Delightful West Africa 14 – My Taxis on The Gambia’s Tourist Coast
At the taxi stands along Gambia's coastal Bertil Harding Highway, all hell breaks lose when the white man comes looking for a cab, and they demand outrageous prices. To avoid the shouting and dragging, I quickly build a collection of nice drivers for daytime and night-time with different stations.
I find drivers who also tell me of concert dates and are nice to hang out with. I prefer those who don't pester me with demands and offers. These nice drivers may be tough looking Rasta guys with a mean voice; they may be friendly and empathetic under the shell.
Coastal Gambia has two different kinds of taxis: The green "tourist taxis" may enter the dusty beach access roads with all the hotels and are often more expensive. They first quote a price that includes a return trip with two hours waiting time. The yellow "local taxis" – often a battered Mercedes 190 or 200D shipped from Germany by a relative – may not enter the beach access roads looking for customers. But they may enter if they have been called or to deliver a customer.
The mean green "tourist taxi" controllers sit in every side road and try to root out yellow "local taxis". They drag the yellow taxi drivers into lengthy discussions and sometimes claim that yellow taxis may not enter the beach access roads at all. Sometimes they talk and gesture in a way that's clearly meant to daunt the white tourist on the yellow "tourist taxi's" front passenger seat. In both Bijilo Beach and Garden Hill hotels, I have to ask the receptionists to bring the "tourist taxi" controllers to their senses and let my regular "local taxi" drivers get in and out without harassment.
Still my main daytime driver Babucar, who has a yellow "local taxi", keeps handing out 0,3 or 0,4 Euros to the "tourist taxi" controllers – money that finally comes from me. Says Babucar: "I don't like them to look at me with their angry faces."
Babucar also gives small tips to police checkposts even when they have no complaints. "They will never forget you", believes Babucar, "and if you're in trouble, you have a friend in the police."
My night-time driver Aliou refuses payments to police. Once in my presence a policewoman asks him bluntly, "where is the tea money".
– "There is no tea money", Aliou grunts and we move on.
The green "tourist taxis" seem slightly better maintained and absolve a test every year, as does their driver; according to my sources, these procedures and the green taxi licence cost nearly 180 Euro per year. "Tourist taxi" drivers often know more places and speak better English. But there are unuseful "tourist taxi" drivers as well, and I know excellent "local taxi" drivers too.
One night I talk to a green taxi driver who stands away from his car and we agree about the price. Only when I actually get into his car, I note that it is open on all sides. This trip goes to a local suburb with dirt roads; I get caked in dust and catch a cold. You are also more accessible to beggars and riff-raff.
Aliou, my main night time driver (pictured below, on the left), has a green "tourist taxi", a noisy go-anywhere jeep. Aliou only takes whites.
I ask him: "Wouldn't a yellow 'local taxi' be nicer? In quiet times, you could also take Gambian locals on shared taxi rides, especially in the rainy season."
"I will never take Gambians", says Rasta man Aliou decidedly. "They give you all kinds of headaches. Not worth it."
"I sensed that reply", I go, "But didn't dare to say it myself. Now you're being racist!"
"No, I am not at all racist. I just don't like Gambians in my car."
On longer trips to Brikama or Banjul, you get to know your drivers. Aliou doesn't know the exact number of his brothers and sisters. "Between five and ten" brothers and the same number of sisters, he believes.
His father, now dead, had four wives. They lived the traditional West African life in the compound: All four wives slept in the women's house, apart from children and communal husband. For two consecutive nights, one wife would sneak out late at night and visit Aliou's father in the compound headman's house. She would return to the women's house before dawn, so that the children got no idea of the nightly activities. Then, the next wife has her two nights in the headman's house.
Aliou: "His second wife is my biological mother. But his first wife really brought me up. Her I see as my mother."
Aliou: "My father raised his wives properly. Catfights were forbidden, everybody had respect."
Aliou, very proudly: "My father passed away years ago, but still all four wives stay together in our compound."
