Published in Africa Geographic, May 2004
As I stepped out of Mrs Roche’s Guest House, a tiny, wistful voice said “Taxi, madam?” Yes, I did want a taxi, it was too far to walk to the city centre. It was only after I’d settled myself into the back seat that I realised that the taxi, like its owner, had fallen on hard times. The interior was stripped of all projections: there was not a handle to be seen, neither for doors nor windows, and even the knobs for locking the doors were reduced to pieces of wire. The roof covering hung in tatters like wall paper in a half-demolished house, the road was visible through a hole in the floor and the driving mirror was a tiny fragment of glass in a bare background.
The driver turned the key, the engine sputtered reluctantly into life, made a few half-hearted ticks, and died. “Do you have petrol?” I asked, looking at the gauge. He peered at the dial and sighed. “I think no petrol”.
Not wanting to offend him by getting out, I sat quietly while he free-wheeled down the road. The hill lent us some speed and by the time we approached the first roundabout we were going a fair lick. Then I realised, unhappily, that the driver was not intending to brake; indeed, he couldn’t brake or we’d be stuck in the medley of cars, bikes, and pushcarts all taking their chance. Somehow we slotted in and cruised into a broad duel carriageway. I was feeling quite relaxed until I spotted the petrol station. It was on the other side of the road. Uphill. Unperturbed the driver manoeuvred into the fast lane and came to a halt broadside across the road. I lost my nerve. “This is dangerous – I’m getting out!” I said. “No, no, out dangerous!” he squealed and, untying the string that kept his door closed, leaped out to push us into the gap in the central reservation. Then he grabbed a plastic can from the boot and sprinted into the garage.
I was determined to get out. It was lunacy to ride further in such a vehicle. But without means to open the doors or windows I couldn’t see how to make my exit with any dignity. I tried looking poised and European under the curious stares of the African passers-by while I fumbled furtively for the knob to pivot the front seat forward so I could make my escape. Of course it was missing. I was too embarrassed to climb over the driver’s seat so sat there, staring rigidly ahead, until the little man scurried back with his can of petrol, sloshed it into the tank, ran back to pay and drove me to the centre of town. The fare was 80 shillings – £4 – the price of a good meal in 1984, and more than a sleek, shiny hotel taxifare. But I couldn’t bring myself to argue. His need was so obviously greater than mine.
© Hilary Bradt