Gbarnga, Bong County - For 16 years, the blazing sun and heavy rains did not deter Ezekiel Peabody from driving a motorcycle through Gbarnga’s busy traffic, transporting passengers across the city and nearby towns and villages.
The “Pehn- Pehn’’ business has been good to Peabody, 37.
Profits from the motorcycling transport business enabled him to build a three-bedroom house, send his three children to school and buy two vehicles that he uses to transport passengers between Gbarnga and Monrovia.
“I must tell God thanks for my life. I have managed to do a lot for me and my family,” he said.
The “Pehn-Pehn” business is a major trade for young Liberian men.
The Liberia Motor Transport Union Bong County chapter estimates that over 5,000 Bong County youth are registered with the union.
They are among 60,000 registered members nationwide, said Leon McGill, the union’s national President.
Many of the Pehn- Pehn drivers are young people who created jobs for themselves instead of hanging out on the streets with nothing to do.
Peabody got into the business when he started helping a friend who owned a bike. He transported passengers and made weekly sales reports.
He was operating on “work and pay,’’ commonly used among motorcyclists. The way it works is that the owner of the bike hires a driver who earns commission based on the weekly sales report.
“I was very serious because I knew my life was tied to this,” he said.
After four months of working for his friend and boss, Setonic Brown, Peabody earned enough money to buy the bike for US$800.
Peabody said Pehn- Pehn is a good business, if a person is serious. He earns about LD$1,000 a day.
He said he’s come a long way since his days as a child soldier with former President Charles Taylor’s defunct Anti-Terrorist Unit. He never wants to return to that life again.
“I can own my own money without harassing people for it,” he said. “I now know the importance of life.”
Peabody averages about 30-45 passengers a day. The business is good, but also, it is dangerous.
In 2013, Peabody’s motorcycle collided with a vehicle traveling in the opposite direction. Peabody nearly lost his leg. He’s had four accidents since he started the business.
‘Bike riding is very risky,’’ he said. ‘I nearly quit when I had the accident in 2013.’’
Kennedy Vesselee, 29, started his business under the ‘’work and pay” system.
He was a helper for five months before earning enough money to buy the bike. He now has a car that he uses as a commercial vehicle that runs between Gbarnga and Monrovia.
Vesselee graduated in 2014 from Cuttington University with a degree in agriculture.
“When I was serving as a helper, I was very serious and committed to the deal,” he said. Vesselee said he’s glad that he can earn an honest living.
Profits from Pehn –Pehn enabled Emmanuel Mulbah, 36, to open an entertainment center in Gbarnga. He’s the owner of “Place to be” entertainment center.
Mulbah rode Pehn-Pehn for nine years before opening the entertainment center.
“Today, I feel great because of what I have earned from bike riding,” he said. “Some people feel riding bike is a disgrace but as for me, I didn’t feel ashamed.’’
Pehn-Pehn is a well-known business, and there is a need for training for motorcyclists, he said. The frequent accidents, some which are fatal, stems from the lack of training, Mulbah said.
“Most of those in the traffic are not trained in bike riding,’’ he said. “They learned on apprenticeship.’’
The scar on Tarnue Pewee’s forehead is a reminder of his days as a Pehn-Pehn driver. He was injured when his motorcycle collided with a vehicle that was coming from the opposite direction on the Gbarnga-Melekie highway.
Pewee, 38, used the Pehn-Pehn profits to build a three-bedroom house and buy a vehicle that he uses to run passengers from Gbarnga to Monrovia. He moved into his new home last week.
Pewee said he would like to see the government invest in job training programs for young people. Though Pehn-Pehn is a good business and has been good to him, it’s dangerous.
Investing in job training opportunities, according to them, could lead to other employment and help reduce Pehn-Pehn fatalities.
“If skill training programs were created by the government in all the counties, those who died from bike riding would not have died,” Pewee said.
Samuel Elliot, President of the Bong Chapter of the Liberia Motor Transport Union, said a growing number of the county’s commercial motorcyclists are doing well.
Over 85 of them have built their own homes, 75 bought cars, some of which are used as commercial vehicles and 10 have graduated from Cuttington University, he said.
Seven others are enrolled at the Cuttington.
Elliot agrees with Pewee that the government needs to create more vocational training opportunities for vulnerable youth in the country.
He said he was glad that motorcyclists in Bong County have realized the importance of the Pehn-Pehn business and are expanding into other business and getting an education.
About 10 to 15 of the motorcyclists contribute to a Susu Fund where they each make weekly payments of LD$1,500. The weekly payout to one member is about LD$6,000,
Depending on how much is contributed to the fund.
“I am so proud of my members, Elliot said. ‘’They are proving critics wrong by doing things people don’t expect them to do.’’