On my behalf, Aliou follows the local radio announcements and reports all live music events to me by SMS. And why not: He will take me there and back and I even pay him an entry ticket and waiting time. The organisation around the concerts is often so confusing and the light so low that I need Aliou to find as much as the door to the event. Around the stage, we seldom stand next to each other; typically Aliou lingers somewhere in the back, but might approach me with hints like "keep a meter away from that huge bear next to you". If I want to join the tight dance crowd in front of the stage, I stuff my wallet and mobile phone into Aliou's pockets and leave him at the back of the concert area.
If your driver knows you for some days, you don't talk about prices any more. You just give what you see fit. If you ask, they won't name a price.
Babucar, my main day-time driver: "I feel you're my neighbour now. I can't demand tourist money from you. Also, please visit my family for an hour; you’re my neighbour now."
When I actually visits Babucar's home, he makes me buy fruit and school books for 15 Euro first. He also stops at a furniture stall and shows me a coat rack he fancies; it costs 120 Euro; I decline politely; Babucar is hesitant to leave.
But only few people actually stay at Bubacar's compound; many neighbors and their kids are called and receive my fruit and school books through Babucar's hands, he is visibly proud. Only with difficulty I myself get a bit of the fruit that I have brought. In the course of the hour, there's nothing to drink, not even water.
After that visit, Babucar changes and treats me more careless. When I call him for a trip, he has friends in the car. He knows clearly that I insist on being the only passenger, but I accept them for once because it's him, my day-time driver for three weeks.
He has a small accident that has nothing to do with me, but he begs money out of me as if it was my responsibility. First he asks me for eight Euro; when I don't react, he goes down to four Euro as if this was a special courtesy towards me.
I have another family visit ahead and give Babucar twelve Euro to buy me all fruit and schoolbooks for that visit. We discuss exactly the five red apples, five green apples, 500 grams of grapes, two packs of local style attaya tea, the schoolbooks, the pencils. 1,5 Euro are meant for his shopping time, a fantastic hourly rate.
When Babucar picks me up at the agreed hour, he has spent most of my money on his small accident. He has bought four green apples and the schoolbooks, but none of the other fruit and no pencils. I have to buy the other items with more of my own money and I have to spend some time – planned for the family visit itself – searching fruit stalls and corner stores on dirty dusty road sides in the midday heat. I also have to call the family to say that I will be there later than planned. It is embarrassing.
As we finally drive towards the family in the village of Banjulnding – the pencils must still be found somewhere – Babucar raps long lines of explanations that are all obvious lies or beyond the point.
"I don't want to hear all that", I complain, "you simply can't use my money for other things without asking. Don't you realize you lose a good customer that way?"
He raps more long, painful lines. It is not even well invented. Not with one word he accepts that my shopping money was never available for his car problems (more about Babucar in upcoming West Africa 15).
I have lost fifteen Euro through that, one hour in the heat and dust, and what's much more important, I've lost my faith in Babucar, my main day-time driver. What will be next? I pay him and say that was our last trip. I don't answer his calls that night. I still miss him today.
A Stop on the Highway
A policeman stops my taxi on the asphalt highway towards Banjul. We have to park in the dust next to the highway, that’s unusual. The policeman secures the driver’s papers, then talks in Mandinka to the driver. The driver shakes his head and points towards me.
So the policeman walks to the other side of the car and talks in the typically forced-jovial tone to me. How is my day, how is my holiday, what’s my name, where are we going.
Finally the policeman asks if three other people could join us and if we could deliver them to the immigration office in Banjul. There they stand, two meters from of our car: an elderly, very well dressed western man; a young, very well dressed African lady; a Gambian police man in neat uniform. With the help of traffic police, they want to hitch a ride in my taxi. The highway is full of cars, including available taxis, share-taxis and minibuses.
If the policeman had asked on the behalf of an African mommy with two babies (this happens), I’d have agreed. But here I say: "These people? They can take another taxi."
The policeman repeats in disbelief: "They can take another taxi?" As if had refused help to a bloodstreamed accident victim.
We get the papers and slowly roll away. My driver shakes his head bitterly. Not about me, but about Gambian police.
At this point I think I can safely say you have completely put me off ever visiting Africa!