Sunday, October 12, 2008

Taxis and the Usual Chaos: Traffic Accidents in Dakar

The road bandits, the never-ending potholes and the general craziness of the road I recently traveled between Parakou and Bembereke in Benin reminded me of my first African days on the city roads of Dakar, Senegal. In my first two weeks, I was in two traffic accidents! I wondered if I would survive the academic year if I continued to take motorized vehicles. The first was in a multi-colored "car rapide", an oxymoron of sorts for a mini-bus and the cheapest form of city transportation. (Car rapides will get their own blog entry someday.) A few days after my first traffic accident, my taxi bumped into another vehicle before we even got very far down the street from my apartment. I shrugged my shoulders and hopped out of the vehicle, as taxis stopped left and right to take the toubab anywhere she wanted to go. (Toubab is the ubiquitous term for "white person" or most lighter-skinned foreigners in Senegal.) I tried to be nonchalant about it, but my understanding is that car accidents are the leading reason foreigners die in Africa. I'll try to research whether that is actually true or not.

Having arrived in Senegal as a newlywed with my new husband, our two suitcases and a carry-on, we were not living the typical ex-patriot life abroad. We did not have a personal driver. We did not have our own SUV. In fact, we planned on taking public transportation as much as possible. I think I mentioned in a previous blog that there seemed to be as many taxis as people in Dakar. Certainly, this is an exaggeration but it seemed possible to us in those first weeks. There was an overabundance of 1980s Toyota Cressidas hanging on to a new African life as taxis in Senegal.

It was not hard to "hail" a cab. Exiting our 4-story apartment building on a side street covered in sand, we would walk about 100 yards to the larger cross-street, Rue 10. On Tenth Street, taxis would see our blond hair reflecting like a spotlight in the tropical Africa sun. "Here are the toubabs!" our glowing halos would announce. Literally up to five taxis would stop at the intersection before we even arrived there, in hopes of getting a good fare.

Getting a good fare, from our point of view, was important. It was a source of pride, and we felt it would help the next tourist or foreigner to get a fair price. So we did our best. It was recommended to ask the taxi driver to put on the counter, which would provide an accurate price, but in our two years, we rarely asked. The one time we had the meter on, the price ended up being much higher. We suspect he had the "night rate" on, but there was no way for us to see the difference between day and night rates. So, it was essential to commence firm negotiations before entering in the taxi, and to agree on a price. In 1997 when the price of fuel was not so terribly expensive, we were able to negotiate ride from our home to downtown Dakar for about $1. In a town like Washington DC, I would imagine the same ride would be at least $10. And for the "rich" tourists secluded at some of the high end resort hotels in Dakar, they were usually asked to pay around $6 for a short trip, a price which was really like highway robbery! (Keeping in mind, the average income of a Senegalese was probably $30 a month at that time, you can see that $6 is a lot of money!) The negotiations were time consuming at first, but as we learned good, fair, acceptable prices to the places we tended to frequent, the process became less onerous. It was all a bit of fun as well, especially as I began to learn and practice my wolof skills, the most widely spoken national language.

Now, after having a tough round of negotiations on the taxi price, it was more important to steel yourself for the crazy ride ahead. The drivers all seem in a hurry to get to their destination though you can never judge how fast they are going, because every speedometer in the country seemed to be out of order. The dented cars will pass dangerously, zoom through intersections, and have to dodge hundreds of pedestrians crossing streets in random spots. Even the biggest of intersections functioned as a free-for-all, without traffic lights. Surprisingly, before President Clinton came to Senegal on an official visit in 1998, many of these street lights were repaired. We breathed a sigh of relief. Finally we would feel more comfortable driving around in taxis. But no! Not everyone wanted to respect the traffic lights, and so it was actually worse than ever, because the typical road rules were thrown to the wind. A few weeks after Clinton's visit, most lights were broken once again, and life went back to the usual chaos.

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