Bush Taxi Commandos

It had been a game to the driver, the madman at the wheel of the pickup truck, slaloming between potholes on a narrow, tortuous mudtrack at, I estimate, close to 50 miles an hour. He had looked responsible enough in a clean blue open-collared shirt and faded jeans. But his driving suggested that he didn’t share my concern that one tire in a deep hole at that speed, and it would all be over. The pickup would spin around in the slick mud, perhaps blow the tire; with the weight of the passengers and the baggage on top thrown to one side, it would flip and hit the sandy roadside, burst like an overstuffed grocery bag and shed metal parts, bodies, pieces of bodies.

Regardless of nationality, everyone who drives in Africa drives like this— with heat-inspired, desperate, pedal-to-the-floor insanity, heedless of reason, ones own or anyone else’s desire to live beyond the next turn. The driver becomes his vehicle, soaking up the power—enjoying it mentally and physically—lusting for the freedom of unregulated roads; there are no speed limits. He drives as if life must be chased mercilessly to the end and finished in a bright flash, a nova.

This time, though, my fear was wasted. The truck arrived intact at the Niger River in northern Mali. It was August 2, 1987, 4:30 p.m., an hour after leaving the city of Gao, about 200 miles east of Timbuktu. A steady drizzle that had been falling all day had just stopped. The clouds cleared, the air cooled, and a lurid, brick-red sun cast a maroon glow on the desert banks of the muddy river. I jumped off the tailgate, happy to be in one piece. The vehicle I had just arrived in was a battered, doorless, white Peugeot 404 pickup with a gray canvas stretched over an aluminum frame in back. A three-foot high pyramid of baggage was strapped on top—grain sacks and cheap nylon airline bags mostly.

It was a bush taxi (a taxi-brousse or bachee in Mali), a private car whose owner rents out for transport of goods and people. Any automobile can qualify, but most taxis are pickups, Peugeot station wagons and minibuses in patchwork condition. From 1985 to 1988, I covered more than 30,000 kilometers in them in a dozen West African countries as a Peace Corps worker and journalist. But this visit had been a vacation from my Peace Corps teaching job in neighboring Niger, and it would be the longest of my bush taxi journeys. Once off the pickup, I intended to cross the water and wait by the police checkpoint for a taxi south to Bamako, Mali’s capital, to see a friend.

Twenty others had shared the rear of the pickup with me, sitting on wooden benches and on the floor: farmers in long khaki and brown tunics, a few women returning from market in brightly-colored dresses and wrap-around cloths, a flimsy wooden crate with six noisy chickens, and a thin teen-age boy on my lap. On the floor, a white goat lay calmly on its side, facing me, its front and hind legs bound. The air stank: stale sweat, beer, goat dung, roasted meat.

Bush taxis are dangerous, dilapidated, slow, crowded, demoralizing, suffocating; they are also fast, intimate, exciting, equalizing, enlightening. They are bowls of human soup, microscope slides of a society, mobile windows on the raw cultural, economic, political vitality of Africa. Aside from minibuses, Peugeot 504’s, and pickups, semi-trucks, Mercedes sedans and many other types also do the job. Bush taxis leave when they are full and arrive whenever. They are cheap, used by all levels of society, and responsible for much of the trade in West Africa. Whatever rolls works.

At the river, I had paid a boy to take me in his canoe the half mile across the slow-moving chocolate mass to the road connecting Bamako to the north. I waited at the checkpoint, sipping coffee sold to me by a young man at a food table beside a guard hut made of millet stalks. In West Africa, checkpoints can serve as car parks, too, where travelers buy spots in taxis.

“Ah patron, you’ll pass the night here,” the coffee man had said in French (Mali is a former colony). “It’s too late to get a ride.” At once he burst out laughing, pointing at a couple emerging from the hut—a stout woman and a soldier, she a little taller than he. The woman stumbled, laughing with the back of her hand over her mouth, as the soldier rushed behind, yelling: “Il faut me respecter, il faut me respecter!” Then, like a gunshot, the first kick went off. She went down.

The woman—perhaps 200 pounds, five-feet-ten-inches tall—in a flower-patterned multi-color wrap-around cloth lay sprawled on her stomach in the loose wet sand at the roadside. She was laughing hard, uncontrollably, a staccato, high-pitched laugh, punctuated by deep, gasping breaths. The soldier, short and thin like a fence post, stood over her with rage equal to the laughter.

