27 January 2013

In Togo Taxi Hails You

For a while now I have been meaning to talk about the transportation here.  It is an issue that really affects my life, but I kept telling myself that I wanted some major event to occur so that I could relate my story about how crazy transportation is.  But the other day, as I bounced along though the motocross course that is the road to my neighbor’s house, I realized that I have been in Togo so long that I have stopped noticing the fact that basically every time I travel it is an absurd event.

Unlike some other West African countries, like Ghana, in Togo the main form of transportation is the motorcycle or “moto.” There are a handful of cars, but unless you are traveling on very major routes you will most likely be taking a zimijan (moto-taxi). For this reason we Togo PCVs are some of the few with moto privileges. Out of our neighboring West African Peace Corps countries, Benin is the only other one where volunteers are allowed to hop on the back of a zimijan. Helmet required of course!

In New York, unless you hail it, a taxi won’t stop for you and even then sometimes they seem to fly right by, but here is doesn’t matter even if you don’t want one, the zimijan will hail you. From across the street you’ll hear it “Tssst! Tsst!” maybe a hand gesture and an “on y va?” (Let’s go?) They may be zipping down the road in the opposite direction but they’ll slam on their brakes and turn around just to hiss at you in the hope you might actually want to hop on. Walk down the street and you’ll have twenty zimijans hiss at you, no matter how determinedly you walk or if they just saw you turn down another moto, it is always “on y va?”  It helps having them make themselves known from the private motos, but when you are walking down the street talking to a friend and every moto that passes you hisses, shouts, and gestures to see if you want a ride it can get pretty ridiculous. I need a light up taxi sign for myself, except the light will go on when I want a taxi rather than when I want passengers. Sadly I don’t have the wiring necessary, all I can do is sigh and shake my head, “No, no I don’t want a ride, I have feet, I am walking.”

The driving skill of the drivers can vary a lot too. If I’m planning a trip I have one driver who I trust and I call him ahead of time, but not every trip is planned in advance. On one trip to Aneho, where normally we weave around the potholes, my driver decided to drive straight through each and every one. He graciously shouted “doucement!” (be careful!) after each bump, but his message of caution had no impact whatsoever on his driving style, next pot hole “doucement!”

With the road conditions as they are it can sometimes be difficult to not hit a bump or two every now and then, and even with one passenger the roads can be perilous, but just one passenger isn’t how things work here. While technically it is illegal, you often see whole families piled onto a moto--that is saying sometimes upwards of three adults and children. Live animals, construction equipment, and containers piled high—everything you think might not even fit into the trunk of your car is carried on the back of a moto. It hardly has to be said that navigating our roads with overly full motos is dangerous, and thousands of people die every year from motor vehicles accidents.

In many villages there isn’t a single car available, the moto is the only mode of transport, so really all there is to ask is, “Tsst! On y va?”

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