars “cagers”. I was going jejely at 60km/hr. I was going somewhere in U.I. and somebody just came out a T junction without looking and took me up. I landed on my head but I was properly dressed. Of course, my helmet was a write-off, my riding pants all got torn, my jacket was torn it was my first shocker, my first accident after 6 years of riding. So I pulled back I didn’t ride for about a month? But it is said that once you crash, if you lay off, it will kill your spirit. We told ourselves, once you crash, as long as you’re still able to, get back on your bike immediately. My bike was quite damaged but I fixed it and a month after, I was riding again.
About 3 months after, I had a crash, which was my fault. I was going to Ilesha, at maybe 200 and I entered a pothole. Well it wasn’t my fault, it’s the Nigerian government, they didn’t fix the road (laughs). I entered a pothole at 200. It was a lousy accident and I was out for a year.
Klo: You broke something?
TA: Yeah, I shifted my shoulder blade but I broke my pride, I broke my bike, I grazed my butt. Of course, my ego was battered and I just stayed off after that. My wife took it serious and said ‘Are you nuts? You want to kill yourself and put me into trouble? ‘ I eventually had to balance my home and passion, and we reached a compromise that I was going to stay for a year, till her faith was enough to sustain me again.
Klo: What are the examples of places you’ve visited?
TA: I’ve ridden to 29 states in Nigeria I’ve been to Makurdi, that’s the furthest I’ve done. I’ve gone to Calabar, Port Harcourt, Abuja Lagos is regular. I used to go and eat pepper soup in Ijebu Ode (Laughs).
But the farthest I’ve done? I rode to Ghana with a few friends (Klo: How about crossing customs and all that?). You need to get an international driver’s license; international insurance and then you have to get a valid permit for your bike because, to get to Ghana, you have to go through about 3 countries? Nigeria, Benin, and Togo, before you get into Ghana, and at every border, you go to get stamped. They’ll waste your time, and collect some money… so the actual trip itself would have been maybe 8 hours, but because of the time you spend at the borders, you end up spending like 16, 17 hours… but still, that was a lot of fun.
Klo: What are the supplies you pack either within the country or across countries?
TA: There are stunt junkies or speed junkies, they just want the breeze in their head. I belong to the latter. I ride pretty fast so I need to ride light. The most crucial thing is the tire repair kit if anything happens to your tire, you can fix it and take it to the next mechanic or wherever it is. Yeah, red light, tire repair kit and of course your phone. Money is a given.
Klo: Do you ride to work?
TA: When I was in Ibadan, I used to ride to work on Fridays (Klo: but your suit would be under?) No, because we dress down I could ride to work on Fridays…wear jeans and boots, but during the week, I didn’t.
Klo: Where do you find the time to ride?
TA: When I started riding, myself and my guys are out of town every weekend but age has mellowed me a bit. Whatever you have passion for, you make time for. It’s as simple as that. I have friends that play golf. If you have passion for something, make out time for it.
Klo: So what bikes do you own now?
TA: I like to sing about my bikes. I’m on my 4th bike. I’ve done the fastest production bike ever made. Actually I crashed on that twice, that’s why I dropped it. (Klo: what was that model?) It’s a Hayabusa. Suzuki 1300… it’s called a Hayabusa. In England, it’s called a Widowmaker (laughs) (Klo: very apt). Yeah, it’s very apt. Currently, I ride a Z 1000 Kawasaki 2013. Yeah, that’s my current bike. Aspiration: I’m going to buy a Ducati once my wife approves.
Klo: How do you reach a compromise with your family in terms of sharing you with your passion?
TA: I don’t mess with my family time so I can’t have plenty of friends; church and home….because I know that when I’m riding, my phone is off. (Klo: What about a hands-free set?) It’s not safe, Nigerian roads are lousy… and concentration is paramount because of the risk of what we’re doing so I don’t do Bluetooth When I’m riding, I’m riding; when I’m home, I’m home. The compromise with my family is that I always tell them I’ll come back home and gist with them. The day I crashed I picked myself up, called my wife told her I’d crashed and was coming back home. That’s the balance.
Klo: What will you say is your most memorable experience from riding?
TA: Companionship with guys of like mind…really, that’s the most memorable one. The camaraderie you build with such people. Frankly, a number of my business partners now are bikers because we’ve been together under very dangerous conditions. When humans are pushed to the extreme that’s when you know the quality of the person you’re stuck with…when you’ve been riding for 14 hours, tired, hungry, dehydrated and guys are still sticking out their necks for you. Those are the kind of people I want to do business with for me, the highlight of it has been the comradeship, and the second thing is the thrill you get from riding 200- 280km/hr?
Klo: Talking about aspiration, what are you other plans for the future, bike-wise?
TA: errr….Plans are underway to do the South African trip (Klo: on road?) by road, yes (K: throughout?) yes (Klo: when?) The first fellow is going to do it by the end of the year so we’re going to learn from his own experiences and mistakes. So yeah, the test chap is already billed to do South Africa return by the end of the year. So my own aspiration is to do South Africa return trip in another 18, 24 months (Klo: Solo?) no. Solo is not fun. He’s doing it solo but I don’t enjoy solo rides.
Klo: Roughly, how many days do you think that will take?
TA: Maybe a week.
Klo What are the life lessons or the important insights you have gained about people, life, yourself, the adventure…
TA: Hmm… I’ve come to understand this about people- they respect what they can’t do. Everybody goes ‘Ah! Man! How are you doing it? That’s dangerous!’ but at the same time they’re drawn to you because they can’t do what you’re doing. Riding has taught me to have faith. Before a ride, the best guidance is GPS. Most of the places I’ve ridden to, I’ve never been there before but I just had faith that we were going to get there, and I never entertained doubts that I wouldn’t come back home. I mean, if I can conquer Nigerian roads as bad as they are, then I can do anything once I set my mind to it, and for me, I think that’s the greatest lesson I have learnt riding.
If you keep weighing the risks, you won’t get around to doing anything. You can’t wait for standard temperature and pressure. Roads are bad, cops are lousy, there are few proper hospital facilities in Nigeria. But if you look at all that, fear will not let you do anything in life. So what I’ve said to myself and now to all the people who want to ride – Do your homework, protect yourself as much as you can but don’t let fear put you down. People have accidents when they’re driving cars, even planes crash, but that doesn’t stop people from flying or driving. It’s all in the mind. I’m beginning to take some risks in my investment life as well, because of the way I ride. I can… I mitigate it as much as I can, but it doesn’t stop me from going ahead…
(Klo: daring but not reckless)
TA: Thank you. Thank you for putting it that way… (laughs)
Klo: Any last words you have for our readers?
TA: Yes, we’re looking for converts (chuckles), especially Christian bikers. Riding helps you express yourself. I also think it helps you to kill fears, which is one of the major things I have with Nigerians- we’re a very fearful people I’m not encouraging people to be reckless but the fear of danger is affecting our ability to use our initiative or even to go into the unknown and, nobody makes anything worthwhile out of the known. We’re in Nigeria where we don’t even have electrical power. This is where you make things happen and the way to build yourself to that level is if you’re able to kill those small fears in your life. One of the ways to kill those fears is to get on a bike and let your hair down.
TA: So when are you starting?
Klo: (startled)Starting what?
TA: Starting biking, or have I not done a good job convincing you? (both laugh)