Le taximan bamakois: A tribute

To give you a rough idea of the importance of taxis to my life whenever I’m in Bamako, let me offer one number. In the field notes written during my last research trip–a three-week visit to conclude a decade-long study of urban marriage and polygamy trends–the word “taxi” appears 28 times. That’s more often than the name of my wife who accompanied me, more often than “marriage” or “polygamy,” and nearly as often as “Bamako.”

I didn’t always spend so much time in taxis. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, I got around Bamako mainly on public transportation (SOTRAMA, sometimes bâché), which was and remains far cheaper. Then two things changed. First, I landed a faculty position with a reliable salary, and soon certain luxuries became “necessities.” Second, I started visiting Mali with my wife and children, and taxis made more sense.

I’ve since grown accustomed to hailing Bamako’s taxicabs and developed deep respect for the men who drive them. (I’ve read about Bamakoises in the job but never met one.) They do a demanding job with skill and panache.

Driving a cab is nowhere for the faint of heart, least of all in crowded cities like Bamako. It takes boldness for a taxi driver to insert his vehicle into narrow spaces in busy traffic, to thread a path safely between slow-moving pushcarts and tricycle taxis on both sides, swerving onto the shoulder when the need arises, holding his own against swarms of motorcyclists and corrupt policemen.

Being a Bamako cabbie also takes encyclopedic knowledge of the streets and neighborhoods of a city home to over three million people. This knowledge is normally acquired, mind you, without recourse to GPS, Waze, maps, or even street names (which exist only for main thoroughfares like Avenue Al Quds, better known as Kulikoro sira or “Koulikoro road”). I have yet to see a Bamako cabbie consult a map or digital device to check his route. Drivers’ understanding of urban space is relational, based on landmarks and a keen awareness of how their city’s many spatial pieces fit together.

In setting out, therefore, you must tell your driver the name of your destination neighborhood, then one or more reference points (e.g. “Just past the Shell station” or “Before you get to the Gendarmerie”). Given such minimal information, most drivers know immediately where to go. Should the need arise, you can always call up someone at your destination and hand your phone to the driver for further explanation.

But it’s not enough to know the route: a good cabbie can predict the fastest route, and that depends on time of day and day of the week. Any taximan worth his fare knows that traffic jams will form around municipal government offices on Sundays, for instance, because that’s where and when many weddings take place. He plots his route accordingly–again, without checking his phone. He knows when certain roads and bridges switch from one-way to two-way traffic and back (to accommodate weekday rush hours). He knows shortcuts down residential streets that bypass clogged avenues.

Along with raw distance and dynamic traffic patterns, a good cabbie must know the condition of the roadways themselves. Driving one kilometer down a badly potholed laterite street might cost him more, in travel time and vehicle wear, than driving two kilometers down a more circuitous but smoother route.

Since Bamako taxis lack meters, you have to agree on a fare at the outset. In calculating the amount, a driver needs to process all the variables mentioned above, plus the odds of picking up more passengers after (sometimes while) bringing you to your destination. He must also estimate your ability to pay his proposed fare. The mathematical and psychological profiling skills required are astoundingly complex. I won’t even mention the mechanical prowess needed to keep a beat-up sedan going day after day after day.

Perhaps a cabbie’s greatest asset, though, is sociability, and I’ve found Bamako taxi drivers extraordinarily outgoing. Every cab ride is an opportunity to learn something about the city and its inhabitants. Among the cabbies I’ve chatted up over the years, one named Lassine spent eight days adrift in a small boat trying to reach the Canary Islands. Near the university one day in 2010, I hailed a taxi driven by Bakary, a former long-haul trucker married to three wives; two years later, after I had made regular trips in his battered yellow Mercedes 190D over two fieldwork stints, he helped me recruit a focus group of polygamous husbands whose input was key to my forthcoming book. Bakary is retired now, but we’re still in touch.

I got a ride in 2020 from Samba, who spoke of his passion for American country music and waxed poetic about Don Williams, whose CD he’d lost and sorely missed. “When Don sings, you can hear all the pain in his voice,” Samba said. (Me: Does he mean the Texan who topped the 1980 pop charts with the sappy ballad “I Believe in You“? I resolved to bring Samba some Sturgill Simpson on my next visit. Talk about singing one’s pain!)

There must be unpleasant cabbies in the city, I just can’t recall meeting any–and I usually recall such things. So if you can speak some French or Bambara, if you are not barred by your employer from riding in taxis for security reasons (sorry, US embassy personnel!), and if you’re looking for a Bamako taximan, I can put you in touch with a few good ones.

