How is it that culture so often seems to sit firmly in the driving seat? How else to explain the vast disparity between the number of accidents in Great Britain and France for example? For France, with a lower park of vehicles and less congested roads has, the last time I checked, double the amount of deaths on its roads. These two countries have the ‘same’ roads, the same brands of cars, and yet.
The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, a great proponent of the interpretative school of anthropology, in which cultural exchanges and signs are seen as symbolizing deeper meanings, wrote a celebrated essay on Deep Play: The Balinese Cock Fight, in which he dissected the multiple layers of meaning inside the cock fighting ring. Who bets against whom? Why? What is the deeper hidden meaning of these fights for the society at large? You can download a pdf version of his essay on the Balinese cock fight here, another on his interpretative anthropology here. For a critical look at his though, you can visit the following forum on anthropology called Savage Minds.
It sometimes seems that driving abilities, car crash numbers and the ‘flamboyance’ of driving styles are directly correlated with Max Weber’s studies of the link between Protestantism and Catholicism, with a vast arc of decreasing driving abilities – and weaker economies – flowing from the northern Scandinavian, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon sphere (all Protestant), all to way to the more relaxed PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) which are all Catholic of course – and recklessly drive bright red Ferraris all the way to oblivion.
A cliché? Perhaps. But all the same, I’d like to take you for a little ride, a tongue in cheek trip through modern Ethiopia. All you need to do is board a blue minibus and all you need to know is የት ነው? (Yet no? Where are you going?) ወራጅ! (Weradj! Let me off here!) ስንት ነው ? (Sint no? How much is it?) and መልስ ሰጠኝ! (Mels setegn! My change, please!). A blue minibus is a fixture of Addis Ababa. As Ethiopian as injera. You can find them everywhere – except when you desperately need one – and nearly everybody uses them. And like injera, minibuses often have holes in their bodywork – and leave a tangy taste on the tongue.
For just like injera is sometimes explained to foreigners as ‘being our culture’ by Ethiopians, so minibuses encapsulate the mores and – changing – traditions of the culture. The part represents the whole. To board and travel a minibus for a few minutes is to take a crash course both in the modern and ‘the Abyssinia of Auld Days’ mores. And crash course is sometimes an all too literal meaning.
But just consider for a moment your typical minibus journey (let’s say from Arat Kilo to Mexico):
The ability to squash up against one and another while keeping aloof; the fact that people sitting on the back bench where four passengers get crammed in against each other will invariably twist their knees into impossible positions in order to enable late comers to squeeze past them to sit on the far side, by the window – the most uncomfortable seat in the bus. Or the fact that passengers, especially women, will always shy away from sitting on the side of the vehicle that happens to be exposed to the sun at the time – lest it damage their complexion. The painstaking politeness invariably showed by passengers to each other while nearly sitting on each other’s knee is a well known characteristic of the Ethiopian minibus. The exquisite attention given to pregnant women and the elderly alike.
This ballet of high flying etiquette and protocol is being carried out inside the tightest shell possible and sometimes seems to be like a symbol of the country itself. There are the beggars who mob the taxi’s doors of course to be considered – I myself suspect they pay their dues in the form of a percentage of their earnings to the taxi drivers’ associations, but this is just a suspicion. And where else would you see people giving beggars a 25 cent coin – only to pause and take their change back (in the form of one 10 cent pieces, and one 5 cent piece)?!
The painstaking politeness invariably showed by passengers to each other while nearly sitting on each other’s knee is a well known characteristic of the Ethiopian minibus.
Then there is the ወያላ (weyala), most often scrupulously honest , who gives you back your cents to the cent – and the fact that he would prefer you not call him that, but instead a ረዳት (redat) – or assistant (2 birr 70 cents on the Arat Kilo Mexico route – 30 cents back for your 3 birr). In the Ethiopia as minibus, never call a spade a spade, or a ወያላ a ወያላ. This is a general rule to be applied at all times and to be disregarded at your peril.
In the Ethiopia as minibus, never call a spade a spade, or a ወያላ a ወያላ.
The person not to be called a ወያላ often gets into verbal fisticuffs with a whole coterie of disreputable characters who ‘organize’ taxi stands. These unsavory characters – I am not sure what the name given to them is but I am sure that you are most certainly not supposed to use it! – flag down minibuses, get into fights with the ወያላ and the drivers, shut doors in the face of passengers and use foul language. For this hassle and causing this trouble, they get to levy a fee whose byzantine system not even Ethiopians I have asked could fathom. Again, you see here at work a general Ethiopia as minibus principle: always involve more people than needed in any field of work: if you can, make it arcane, and create added unnecessary costs.
If you can, make it arcane, and create added unnecessary costs.
