First shared in February 2006, while on a 12-month assignment in Niamey, Niger, working in response to the 2005-6 famine in that country.
Part IV of the Nigerien Nostalgia series.
Back in Niamey, and life has plateaued in something resembling normality. Six weeks ago, the Nigerien bureaucracy finally relented and gave me a provisional driver’s license (a month after submitting my original and at the start of a two-month wait for a proper license).
Having a car has transformed our lives here. Until January, we were entirely dependent on taxis, an effective and economic system which nonetheless has its limitations. They look like normal battered taxis you find in most place, but are actually share-taxis, effectively miniature buses which ply their own routes and have their own rules and culture. Taxis cost 200 CFA (40 cents) per person per ‘trip’, a trip usually consisting of a journey that doesn’t involve crossing the city-centre. Crossing the city-centre therefore costs two trips. In theory, you can therefore get anywhere inside Niamey for 400CFA (though being white you sometimes have to spend some time convincing the drivers of this fact). Being share taxis, they may already have people in going to a location not-quite en-route, or may stop and pick people up on the way. If the taxi you hail already has people in it and is going somewhere, the driver may not let you in if you want to go somewhere else, and you’ll have to wait for another cab to come by. Conversely, if the driver stops to pick somebody else up who wants to go somewhere else, the driver may well pull over one of his colleagues, and ask you to get into the next vehicle to continue your journey. It works well once you get used to it, though in quieter parts of town you may have trouble finding a ride, especially late at night.
Being the only person in the house with a valid license, I have become, in addition to relief manager, the team chauffer. I like driving, so this isn’t all bad. But for those who haven’t yet, driving in urban Africa is something else again. My first experience was a trial test the head driver at our office made me take before I was allowed to drive WV vehicles. We went out in one of the very very big Land Cruisers during the evening rush hour and drove across the centre of town. Something I think that would be considered ‘hazing’ in most western societies. The accumulation of enthusiastic taxis, kamikazee scooters, donkey carts, camels, street vendors, and wealthy Africans driving SUVs, is quite terrifying until you get used to the unofficial rules of the road. Those rules however are much simplified compared to western rules. For example there are no obvious speed limits; signalling is entirely optional; mirrors are superfluous; might is right; and the horn is the single most valuable tool on your dashboard (steering-wheel included).
It is also a test of faith. Those of you who have driven in the muslim world know that most drivers operate under the ‘In’shallah’ principle- if it is God’s will, I will arrive at my destination. This effectively frees them from any responsibility whatsoever in good driving conduct. As well as faith in God, you need a healthy faith in other road-users that they will get out of your way when you do something unexpected. You learn to instinctively know the width of your car; I have developed the ability to squeeze through gaps that are surely at least six inches narrower than the width of the little Toyota AWD which I drive. When you overtake, you assume oncoming vehicles will move aside so that you can pass 3-abreast; two weeks ago I clipped wing-mirrors with a taxi coming the other way, and neither of us looked back.
But it really does all come back to the horn. I have been counting, and I haven’t yet driven somewhere- not a single trip- without using it. It’s not like in the west, where I might use the horn once in two months, because someone has done something really stupid and cut me up or swerved into my lane. For sure these instances are a daily occurrence here. But more to the point, you use the horn to let other road users know you are coming towards them at speed. Pedestrians loitering at the road-side waiting to cross; honk. Donkey-carts you are about to overtake; honk. Empty intersections which you can’t see around; honk. Trucks you are overtaking to ensure they don’t swerve into your lane as you are halfway around them; honk. I drive (seriously) with my right-hand covering the horn, and I use the horn more than my signals.
But driving here can also be a lot of fun. I live down half a mile of sand, so getting to work is more than just pulling onto the tarmac. I get to work on my four-wheel-drive skills as well. With the exception of a countable number of main roads, the roads here are all unsealed, and most of these are covered in layers of sand, sometimes thick, sometimes not. Driving friends home is like a trip into the bush, bouncing down dirt tracks and avoiding pot-holes, garbage piles, even trees growing in the middle of the causeway. Goats are everywhere. I actually quite enjoy myself, one hand on the steering wheel, the other resting on the open car window (despite the 40+ degree temperatures, my little car does not have air-con), while the rear slips and slides in the deep sand. It beats the heck out of traffic jams.