Standing at the south gate of Saint
George Cathedral, located around Menelik Square, last Saturday, November 26,
2011, one could see the statue of late Emperor Menelik mounted on a horse and
facing east. Self indulgence led to thoughts over 15 years ago to the day that
its picture was first used at the top of this page to symbolise the “View from
Arada.” What a masterpiece idea it was.
Then, looking down at the line of
dozens of the blue and white minibuses waiting for turns, took thoughts back,
over half a century, to connect with memories of the first taxi fleet in the
capital. The taxis of that time were also waiting but waiting for the telephone
calls of potential clients. They were usually parked in front of a bar owned by
a Greek, located at the spot where the present city hall edifice stands. The
vehicles were imported from Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
People used to call them Balila, Ardita, and Dodge.
In those days, the drivers wore
adorable caps and uniforms that earned them due respect, even among the local
musicians, who glorified them in their songs. Young students admired the trade,
wondering how drivers were able to move such a huge assembled piece of metal
from place to place without colliding with pedestrians. Some even had dreams of
becoming drivers after growing up.
Later on, the horse-driven carts (garis)
became the popular means of city transportation. Over the years, these were
pushed aside into the margins, following the inconveniences and traffic jams
they caused. They had to move to the suburbs of the capital.
Then came the tricycle vans better
known as kur kurs. These could be equated, more or less, with the auto
rickshaws, such as the Bajaj brand of today. They, too, did not last long. The
ceichentos flooded the roads at 25 cents a trip anywhere in Addis Abeba. They
were complementary to the Anbessa City Bus service. Taxis were not assigned to
specific routes like buses. They used to arrive at doorsteps upon telephone
calls to their offices.
Remembering all those memories,
followed stepping down the stairs, crossing the road, and climbing into a
minibus destined for Bole International Airport. It was empty, including the
front seat with the driver. It was the first time to see an elderly taxi driver
of this writer’s age sitting behind the steering wheel. He was dressed up and
had covered his head with a conference cap, but his greying head was still
Queuing off Arbegnoch Street, around Menelik Square, until their turn for
boarding passengers loom, the blue and white minibuses of Addis Abeba mark the
hustle and bustles of city life. At the stirring wheels of such a life sit
drivers such as Mogues Hunde (Bottom), who serve the urbanites with incredible
“The weather is pretty chilly.” The
comment was meant as an ice-breaker rather than a concern about the weather. He
looked out of the other side of the window and started whistling some sort of
melody. I took that as a message of disinterest and kept my thoughts to myself.
The more than 10,000 drivers engaged
in the city transport industry, no matter how much they vary in character, age,
creed, and experience, all have one thing in common. They all have at least a
third-grade driving license, but that does not necessarily make them qualified
drivers. Most are accused of reckless driving, misbehaviour when dealing with
other motorists or even their own customers, violating traffic rules and
regulations, and other offenses on the road.
Most of them were once weyalas
(announcers or assistants) who grew up into the business without even taking any
sort of formal on-the-job training.
Many of them consider the industry
as a stepping stone towards qualifying for a higher-grade license to drive
heavy-duty trucks and a promotion.
Considering taxi driving as a
demeaning profession, however, is a misconception, according to Fisseha Mamo of
Fikir Taxi Owners’ Association, established three years ago. He has been in the
business for over 26 years, and is an officeholder in the taxi owners’
He is a dropout from Addis Abeba
University. He quit during the time when student riots and protests were rife
and many of them opted for dropping out from class as a way of expressing their
struggle for democracy non-violently. His father thought it was wise to engage
his son in something that would keep him away from danger, at least up until the
dust of chaotic strikes settled down. But, Fisseha has stayed in the business
“People tend to forget that taxi
drivers are part and parcel of society, but, like all other men and women, taxi
drivers make mistakes,” he claims. “However, you cannot hold all the over 10,000
cabdrivers responsible for the wrongs made by just a handful of them.”
This conversation with him happened
sometime before my latest trip to Bole. As I was recalling Fisseha’s comments,
the elderly driver turned on the engine and locked the rear gear trying to pull
out from the line. An encounter took place when another minibus came in from
behind and blocked the way.
Further down Churchill Street, a
female traveller wanted to get off near the Immigration Office and had a row
with the assistant boy over the fare. Some passengers complained that 1.40 Br
was the proper fare for such a short distance, while others tried to justify a
greater fare, as long as she had started her journey from a terminal. The driver
intervened and settled the problem by letting the woman have her way.
The next stop was near the Gandhi
Memorial Hospital, on Yohanis Street. Some passengers stepped down, while many
more struggled to get in. The driver waited patiently until the assistant
managed to restore order. But, there was a problem of not having the right
change in coins, which was followed by a series of words of disrespect and
curses. Restarting the engine took more time than usual. The driver was still
calm and tolerant.
Leaving the taxi followed imagining
all the possible encounters that the driver and his assistant might face
throughout the entire day. It is a pity that many fail to see the human side of
taxi drivers and their assistants. Many tend to blame all of them for any
trivial mistake a few of them may commit.
Nevertheless, minibuses are no
lasting solution for the reckless city transport system.