“Iimm-bee-cii-lle!” he roared with French emphasis on the syllables, his arms at his sides. The woman rose on her hands and knees, giggling; wet brown sand dropped from her front in small, dark clumps. But the soldier, in faded olive green fatigues and a black beret, again applied the toe of his right foot in a heavy black leather boot to the center of her behind, sending the woman’s baggy arms out so her torso landed with a thud that expelled the air from her chest in a loud grunt. “Ooooomf,” She uttered no protest, betrayed no pain.

“You insult me,” shouted the soldier, hands on hips, chest heaving. This time the woman stayed put, wordless, propping her elbows in the sand to rest her head in the palms of her hands. Her eyes looked skyward, bored. Lethal contempt. The soldier, scowling behind a splotchy black beard, stomped off to his hut, drawing a pink curtain across the entrance. She rose calmly, brushed off the sand with cold dignity, spreading out the wrinkles in her wet, sand-stained cloth with both hands. She paid us no attention, and walked away slowly with short, determined strides, to the northwest along the river’s edge.

The coffee man shrugged. “Every week the same thing.”

I did get a ride that night—on an 18-wheel grain transport. The driver had delivered his cargo in Gao and on the way back was taking passengers in the empty trailer—an impromptu bush taxi. It rolled off a motorized pontoon ferry an hour after the beating. The hiss of hydraulic brakes prompted the soldier to emerge from his hut, sleepily rubbing his eyes. The driver apparently knew him and waved, smiling. He had already paid off the soldier, maybe, because the soldier waved back limply, retreating to his hovel, uninterested except in his own problems: his impotence, perhaps, or whatever that woman had laughed at. He never looked at me and the driver wouldn’t have either had I not approached him as he stepped down to buy cigarettes at the table; two young men in European dress jumped down from the trailer—passengers.

The driver wore the weight that prosperity brings in Africa; six-feet of hard bulk: fat and muscle. A dirty green turban was wrapped around his head, but not covering his charcoal-black, clean shaven face. He had on a knee-length blue trench coat, unbuttoned, over a collarless open-necked white tunic and baggy black trousers. He leaned back against the truck’s front grillwork, eyeing me carelessly—as if I were of no consequence at all, which I wasn’t. From his coat pocket, he cracked peanut shells, popping the nuts to his mouth. Bargaining posture.

Bargaining didn’t happen, though; the driver had the advantage. He wanted 18 dollars (6,000 francs) to take me 400 miles to Mopti, a major river port halfway to Bamako. “Too much,” I replied. He shrugged and turned to climb back inside the cab. I looked back at the guard hut and then at him. I said, “okay,” and paid. He took my bills and jerked his head to the rear of the truck’s cargo carrier. I walked back to find Fd be sharing the space with 40 others.

At the French embassy in Niamey, capital of Niger, weeks earlier, the consular officer behind the counter had frowned at me. Visas for Burkina Faso, she said, were no longer obtainable there, and no Burkinabe mission existed in Niger, scuttling my plans for a direct, roughly 800-mile trip west across Burkina Faso to Bamako. Short, skinny woman with a narrow face, thin lips, shoulder-length stringy black hair; she wore a white, sleeveless dress, the collar open to reveal a neck shiny with sweat. Rotten air-conditioning. Her hard stare said: “Why would you want to go there by land, anyway?”

To get to Bamako, I’d have to travel around Burkina Faso, northwest, over the Niger-Mali border to Gao; then southwest through Mopti—about 1,000 miles total. A Niger government bus, she said, made weekly trips to Gao. After that I’d have to ride “les taxis-brousse.” The visa problem would add two days or more in a bush taxi. Such problems are a normal part of travel in Africa. It can take days to overcome geographic and bureaucratic obstacles to cover any distance, short or long, especially when crossing national borders. But I worried most about having to spend more time in bush taxis. I wanted to leave Africa alive, and intact. “’C’est fou! Prenez Faviorí’—Its crazy! Take the plane,” the official said.

Overland was cheaper. I took the bus from Niamey to Gao—a relatively comfortable two-day ride. From there, the battered pickup took me the short distance to the river, where the bush taxi journey would begin on the national highway in the grain transport.