(Don’t let the expense put you off: by comparison to transportation in most cities around the world, Bamako taxis are cheap. A trip across town, e.g. from Sotuba to Heremakono, cost me 5000 CFA francs in 2020, or about US$10. Always ask the driver in advance if he can make change. As for material comfort, well, you get what you pay forsee backseat view below.)

Got a good Bamako taxi story? Please leave it in the comments section below.

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17 Responses to Le taximan bamakois: A tribute

  1. priffe says:

    Two words – dourney-dourney 🙂
    A taxi story – I was in a cab going to the corner where they change money. I needed to get out but as so often, the door was stuck. So the driver reached over and struck it hard, and it flew open.
    Unluckily, a horde of motos came on just then and drove into the door, and one guy hurt his foot. They wanted to lynch me, while I and the driver tried to explain my innocence. It can get pretty aggressive in centre ville.
    Not a taxi story, but how to find your way – first trip to Bamako, many years ago, the only contact we had in the city was a fixer named Dikka (iirc). First rondpoint, we stopped and asked the people who happened to be there if anyone knew a guy named Dikka? One guy spoke up and said: oui oui he lives over there! and pointed to a building two blocks away. And he was right! Amazing! In a city of 1M+!
    In Africa, you talk to people and they help you.

  2. Violet Diallo says:

    Bamako taximen are much more sensitive now than 3 months ago to anti COVID measures, and most sport a mask even if it’s dangling from one ear. When I complimented one cabbie on his mask, he said quite indignantly, “But I only wear it for the dust!” While that could be a pretty astute kind of prevention, I’m afraid it may be a first example of disapproval/ostracism of people who might be harboring the virus, rather like HIV.

    Another plus to your list is to ask in what other city you could confidently ask a taxi to deliver unaccompanied child.ren to school or home? This is a lifesaver for parent drivers whose own vehicles break down seriously at the wrong moment.

    • Jennifer says:

      In my experience, the taximen wore masks early on in the virus alert, but I haven’t seen one wearing one recently.

  3. I ni ce, karamɔgɔ! I think that cabbie conversations could fill the next “Na baro kè” season 🙂

  4. mali muso says:

    So many memories of taxis in Bamako when I was stationed there in the Peace Corps! My favorite is one of negotiating the price (in Bambara) before entering the taxi and not getting the rate I wanted but being pressed for time so I just agreed to the higher price. As we got on our journey and started to exchange pleasantries and family names, it turned out that we were joking cousins. Him: “your people are/were our people’s slaves” Me: “hmm, if that is the case, then why am I paying you for this taxi ride? If I am your slave, shouldn’t you pay for me?” Which resulted in uproarious laughter and him giving me the better (lower) price.

  5. bshep306 says:

    My Peace Corps service was sadly cut short in 2015, therefore I don’t have many Bamako taxi stories(Plenty though for long distance taxis and urban taxis in neighboring Guinea/Conakry). The only one I can recall was a sunset trip across town and one of the many bridges with a good PC friend. Riding in the backseat of a car seeing the beautiful hills, the Niger River, and the sprawling urban landscape… It was almost as good as it gets! Definitely a great city to take a taxi ride!

  6. Tim Murray says:

    great piece, Bruce! I am still looking forward to you posting that heavy metal piece you wrote while in the peace corps. a real gem! hope you and your family are well!

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      That piece is lying around here somewhere. It was published on April 1, 1999 in my hometown newspaper (the St. Albans Messenger) as a gag. If I can locate it I will post it for you!

  7. Anne Harkin says:

    Ah! The taxis! What a wild bunch of beaten up, Mad Max-style, barely hanging in there jalopies – strung together with bits of coat hanger, rubber tubing, sticky tape – bits falling off, no mirrors, no door handles – inside or out -cracked windscreens, no interior door linings, no functioning seat belts, every exterior panel a different colour, seats that lost their springs long ago bring you closer to Mother Earth, wiring hanging out from under the dashboard – handy for starting the vehicle when you’ve lost the key – dashboards covered in dust-coated fake fur and lined with grubby stuffed animals. Noises from the rear indicate there’s a little man located somewhere in or near the boot hammering away at something = shot shockers. But taxis here in Bamako are ever ready, ever present, ever available and CHEAP! ( Despite the fact that petrol is about the same price as in Oz.) eg in the morning it takes about half a minute to flag down a taxi and agree on the price – Mille, 500 cfa = not quite Au$4 – to go the 4 or 5k to the Maison des Jeunes. There’s often great music playing when you get in – mostly Malian- trad or pop or reggae. Sometimes there are other passengers. We exchange greetings in Bamanakan and stop- start our way through the stream of belching motorbikes and choked roads to our destination. The taxi man will take you right up to your destination, wish you a good day and choof off. Bonne journée! Anne Harkin, Melbourne

  8. Tom says:

    After having lived in Bamako for 8 Years, then Dakar and then Accra, I can safely say that Bamako taxi drivers are generally the most respectfull and sociable taxi drivers. You have to become familiar with haggling for the fare though. Dakar Taxi drivers are much less pleasant to negotiate and drive with. In Accra I got tired of constantly negotiating and still not getting the normal fee that I had to resort to Uber drivers.

