Wednesday, 16 June 2010
Irvin earns a perilous living by driving a zemidjan in Cotonou.
Cotonou is bounded by Togo to the west, Burkina Faso and Niger to the north, and Nigeria to the east. Benin is roughly the size of Pennsylvania and it extends from the Niger River in the north to the Atlantic Ocean in the south.
Cotonou is the economic capital of Benin, as well as its biggest city. Boko, the Junior Advisor in the Local planning at SNV-Benin said that “to face the social and economic crisis of the end of the eighties, and especially the unemployment problem, Beninese developed another urban mode of transportation called zemidjan.” Irvin is one of the tens of thousands of motorbike taxi-men crowding Cotonou’s busy streets.
“Where would you find in Cotonou a very fast and very convenient way of transportation, Madame!” said Irvin in a loud and clear voice.
I would have added a very unreliable and very dangerous. I just did not say it out loud because being a zemidjan driver is indeed the most difficult job I have ever observed in Africa but it is the only way the young people can make enough money for a decent living.
A zemidjan driver is called a kekeno. “Keke” means bike and “no” means person in the Fon language. Fon is the local language, which originates in Abomey, the old capitol of the Kingdom of Danhome (Dahomey). The word zemidjan means “get me there fast” in Fon.
Irvin, a pragmatic and amiable man in his thirties, wears the yellow short sleeved button down shirts with a number on the back that all the kekenos wear in Cotonou. He has high cheek bones and a wide-set pair of eyes. He is medium height and well-built. He has an oval face with scares and curly black hair. He is a careful and a trusting person. He tells me how loyal he is with his clients and he always makes sure that they both agree upon a price before he takes off.
He rides a Japanese second hand motor-bike. The motorcycles taxis are second-hand machines imported from Japan or Europe. A zemidjan is one of the most popular means of transportation in Benin. In short, we call them zem or zemi.
“These moped taxis piloted by yellow-shirted young daredevils swarm the streets of Cotonou like school of fish and leave a cloud of blue smoke” complained Timothy a Peace Corps Volunteer on his first visit to Cotonou.
People yell a kekeno or make a waving gesture at him by putting their hand out palm down and curling their fingers into their palms many times. Then they make a “Psss Psss” sound.
Irvin is willing to answer all my questions because he wants people in other countries to know more about him. He is very pleased to be under observation and he is ready to display all what he can say about his life.
“Well, you see, I am always careful about my clients’ safety!” declared Irvin in a proud voice. He always tells them to get up on the left side of the motorcycle as there is a hot exhaust pipe on the right side that will burn them.
Most of the clients hold onto the bar at the back of the seat and not into the driver. According to Karen Palmer, a freelance journalist, “the frightened ones will clutch the driver’s waist for dear life or they will squeeze tighter and tighter the moped-taxi with their thighs and creeping ever-forward with every bump.”
When I asked him why he is not wearing a safety helmet he answered in a tired voice:
“A helmet is meant for workers who drive their motorbikes twice a day. I drive my moped from seven am until eleven pm. My head would be so heavy and no air would reach my lungs.”
He is very proud of his yellow T-shirt blazoned with the logo of the Unicef campaign which says: “All Girls to school”.
He declares in a sensitive and proud voice: “I support an initiative to put all girls in school. If we educate a girl, we educate a nation.” And he adds “My wife is illiterate and she cannot help our 13 and 7 years old children with their homework.”
All the kekenos who joined the national drive to get all the girls into school wear the bright yellow T-shirts featuring the same slogan on the back.
While we were talking, a kekeno passes next to us with three people on it and a huge bag of rice on the reservoir tank. A little baby rides on the back of the zemidjan wrapped in pagnas around the mother’s back.
“Well, you see, I never do that. I never carry more than a person. These drivers want to make money fast and do not care about safety rules!”
It is true that a zemidjan can carry bags of rice, household goods, firewood, and tables. One day I saw a zemidjan with two people and two goats on it. The person at the back was clinging desperately to the seat while the goat was bleating and moving in all directions. Two persons sitting on the gas tank, one perched on the handlebars, no safety helmets became normal sceneries for the Beninese. Zemidjans always carry beyond their normal capacity.
Irvin is an unemployed university graduate. He is from the generations of the zemidjan who spurred by a socio-political crisis. Irvin works all day because Beninese hail zemidjans to go to work, to shop, to go on their hobbies, and they even use them to carry coffins.
One zemidjan passed and the kekeno was wearing a bandana tied around his mouth to protect it from dust and fumes. All these two-wheeled taxis are old ones and they create a lot of pollution. Irvin’s motorbike leaves a black cloud in the air: a cloud from the exhaust of motor bikes.
The gasoline is purchased on the black market from the oil-rich neighbor Nigeria. The petrol is smuggled from Nigeria in glass, bottles, and jugs. People sell it on the roadside throughout Cotonou. The toxic air pollution brings respiratory woes, respiratory infections, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, eye ailments, and irritability. The drivers breathe the heavy acidic fume that shroud the air all day long and even the dust mask will not be able to filter all the carbon dioxide emission emitted by the elimination of the motorbike drivers.
The minimum wage in Benin is twenty-five thousands CFA (the currency used in Benin) per month (roughly 40 dollars). A kekeno cannot buy petrol from the official service stations because it is very expensive for him. Therefore he ends up buying the bad quality petrol that contains a large amount of lead.
It costs 100 or 200 CFA (20c) to get from one part of the city to another. So it is not enough for a kekeno to be able to afford good and clean petrol. A zemidjan’s job is very risky and unhealthy but Irvin has no other choice. By being a zemidjan he earns more than a teacher or a chauffeur.
Cotonou has a poor infrastructure and most of the sewers in the city are left open on the sides of the streets.
The sewers are an array of nauseating odors. Many zemidjans fall on them at night and Irvin is one of them. He has no other choice but to carry on.
Zemidjans are an essential part of Cotonou’s economical life. This job provides a regular source of income to thousands of people. Therefore it is very difficult for the green organizations who are working toward a clean, healthy, and safer Cotonou to get rid of them.