7 p.m. I climbed on the truck after my pack, just as the rig jolted forward away from the river and the guard hut, on its way to Mopti. It was still light, but the trailer s front end, where most people sat, was dark and the faces obscured. There were peasant families with belongings spread on burlap and four young men in European dress, probably students. People stayed in groups of four or five: men in gray robes and tunics with white skull caps; boys in shorts and T-shirts; girls and women in colorful cloth, nursing babies, mending sandals and clothes. Five peasant men laughed and talked in low tones.

Against a wood-frame side wall there was room for me to sit and stretch my legs. I rested on my pack, my head against boards bolted two inches apart to thick wooden poles. A green nylon sheet was tied down over the open roof and walls; it sheltered us from wind and dust and flapped violently, loudly, like rolling garbage cans. The floor, too, was wood, brown with age and splintered. It felt coarse with a thin film of millet and rice. I slept on my bedroll, knees against my chest, and awakened at dawn to see a soldier in the trailer checking identity cards. It was the Army checkpoint at Mopti, 6:30 a.m.

A macabre motor history of Mali lies sandblasted and crumpled along the two-lane national highway between Gao and Bamako. Car skeletons decorate the sandy roadside most of the 800 miles, every 20 to 30 miles or so—the remains of trucks and smaller passenger vehicles that just died or wrecked.

The wrecks seem to stay forever, twisted metal frames stripped and half buried in sand drifts. One wonders if automobiles lie beneath, layered in rough order of model year. Most of the machines had been bush taxis, top-heavy with people and cargo when they overturned at high speed on a sharp curve or hit a pothole, tumbling over and over, spilling things, animals, people, body parts, like drops off a paddle wheel. Road travel through West Africa resembles this—a legacy of the overburdened, unregulated, frightening, but critically important free-lance rural transport network that West Africa’s economies depend on. The bush taxi system.

On a continent where few own cars and governments cannot support large transport systems, taxis fill a void. They make up nearly 100 percent of motor traffic in rural areas. Almost every kind of citizen and everything manufactured, smuggled, grown, and stolen in West Africa passes weekly through sprawling outdoor car depots in the cities. Similar systems exist in many countries where private car owners are rare: from the Middle East to Southeast Asia; from Africa to South America.

Mention of bush taxis to many people—African or not—who have traveled widely there, produces grimaces of pain, nervous laughter, stories of delightful adventure, crowded and excruciatingly uncomfortable rides, accidents witnessed or experienced. Horror stories stick in the mind. One accident in Niger, an American aid worker reports, left mangled bodies strewn about like shredded paper after a minibus went off a road. It had failed to make a sharp curve. In Nigeria, an ex-Peace Corps volunteer remembers the driver of a Toyota pickup, lying next to his wrecked vehicle in a roadside field, a piece of metal rod from the roof frame thrust far down his throat.

It’s not that crashes are any more gruesome than in the United States; it’s that somehow they take a more sensuous, raw, position in everyday African life. The debris is not swept away, at least not quickly.

Car accidents in Africa are eight to ten times higher than in developed nations, and remain a leading cause of death. Bad driving and chaotic city traffic are to blame, says a 1990 World Bank study on urban transport. Its language is in that dry, detached, metallic lingo of international development: “Poorly organized traffic flows, lack of physical segregation and poor driving habits are thought to be some of the chief causes of high accident rates.” The words suggest a simple solution—re-route traffic, educate drivers!

Not in Africa. “Washington drives me crazy,” a Sierra Leonian information ministry official once told me of driving in the North American capital. “All those God-damned traffic lights and speed limits. They get in the way.”

Air-conditioned minibuses and coaches in wealthier West African coastal countries don’t count; neither do government bus systems. They run on schedule, full or not, with fixed fares. Stewardesses work on some, pretty, big-breasted women in tight dresses who serve wine, cheese, hot meals. If a passenger wants to sleep with one, that, too, can be arranged. Prices are so high that only foreign tourists and the African elite use them. Bush taxis these are not.

Richard Barrett, an Englishman and the World Bank’s chief man on African transport, told me this of bush taxis: “Quite frankly we don’t know an awful lot about them.” A report Barrett wrote estimates Africa has 12 million motor vehicles, but it gives no breakdown by country. Studies by the World Bank and other development organizations have not been that specific.