  9. Carin Wall says:

    Wonderful tribute. Have forwarded to my friends and Bamako lovers.

  10. Gail Call says:

    I have not decided if I am a traveler or a tourist. Solo female on her first trip to sub Saharan Africa at the time. Arranged taxi from airport to Hotel Tamara in Mali. Arrived about midnight. Totally intrigued by airport and delighted with humid air and a bit of militant chaos. Sign with some variation of my name ( it is “Call” so I am used to it!). Met by young man who took me in a taxi that looked very much like the one in your picture. He had a buddy with him of the same 20-something age. Why not? Going for a ride! Nice guys. I guess some might have had concerns about getting in at all, but that is a fear they brought with them and I had already decided to be there. I had no way of knowing where I was but we got stuck in a deep flooded ditch and the guys pushed the taxi out. They kept apologizing. I was fine inside though they were covered knee deep in mud. Next stop was very near my destination when we got a flat tire. I stood outside while they fixed it. African moon and stars. 3AM. Music from nearby club. Africa! The smell of humanity and mud. The guys kept checking on my wellbeing. More than just okay. I have never been happier, before or since. I would have cried but the sight of a very white woman, of a certain age,doing so would have alarmed them.

  11. Matt H says:

    Love this post, Bruce! So true! I have encountered one or two surly cab drivers in Bamako, but for the most part, they reflect everything I love best about Malian culture — the openness, friendliness, grace, and humor.

    If you’ll indulge me, I have a story to share about a wonderful driver I had the good fortune to meet.
    When I visited Mali in 2016, I hired a Bamako taximan to drive me from the capital to my old Peace Corps village in the Ségou region, and ended up getting much more than I bargained for. Part of the deal was that he would stay a couple of nights in the village so as to drive me back. Siaka was outgoing and friendly but I worried how a guy from the city would take to life “en brousse.” It turns out I had nothing to fear, as he was a real paysan at heart.

    It happened that there was a wedding planned for the day after we arrived, and we were invited to a gathering of village men that evening. As the men took turns offering their blessings to the young groom, Siaka stood up and asked the elders for permission to say a few words. I thought to myself, “What the heck is he doing? Why is he making himself, a stranger, the center of attention on what should be this young man’s special day?”

    I will never forget what happened next. He began with a praise for the goodness of the villagers, the wisdom of its elders, and the sacredness of the institution of marriage. “Wow,” I thought, “this guy is certainly well spoken.”
    He went on like this for some time. Gradually, something in him changed. As he continued, his voice rose several decibels, veins popped from his neck, and flecks of spittle burst from his mouth. . It was as if a powerful force took over his body as he let loose a torrent of words, half shouted, half sung. They included supplications to Allah to grant the young couple a happy marriage, good fortune, and many children. The gathering looked on in a mix of bewilderment and awe.

    It turns out my “driver” was from a long line of griots. Driving a taxi was how he earned money but “jaliya” was his true vocation. The village appreciated having him there–it bestowed a certain honor on the marriage proceedings. It’s common for a villager’s family to hire a griot for wedding ceremonies if one has the means, but the groom was from a poor family.

    For the next few days, Siaka (or “Jeliba” as I later learned his friends called him) insisted on accompanying me everywhere, and was my spokesman, advisor, and facilitator. Everywhere we went, people seemed impressed that I had had the wisdom and the means to hire my own personal griot!

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      That’s a great story, Matt! It reminds me of a tailor I met nearly a decade ago who was also a griot: convinced that jeliya had been corrupted by money, he refused to be compensated for any of his griot duties, hence his full-time tailor gig. But it was clear to me that being a griot was no side hustle for him; it was the center of his life. That powerful force you described–I think it’s called “nyama”–is something you can definitely feel when it’s being wielded by a true master.

  12. Jim Jones says:

    I like this entire thread and loved Matt H’s story about the taximan-griot. It’s been a long time since I was in Bamako, but since I was a bus driver in the USA before I became an academic, I’ve always paid attention to professional drivers wherever I met them. Taxi drivers in Bamako are definitely among the world’s elite driver/mechamic/anthropologists. I didn’t always look forward to travelling but I always looked forward to the conversations that resulted, and I even enjoyed watching (and occasionally helping) them get a sick machine back on the road..

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