Survival of the rudest

When I wake up in the morning all I can think about is what my trip to work will be like. Nothing was different this chilly morning. My outlook on the day suddenly became as foggy as the Kiremt (Amharic for the July-August rainy season).

I’m not unusual. In Addis Ababa weekday transportation is everyone’s biggest headache, except for those few private car owners.

Let me try to give you a picture of what I face when I get out of my house (actually my parents’ house. Yeah, I know, I’m still mamma’s boy).

The small “square” where the taxis meet in transit—in other words, where they dump one set of passengers and stack up with new ones—is already packed with hordes of people. One vacant taxi crawls slowly towards the herd of people waiting impatiently. Anxious faces turn up, hearts begin racing and feet soon follow. The taxi comes to a halt; everyone braces themselves for what’s to come and the crowds start to fight their way into the narrow doorway of the minibus.

There are certain ground rules (though not written, well accepted) that we, the daily taxi customers, know and follow. The first and most important rule is this: everyone for themselves, whatever it takes.

You can’t be helping your loved ones get a taxi and get one for yourself. Instead, you could—or should—use them as a human shield when the need arises. The second guideline is that some training in short-distance running comes in handy. When the taxi opens its door a few hundred metres away, your quick dash past the weak and the elderly may be just what puts you on the next flight to work.

Another rule of thumb is the bilateral push method. You should let other people push you from both sides, as long as they are behind you. This will help propel you further towards the taxi doorway. Stepping on other people’s feet is not a crime.

Last, but not least, check where the taxi is going after securing your seat on it. The worst part is over. If the taxi is not headed in your direction, you can leave immediately in the safe knowledge that there will be no pushing, pulling or being stepped on during your exit.

Just the other day I had been waiting and waiting and waiting for a taxi. I was, of course, running late. From far, far away I saw one slowly approaching and decided I was going to be on it. With athletic determination coupled with the adrenaline of fear of being late for work, I started racing for the door, oblivious to my surroundings. I heard a scream here, a gasp there and, I think, a bone cracking somewhere. I had no intention of slowing down or apologising to anyone to whom I might have caused a mishap. Breathing hard, but triumphant, I became one of the lucky ones to get on the taxi. When I got back from work that evening, my mom was telling the story of how she had missed the taxi because she was stomped by her own son—me. I told you, it’s all about determination.

Not to mention what happens amid the pushing and pulling. There is the unnecessary touching and the uncalled-for groping. But, believe me, this is the least of your worries. You should really beware of those who are waiting for an opportunity to relieve you of your property. I lost a wallet once and, on another occasion, an important document. I once had my watch broken. Though the watch had sentimental value, I was grateful that it was not my wrist, seeing how fierce the struggle was.

As the saying goes, old habits die hard—if they ever die. People are so used to wrestling for a seat that you see them manhandling one another against the taxi door, even when you can demonstrate that there is room for everyone in that taxi, and then some.

At times you can see people jostling to get out of a taxi. If you are in that taxi, you can’t help thinking that you might have been dozing and that the taxi has caught fire. On the worst days, at the climax of the tussle, you see an open taxi door, three or more people stuck at the door trying to be the next lucky one on the taxi, people pushing from behind, the car swaying and no one getting in. Several seconds go by and nothing happens until someone breaks the pack and makes it into the taxi.

Oh gosh. I’m late for work, gotta run — Wish me luck.

Abiy Temesgen (29) is a physician. He works at Tikur Anbessa Hospital in Addis Ababa. He does not own a car. “Don’t let the title doctor fool you,” he says. “In Ethiopia we are mostly average-income citizens.”

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