Salif would pilot the Peugeot station wagon from Mopti to Bamako. I met him in the Mopti car station early in the morning after my arrival, when I bought a place in his taxi. I paid 5,000 francs—about fourteen dollars—to a station official and loaded my bag on the car roof. Then I waited.

Salif leaned against the closed driver-side door of his car, right foot over the left and his right arm folded over his chest with the hand tucked under his left armpit. From thigh level, his left hand pumped a homemade cigarette—clasped between thumb and forefinger—to his lips three or four times a minute. He smoked with his eyes on the white tissue cylinder as if it might get away. Driving or not, the cigarette stayed like a sixth finger, drawn from his shirt pocket, which also held a pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses. His taxi looked sturdy. It was undented, with windows and dashboard dials intact. The tire treads still had bite. My hopes were high.

Taxi drivers are an elite corps in Africa and Salif had the personality— Gregory Peck in Twelve O’Clock High, standing tall by his Spitfire, earnest in leather flight jacket and white scarf wound once around his neck and thrown over the right shoulder. Driving a bush taxi carries status and the promise of adventure and freedom. To get a taxi license, one officially needs a period of apprenticeship as a driver and a mechanic, a regulation easily bypassed by bribery.

Salif stood six-feet tall and spoke three languages: his native Bambara, Hausa, French. He liberally mixed them at times, speaking to me, other passengers, the police, so It sounded like one language. He dressed well: brown loafers, finely pressed tailor-made black cotton trousers and a white, short-sleeve collared shirt with the top three buttons undone. The thin gold necklace around his neck was genuine, he told me.

I wanted to ask Salif, “Captain, are we cleared for takeoff?” Instead, I said: “Driver what’s holding us up?”

He mumbled in French, “Papers,” without looking at me. “The park chief has the registration papers.”

“Oh.” He didn’t talk much.

Salif’s vehicle, the Peugeot 504, is compact, a nine-seat workhorse of the West African road, with a four-cylinder engine. Many come from Nigerian factories or Europeans who sell them after crossing the Sahara. A Syrian merchant in Mopti owned Salif s car, whose rear cargo space was stuffed with nylon tote bags and a cardboard suitcase. A big lump of baggage on top—the heavier stuff: furniture, grain sacks—was firmly fastened with ropes and covered with a blue plastic sheet; a green iron twin-bed frame stuck out at bottom. And we had our passenger quota: three women and seven men.

Dozens of 504s and minibuses in various states of dilapidation occupied the Mopti station, a sand lot a few hundred yards from the Niger River. Hundreds of people packed the space—merchants with food and clothing stalls, travelers, pickpockets, beggars, drivers, mechanics. Men sold omelets and coffee at wooden tables, and boys in rags patrolled with trays of fresh roasted goat meat. Others sold music cassettes from wooden boxes—Salif Keita, Alpha Blondi, Jimmy Cliff, Rod Stewart. But lodging, travel information and toilet facilities were absent. Westerners’ wishful fantasies.

Salif smiled. I was sitting in the shade of the car against the left rear wheel, reading V.S. Naipauls Guerillas. “’Allons s’y’—”Let’s go,” he said. Putting his palms against the door, he pushed off and walked to the ticket office where a man behind the counter had signalled to him with a raised sheaf of papers.

The three women, wearing bright multi-colored dresses, had been seated in the taxi’s third row for ¾ an hour; now a man, in white T-shirt, burlap trousers and plastic sandals squeezed in back with them. Salif said the women were going to Bamako to join their husband. They were big people, with double chins, digital watches; tiny plaster apples, oranges and bananas hung on rings from their ears. I climbed into the second row, but polite protests and a gentle hand on my right arm stopped me.

“You are a guest,” insisted several men. “Sit in front.” So I took the front middle seat, while four men piled into the second row. A man in smart European clothing—navy blue pants, matching suit jacket, white shirt—took the other honored spot: the window seat next to me. He called himself Sidi, a government clerk, and he had paid for the seat. Behind me sat four middle-aged men: one in long, clean white robes and a skull cap; two others had on homespun cotton trousers under knee-length, collarless shirts, brown and white. The fourth wore a dusty khaki robe, matching trousers and a white skull cap.

