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Published On  Dec 04,  2011
   
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View From Arada Share

 

Although they are considered by many as annoyingly disrespectful, taxi drivers have their own human side. No different are their assistants, for they labour much to keep order during journeys.  



 
Steering Wheels Require Tolerance

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 showing.

 

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 tolerance.

 

“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’ association.

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 for good.

“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.

BY Girma Feyissa

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 

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