Still, the ወያላ use these disreputable controllers, to call out destinations in their place and channel passengers into the right vehicles. I do not quite know if they use them in this way because 1. they don’t have a choice (the minibus traffic controllers have to pretend to have a use and thus impose on the drivers and ወያላ the use of their crying services, or 2. the ወያላ actually like this as it both gives them a break and the opportunity to torment these hapless layabouts who are even lower on the pecking order than they are. And there you have another essential element of the minibus – and the Ethiopian – sphere: each person should have one competence which is defined as sharply as possible and from which s/he will not stray and of which s/he will suffer no invasion. Could one person in fact multi-task and have several skills? God forbid that the question be asked.
Each person should have one competence which is defined as sharply as possible and from which s/he will not stray and of which s/he will suffer no invasion.
The passengers of the minibus are a motley crew, but they are good fellow passengers and do not complain. In the front seat sit two prim young Bole Belles. They chatter together, between two phone calls on their iphones, in a créole of Amharic and globish. They ride high, on high expectations and perhaps a little caffeine from Kaldi’s, and so do their miniskirts. In the back seats, an Orthodox priest (just back from a visit to the Abun in Arat Kilo), sits contentedly next to a Muslim merchant en route to his shop in Senga Terra. Their thighs touch and they are relaxed, on their common voyage. Behind them, perched nervously on his seat, a young man in a shiny costume and thin tie talks energetically into his phone, making sure everybody knows his status and power to give orders. An old lady in elaborate white robes sits next to him, and is too polite to say but nevertheless manages to make clear what she things of this young whipper snapper and his phone manners with an ever so slight moue on her composed face. A farmer in the capital to welcome his successful brother back from America wears a felt hat, heavy blue cloth trousers, a jacket of the same material and heavy lines on his hands and face too. His wife has bright red spots on her cheeks where the high altitude sun has burnt her working in the fields and she has spicy butter in her hair. Out of 12 seats, 8 are filled with youngsters, eager and bright eyed. A mobile phone, nice clothes and a job is what they’re after – they still cross themselves passing a church, but quickly revert to fingering their device. The fully covered amiably talk with their scantily dressed friend. The traditional tattoes sit – for ever, but with a light touch, on faces turned toward tomorrow. The priest brushes a crumb off his robes, the Muslim merchant next to him rearranges himself to give the priest more space; the Bole Belles continue to chat on their phones, and the farmer’s wife to embalm the air with her fragrant butter. In the minibus, modernity and ’2 000 years of history’ rub shoulders, and maybe elbow each other a little too. On the back seat – where four people are leveraged in – the young boys eye the girls, the girls do the same – but without ever letting on – and minibus Ethiopia rolls on.
The passengers of the minibus are a motley crew, but they are good fellow passengers and do not complain.
But what of the driver himself? The driver these days wears a seat belt, as a sop to security. But wait! Look closely at it and you quickly discover that half of them wear ‘fake’ belts that they drape across their chests like an idle medal to their driving skills – they don’t actually fasten them. And if the drivers are now required to wear a belt, the same is not true of the two hapless passengers riding shotgun with him. Why not? It is not known why not, and if you ask the driver the question, he will wearily hang his head and answer that it is so, has always been so, and… but you get the idea – I slyly suggested to a couple of drivers this was a law enacted long ago, at the height of the Axum empire, but honesty obliges me to say they shied away from this extravagance, adding that it was perhaps ‘only since Emperor Menelik’s times.’
It is so, has always been so, and… but you get the idea
This – brand new – law, requiring all drivers to wear a seatbelt, but not their shotgun passengers, for reasons that are unfathomable, and the fact that half (or more) of drivers are playing at using a belt (a fact which of course all traffic policemen know, although they will only stop the drivers for non compliance if they stop playing at using a belt, eschewing it completely) is another characteristic trait of the Ethiopian minibus: always respect laws and conventions outwardly. The form, not the essence, is essential.
Always respect laws and conventions outwardly. The form, not the essence, is essential
The driver, if he uses his belt as a sash of honor, does pay a lot more attention to another matter of utmost interest. I am talking of the necessary disabling of the front seat window’s handle. God forbid that it be opened! ‘The draft will kill me!’ explodes the driver irrationally, when you ask him to open it (taking his eyes off the road for a full twenty seconds to tell you this, he even forgets, in his righteous fury, the bottle of coke he cradles between his knees and the mobile phone he has hidden in his left hand and was shouting into and the chatt he was fingering in his trouser pocket – all at the same time). In fact, if you want a safe ride, there is a very simple rule to apply: choose an old man. They are closer to death and thus value their lives – and those of their passengers – much more. The 18 year olds invariably cut other vehicles off, otherwise bully their way through traffic – then get into fights when the same is done to them.