I tried body-position options. Two seemed viable: stretched out with feet under the dashboard, and the fetal position with knees drawn up. Those behind me sat with their knees raised high, jammed against the seat in front. I sat half on Sidis seat, and half on the emergency brake. From a small leather shoulder bag for money and travel papers, I pulled a spare shirt and wadded it to pad my seat.

Salif got in. with his papers, in a floppy black plastic binder that, he let me see, held the following: log book with vehicle travel history marked by blue checkpoint stamps, police signatures, mileage records; registration papers; destination forms signed and dated by station chiefs; Salif s drivers license and identity card; a wad of pink and brown 1,000-CFA bills “for the soldiers.” He clipped them to the sun visor.

Cigarette between pursed lips, he started the engine, grabbed the gear handle on the side of the steering column with palm down, pulled it toward him and then shoved it over into drive in one clean move. The car shot forward, forcing people to run out of the way. It was 10 a.m. We had 600 miles to go.

Three miles down the road a white cement block building marked the city checkpoint. It stood just off the highway in vast brown and flat terrain, hard crusted with occasional licks of green—baobab or neem trees in the distance. An iron chain hung across the pavement between two wooden posts. Beside the hut, a big millet-stalk shack sheltered a thin teenage boy in orange gym shorts and a white T-shirt. He sold sugar, cigarettes, dried tomatoes, and onions from atop an old metal card table. His black hair had turned tan from blowing sand and the dark skin of his face and arms was caked with white scales of dried sweat and dust.

Checkpoints pepper Africa’s roads like open sores. Passing the chain on one side, travelers enter a state of frozen uncertainty where the threat of violence lingers in images of uniforms, automatic rifles, the occasional shout or slap, until they pass the chain on the other side. Checkpoints are kingdoms unto themselves, where laws are distorted in a kind of legal prism.

We had been parked on the roadside behind three other Peugeot 504s for forty-five minutes. Salif, log and registration in hand, had marched in to the cement hut and it was the last we had seen of him.

The place preserved an air of the forgotten, of suspended time as if it had been there always, dropped in the middle of the savannah to wait; where underpaid soldiers awaited nervous travelers; where the vendor boy waited to sell to captive consumers; where we were waiting, sitting on mats under the boys shelter, enduring heat that hung thick on the air like syrup. I feared Salif would come flying out the door on the receiving end of another black boot.

Scenes at African checkpoints hang stubbornly in my memory: the muscular, good-natured sergeant who tried to match me with a woman at a roadside bordello in eastern Niger; the fat corporal in Nigeria who read my journals and letters; the Togolese customs officer, who, before he let me pass, impishly demanded to know why I had not married a Togolese.

I jumped off as Salif stepped out, shaking his head, the black book in his right hand.

“The registration is invalid,” he said, throwing his arms out from his sides and letting them drop so his hands slapped against his thighs. “I gave them 5,000 francs and they want more.” Salif went to the car to wait. I didn’t ask if the papers were really no good because soldiers interpret them as they like. Through the door of the hut a driver stood before a metal desk, pleading with a bare-headed soldier in fatigues and khaki canvas boots. Against the wall sat a soldier in a small, gray metal school desk chair. The soldier at the desk slowly thumbed through a notebook, ignoring the driver. A bit of conversation floated out the door.

“Ohhh, patron. C’est trop ca.”—“Hey boss, it’s too much.”

“This is no good. It’ll cost you another 2,000 francs.”

“But I renewed it only two weeks ago.”

“I don’t care. It’s no good.”

Twenty or so passengers from other cars lay in the shade behind the guard hut or next to taxis. They talked, slept, played cards. I recalled a Hausa proverb learned from a man on a taxi in Niger: “A patient man can melt a rock.” Bamako seemed farther off than ever.

“Hey Patron, ca va?!” a man shouted. The soldier who had been sitting against the wall of the guard hut now stood in the doorway with his arms folded, looking at me, grinning. “Ca va?” he repeated, nodding his head in greeting. I waved. The soldier was short and fat, his tunic unbuttoned to the middle of his chest. He wore plastic sandals, but no pistol.

“Ca va un peu.”—”I’m fair,” I said, a little unnerved. He pointed at my shoulder pack sitting at my side.

“What’s in the bag?”

