Ding! Ding! Ding! A slim figure on a bicycle, one hand on the brake handle and the other hanging onto a tray of bread delicately balanced on his head, feverishly thumbs the bike’s bell to get pedestrians out of his way.
With the attitude of a daredevil, Shaaban Muhammad Ismail weaves his way through the madness of Cairo’s early morning traffic.
Ignoring the gridlock of impatient motorists, Ismail and a host of other bread delivery cyclists race to their destinations to get khobz (bread) to supermarkets and innumerable other outlets in time for early buyers.
This has been Ismail’s daily routine for close to five years, delivering bread across the heart of the capital, which has a population of some 21.3-million people in the wider city and, at number 41 in the global TomTom Traffic Index list, is Africa’s most congested city.
“Once I have finished making the first delivery, I return to the bakery to wait for the next load, and at the end of the day and after [the bread] is finished, I get my pay,” Ismail said.
The 20-year-old began delivering bread in 2017 after first teaching himself how to cycle.
Every day he makes up to 10 trips across town and back to the bakery to deliver bread to his many customers.
For Ismail, this is not just business, it is adventure and life. Even when everything around him is halted, stranded and jammed, he keeps moving.
“The competition is very fierce. Even if we are headed to different destinations, if I meet someone and he increases his speed, I have to catch up with him and pass him. This is what makes it fun and inures [me] from the fear of danger,” Ismail said.
The fifth of the nine siblings, Ismail, like thousands of other young men from humble families, did not go beyond elementary school but he is able to read and write. The family needed all hands on deck to put food on the table so he had to join his brothers, working at a vegetable outlet.
“My first job was at a vegetable store in the Dar es Salaam area of Cairo with my brothers. And because I was younger, I was given work and paid little money … I left after one year and moved to another area called Ataba, where I got a job selling different items such as sandwiches, beans, and detergents.
“I also did extra work at a poultry farm feeding chickens; any type of work as long as I could earn money; the only thing I did not do was wiping shoes,” he recalled.
Before Ismail joined the bread delivery service, he spent three months working at bakeries in Biba, a city some 170km south of Cairo. It’s an area with a Coptic Christian heritage and home to a cathedral that dates back to the sixth century.
“I had enjoyed working in a bakery because, besides the money, I could get a chance to eat some of what is classified as damaged bread that is usually offered to the workers so that it does not go to waste,” Ismail said with a shy smile.
“As I moved from one bakery to another, I realised I had to learn how to deliver bread on a bicycle. I was not yet familiar with the profession of delivering by bicycle, and this was a big disadvantage for me.”
To survive the cut-throat competition and get a steady job delivering bread, he had to learn how to cycle. But he had two problems — find a bicycle to practise on and overcome the fear of cycling on crowded roads amid the heavy traffic.
Soon, an opportunity presented itself.
“One day, the bakery owner called me to work with him inside the bakery, and there I saw for the first time the delivery by bicycle,” Ismail said.
“I decided [to stay] late into the night when work was over so that I could learn to cycle; after a few tries, I started becoming confident. First, I learned how to balance before I started practising carrying bread baskets on my head. I fell several times but, as practice makes perfect, I did it, and today I am a self-taught professional.”
Asked about the dangers of the daredevil survival tactics out on the road, Ismail answered that it was the dream of a better future that motivated him to go out every day.
“Although I can bake, I love riding the bicycle and delivering the bread more because being inside the bakery makes me feel trapped and psychologically bored,” he said.
“On the wheels, I see new things daily and, as a young man, I need to know and learn many things about life, especially buying and selling in the markets.”
But this job is not without its problems. “It was 7am when a car rammed my bike from behind and tossed me six metres away but, thank God, I only suffered minor bruises. Since then, I try to be extra careful.” — bird story agency