‘The draft will kill me!’ explodes the driver irrationally
In fact, the profession should only be open to women and old men. This simple measure would bring down the accident ratio by 80 %. In this opposition, between exquisite politeness on the inside and ruthless aggression, or at least disregard on the outside – to other drivers, to pedestrians – there is much to be seen, as this sort of ruthless selfishness to others was a trait that Donald Levine, in his famed Wax and Gold, thought he had picked up in Ethiopia, and analyzed at great length in Menz.
Exquisite politeness on the inside and ruthless aggression, or at least disregard on the outside
But, ah, the accidents. Let’s leave aside here the horrendous crashes that are a daily occurrence on Ethiopia’s beautiful new highways, to concentrate on the generally more benign mishaps that occur on the traffic circles and freeways of the budding metropolis. Why, oh, why, oh, why do drivers stop their cars and minibuses in the middle of oncoming traffic? In the middle of a traffic circle!? This of course not only brings the whole flow to a grinding slow pace, but also tends to create more accidents, as oncoming speeding cars come and rear end stopped vehicles. The reason? You have to wait for a traffic policeman to come and chalk down on the road the exact place of the vehicles, less the parties later lie about what happened. This fear of litigation, this mistrust, and the hiccups and loss of time and money this causes to the Ethiopian minibus are forever a spanner thrown in the works, both a waste of time and resources.
This mistrust (…) forever a spanner thrown in the works, both a waste of time and resources.
Then there is the sight that I find most endearing: that of someone making the sign of the cross from their cramped minibus seat. If the minibus is speeding past the church like a bat out of hell, they have to hurry their sign and their bowed head while trying to avoid elbowing their neighbor at the same time. Which is of course what modernity is all about – I myself, prefer to cross myself before boarding the vehicle. I can do this at leisure as there is a little more room, and it gives me a sensation of peace for the duration of the voyage. The ostentatious religiosity and the belief that belief will solve all – and avoid us accidents – is another feature of the minibus and there is not one not to be found adorned with Orthodox icons, sourats from the Holy Quran or bathed in the Yamaha keyboard sounds of Pentecostal gospel.
The belief that belief will solve all – and avoid us accidents – is another feature of the minibus
The voyage itself: thrills and fears at the moment to take off
On the Arat Kilo Mexico route, you are more or less safe once you reach the Church of Estaphanos – the most dangerous part being the long steep slope past the Foreign Ministry ending – not literally I always hope – in the busy intersection in front of the Ministry of Trade. While sitting in front, I sometimes lean over and whisper to the driver ‘trying that take off, again, eh?’ but only in my imagination as God forbid who knows what would happen if he would lose his concentration for a second. Past the intersection, there is then a very nice bump right in front of the Jubilee Palace where, if the driver speeds enough, you can indeed think you are going to meet the Dreamliner taking off from the big billboard on Meskal Square. Wheeeeee!
Once on Meskal Square itself – after a flurry of chest crossings for Estaphanos – and in the many occurrences when the lights are not working, the driver plays chicken with other drivers who are also 18 years old and also playing chicken – in dead earnest. I would hate to be a dead chicken on Meskal Square. But already, this is just a bad memory – all the way up to Stadium, and then on to Mexico, all you risk is a bent fender, some shattered glass… But pedestrians, beware!
[But as an aside, I would add that pedestrians, if they are often the victim of drivers - a zebra crossing mostly serves drivers as a cross hairs device to better try to run them down, that pedestrians will often cross the road at a 45 degree angle right in front of incoming traffic. There are two types of these pedestrians - both male. The first is known as the 'Minibus Torero.' This pedestrian throws a direct look at the driver, then, turning away, boldly walks across the road, daring the driver to do anything about it. The second walks out without so much a glance at the oncoming traffic - that he well knows to be there. We call this one a 'Minibus Kamikaze. ' Is it sometimes difficult to ascertain in the Ethiopian Minibus, where the line separating hubris and arrogance from healthy pride lies. What can I say? Although pedestrians are the daily victims of the minibuses, it is difficult to muster a lot of sympathy for their idiosyncratic road crossings]
Am I really suggesting that Ethiopia can be summed up in a blue minibus ride? When Ethiopians say ‘This is our culture’ looking down on a circular alveolated sourdough bread, they of course mean much less – and much more. And likewise, even if I’m saying it half in jest, I do insist: if you want to understand the innermost workings of Ethiopian society, then go spend a few birr on a taxi ride. There, in the cramped laboratory like space of a minibus, you will see all of the intricacies of society laid out, in deep play.–
I do of course mean much less than this – and much more. Ethiopia in a blue nutshell: this is our culture! ወራጅ!