“My papers, a book, some kola,” I told him. “Would you like to see?” I grabbed the bag and began to rise, expecting a search, but he put up his hand.

“No, it’s okay. Stay there. We have no problem with you.”

Always wanting to cooperate with the authorities, I reached into the bag anyway and grabbed a plastic sack of African cocaine—yellow golf ball-sized kola nuts chewed for the heavy caffeine buzz, a good antidote for West Africa’s heat-induced lethargy and a handy gift for soldiers. I tossed him one.

“You chew Kola, heh,” he said, plucking the nut from the air with his right hand. He pressed on the center with his thumbs, separating the halves, and chewed on one.

I nodded and smiled. “It keeps me awake.”

“Ha! It makes you strong. Its good for vitamins.” He held his forearms in front of him and clenched his fists in a gesture of strength. Then he raised his hand again. “Merci, huh.” He went back to his seat against the wall.

Another loud voice came from the guard hut: “Chauffeur!” The desk soldier abruptly appeared in the doorway, waving papers. “Chauffeur!” Salif rose and walked over at a casual pace, practicing the unconcerned look. He took the papers without asking what had changed their minds and our group returned to the taxi. It was 1 p.m. and we’d been there three hours. I popped half a kola.

As we pulled away, Salif brought the car to a cruising speed—80 miles an hour. He was muttering: “Ah la police, toujours problemes.” He was working hard, saying nothing, puffing steadily on a cigarette with hands six inches apart on top of the wheel. My ears hissed and hummed. The initial rush of the kola nut had started as a brief, concentrated pain in the center of my forehead just above the bridge of my nose, and subsided to leave my brain vibrating like an electric motor. I wanted to be awake, to be the back-up radar watching the road, to be alert for the crash, to see it coming, to know my fate.

But don’t bother Salif, I thought, and moved closer to Sidi. Give the man room for Gods sake. Let him work; he knows his job. Another set of eyes won’t help. The road was good; the potholes weren’t too bad. He drove around them in long, gentle S’s, looking for dark patches ahead—like a ship’s captain watching for icebergs. The impact would be just as deadly.

I tapped SaliFs shoulder and pointed at a suspect series of spots. “Attention, huh!” Salif looked at me and laughed. “Ha, ha, ha.” He took the cigarette from his lips. “Ha, ha, ha.” Then he pushed down on the pedal, increasing speed to 85 miles an hour. It wasn’t a rebuff, but done as if my warning had only reminded him that he could go faster, like looking in a pocket to find 50 forgotten dollars.

When we hit holes, there was a loud, dull clunk like a heavy box hitting cement, and the Peugeot s body would absorb it without springing back. No shock absorbers—an unpleasant discovery when sitting on the emergency brake. Pain vibrates from the tail bone up the spine. The others giggled nervously, saying little, exhibiting a maddening complacency anathema to my rawest urges: if the driver’s a bloody maniac, say so. SALIF, THIS IS CRAZY! YOU’LL KILL US, RUIN YOUR CAR, YOUR LIVELIHOOD, YOUR LIFE. WHAT THE HELL! This guy was not Gregory Peck—he was the Red Baron and I was his prisoner.

Brruummp! Oh, God! A sharp, momentary dip on the left front side. And then: galumpgalumpgalumpgalumpgalump.

He. Fakes Attention!”—”Be careful!” a woman screamed. Sidi clucked his tongue and shook his head.

“Merde!” Salif took his foot off the pedal, cut the engine and let the taxi glide. It listed slightly to the left, losing speed quickly. My body stiffened with my feet jammed against the floor under the dash. I shut my eyes waiting for the car to swerve sideways and roll, wondering how many times it would flip. But Salif didn’t use the brakes and the machine kept a straight line, stopping on the shoulder after about 400 yards.

He had the door open the last few feet, shaking his head as his left hand held the door. He slammed the steering wheel with his right. “Toujours problemes, toujours!”—”Always problems, always!” Salif jumped out, jerked his seat forward and removed a bright orange tire-jack and crow bar. Smelling melted rubber, the rest of us spilled out.

The left front tire looked like burnt spaghetti; shredded rubber and steel webbing stuck out at crazy angles. “He, c’est gate”—”Its ruined,” said Sidi, holding his chin with his right hand, and letting out a longer “Hheee,” a slight high pitch with rising intonation. It meant: “Uh, oh.” The women spread cloths in the sand at the roadside and sat, laughing. “Depechez-vous, chauffeur”—”hurry up, driver,” shouted one. Some of us watched him, while others lay on the roadside beside the car or went to relieve themselves. Salif worked alone, furiously, as if the car had insulted him. He jacked up the car and inched the tire off, wincing and hissing at the pain in his fingertips as he picked at the hot shreds for a hold. After throwing the debris in the bush, he removed a spare from beneath the car.

Sidi and I sat in the soft sand off the road. I asked the question that bothered me most: “Doesn’t the speed scare you?”

“Yes, but what can we do,” he told me, raising his hands with palms up and shrugging his shoulders. “They all drive the same. Besides, if we are to die, it is Gods will.” I wanted to argue that one of those holes might eat us all, but the “God s will” theory shut me up.

After 30 minutes, Salif filled the gas tank from a jerry can stowed in the roof rack and we were back on the road. I chewed on the other half of the kola. It was 4 p.m.

Two hours later we passed the checkpoint in the town of San, nearly halfway to Bamako. We slowed to a crawl as Salif waved his log book at a soldier sitting in a white lawn chair under a Baobab tree. The soldier only waved back.

Salif grinned. “I know him. He’s married to my sister.”

At 10 p.m., just before Segou—a city of 60,000 three hours drive northeast of Bamako—Salif collected money from us for bribes and got us through the checkpoints. We stopped to eat rice and beans in the city’s central market. Back on the road at midnight, Salif stretched the drive to Bamako to five hours with a series of village stops to pick up four bundles of firewood to resell. He strapped them on top, showing no fatigue and getting no complaints from us. Man’s got to make a living. In spite of the noise and the Kola, I slept.

I awoke around 5 a.m., aware the car was slowing, to see the lights of Bamako, where 400,000 people live. As we came to a stop at a checkpoint, Salif reached under the flap of his log clipped to the sun visor and peeled off two 1,000 franc notes (about seven dollars) with his right hand. He leaned his full torso out the window and yelled at the lighted cement hut. “Eh, mon general! Qu’et-ce que tu fais la?”— “General, what are you doing in there?” A soldier, tall and thin in fatigues and sandals stepped out the door with his hands in his pockets, smiling and yawning as he approached. A good sign.

“Eh, Salif, le grand Bandit,” said the soldier. “Ca va?” With a loud slap the right hands of the pair met and they shook vigorously. Salif got out talking.

“J’ai quelque chose pour vous”—”I have something for you.” He went to the ropes and united a bundle of wood.

The soldier looked at me. “Hey, toubab ca va?” He stuck his head in the driver-side window and shined a pocket flashlight in my eyes, looking me over like a new toy and snapping his fingers. “Passport!” I reached in my bag and gave it to him. He thumbed through it with the print upside down before settling on my photo and grinning. “You don’t look like your picture.”

I smiled, too. “What? Let me see.” I snatched the passport back, pretending to study it. “You’re right. Its not me. Here, you better keep it. I’ll buy a new one later and here’s something for your children.” I gave him 500 francs and he gave me my passport. He checked the papers of the other passengers without incident.

Salif left two bundles of wood beside the guard hut and happily jumped behind the wheel, putting the bribe money back in his log. The soldier waved us on—an anticlimactic end to the scene at the checkpoint guarding the capital. We raced the last few kilometers past barren fields and into Bamako, through the neighborhoods of simple, densely built mud buildings that surround the city. At dawn, the streets were wide awake: children crossed roads carrying wood and metal pots of food, while women labored over roadside cooking fires, frying biscuits for sale. Men lined benches at coffee tables, sipping tea or Nescafe and munching on French bread. Salif drove through it all, never slowing, never showing the slightest concern for the several children who seemed to barely escape being hit.

He was grinning at me—as if he had read my thoughts—when we pulled into an open lot crowded with cars and people, the car station.

Monsieur, c’est Bamako!

About the Author

Peter Chilson

Peter Chilson graduated from Syracuse University in 1984. He served with the Peace Corps from 1985 to 1987 as an English teacher in Niger, West Africa, and has worked as a reporter for small newspapers and the Associated Press.

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