My car is out of service at the moment so I’m back to taking “transport”: the system of shared taxis, shared mini-bus taxis (known as Poda-Podas), motorbike taxis, and the occasional large government bus, which – along with old-fashioned foot power – serves to move most of the million or so residents of Freetown around town.
A product of individual initiative, market forces, and very little government involvement, the transport system is one of the few systems in town that work relatively well. Sure, there is a certain amount of chaos to it, and you’ll probably have to walk awhile and wait awhile longer, and your ride may be far from comfortable… But basically, you can start at almost any Point A within the city’s perimeter (and beyond), and get to almost any Point B. This contrasts favorably with, for instance, the postal service.
For me, my commute begins with a 10-minute walk from my house up to the main (tarred) roads nearby: Aberdeen and Wilkinson Road. My own street is actually a relatively well-trafficked residential area, but the road is dirt and rocks and pretty rough, and taxis prefer not to venture down.
I don’t mind the walk. I chat with neighbors, enjoy the array of brightly-colored school uniforms (or grimace when the kids hassle me for “2 block”, 200 leones, for candy or a cold drink), and buy my breakfast – perhaps a bunch of bananas or roughly-peeled oranges, or a small loaf of freshly-baked bread or freshly-fried donuts – from roadside venders along the way.
When I reach Wilkinson Road, I join the crowds of people lining the road to wait for transport: dodging traffic, calling out to passing taxis, or clambering into battered poda-podas.
Most taxis are small red or white sedans or hatchbacks – the Nissan Sunny is the most common – with a thick belt of sunshine yellow paint around the waist, roughly where the wood paneling on a 1970s station wagon would be. There are also a collection of battered Peugeot station wagons on the road, modified to add a third row of seats in the back for a total of 7 passengers (or more), plus the driver.
When a taxi has room for more passengers, it will honk and slow slightly (but not stop), and you yell out your destination as it rolls by: “John Street”, “New England,” “Congo Cross,” “P-Zed.” I yell "Siaka Stevens, Two-way" to indicate that I'm willing to pay a double fare for the relatively long ride to my office. (The normal rate for a ride is 800 Leones, approximately 25 cents, for both taxis and poda-podas, but the taxis charge more if you're going a long way. Poda-podas usually ply longer and more established routes.)
If the driver wants to take you, he’ll give a subtle and often indiscernible gesture and pull slightly toward the curb. When I first got here, I was often confused as to when I was being offered a ride and when I was not -- a cause of frequent embarrassment. Once flagged to enter the car, you clamber in quickly lest the driver change his mind and pull away. (At peak times, demand far exceeds supply, so the drivers can get downright snippy and dictatorial about their cars.) If you're lucky, you get the front seat and can sit out the rest of the ride in (relative) comfort. If not, you climb in the back with two other people.
All the passengers in one car are – or should be – heading in the same general direction, but all have different destinations, so people climb in and out of the car as you go. You may start on the right side by the door, get out a few blocks later to let the middle person depart, shuffle into the middle yourself when the driver stops to pick up someone new, and shift to the left door once that person gets out not far from your own destination. It’s like musical chairs without a prize. And then there are the drivers that insist on adding an extra passenger or two: a fourth in the already-crowded back seat, a second in the front passenger seat. You can (and sometimes do) protest, but that usually lands you back on the street.
The taxis themselves are a trip. Door handles and locks almost never work; often the driver must reach around and jiggle the handle from the outside to get it open. Windscreens are frequently cracked, and the seats are torn and worn and probably infested. Windows are left open, and if it starts to rain you’ll have to ask the driver for “the winder” – the handle used to roll up your window – because the car has just one, kept in the glovebox and passed around as the need arises. And then there are times when the window is lodged in place by way of a bit of plywood, wedge of folded cardboard, or scrap of wire, and “rolling it up” is just a matter of removing that stabilizing piece long enough to yank the glass upward.
But this is nothing compared to the poda-podas. This is the local name for the battered mini-buses which form the main form of transport throughout Africa, usually second only to walking. In Salone, the poda-podas are decorated outside with declarations of religion, politics, philosophy, or sport, and with giant stickers and decals (a favorite for poda-podas and taxis alike is a 1980s picture of pop-star Madonna). Inside, the original seats – and all other fixtures – have been ripped out and replaced with four rows of metal benches. On each are crammed four adult bodies (and perhaps a child or two on laps), wedged tightly from one metal wall to the other. As each row fills from the back, the bench ahead is extended by way of a sliding fourth seat on the right-hand side, so ultimately the van is packed with bodies like a can of sardines, without aisle or breathing room or a ready means of egress.
Once on the road, the poda-podas careen recklessly, blaring musical like a carnival and dodging fellow vehicles, small children, old blind men, and stray dogs with equal abandon. Many people – particularly professional drivers that drive SUVs for the UN, NGOs, or government officials –dismissively call the taxi and poda-poda drivers “DDR drivers.” This refers to the Demobilization, Disarmament, and Reintegration (DDR) programs that the international community sponsored at the end of the war, by which former combatants were invited to trade their guns for job training and other efforts to reintegrate them into civilian life. Apparently, in Salone a favorite option was a driver’s license. Upcountry, where motorbike taxis are the primary and often sole form of transport, this DDR denomination is particularly apt, and I can't help but picture a rebel with an AK-47 whenever I see a young guy speed by on a Honda bike, with a passenger clinging to the back.
Many foreigners (even those that do deign to take taxis) refuse to take poda-podas, and I understand. They are intensely uncomfortable and unsettlingly unsafe -- though they are never driving much faster than 10 or 15 miles per hour in rush-hour traffic, so the potential damage is limited.
But my evening commute is almost always by poda-poda, because it’s impossible to convince a taxi to brave the evening traffic from downtown to my home on the west side. (Taxi drivers have an oddly anti-capitalist, seemingly self-defeating approach to pricing: most will turn down an expensive charter fare because they don’t feel like driving in that direction. Asking one to name a price to take you on an undesirable route will provoke not an astronomical price but a simple shake of the head.)
And to be honest, though the ride home is hot and long and uncomfortable, I do generally enjoy the poda-podas for their color and sense of camaraderie. From the main side door of a poda-poda hangs a young kid, the “apprentice”, calling the destination in a high-speed, repetitive, sing-song manner suggestive of a carnival: Aberdeen becomes “abahdeenabahdeenabahdeenabahdeenabahdeenabahdeen” and if you didn’t know in advance what they were saying, you wouldn’t have a clue.
Once inside, you join an instant community, brought together in shared discomfort and the usual African warmth. If the music is not too deafening, the passengers are apt to break into spontaneous collective conversation. No topic is taboo; this week I was in a poda-poda where talk turned to politics, a touchy subject these days with a national election on the way, and the whole van seemed to erupt into point and counter-point, barb and counter-barb, in an impassioned but polite debate on the leading parties. I stayed quiet and tried (mostly in vain) to follow the rapid-fire Krio.
A favorite topic, however, is the driver’s driving. If he (because they are, without exception, men) gets particularly reckless, or turns down a road likely to be packed with traffic, the 17 or so passengers get in on the act, yelling abuse and advice from the depths of the van. These back-seat drivers will then often start arguing with one another about the preferred route or safest speed, in a loud and lively but nonetheless perfectly civil exchange. (Sierra Leoneans are quick to raise their voices and love to argue, about anything and everything, at the drop of a hat. It can be off-putting until you realize that they are not usually as enraged as they sound, and that all will be friends again once the topic is closed.)
One day this week, on my way home from work, I ended up with a particularly, um, innovative driver. Taxis and poda-podas love to take convoluted routes along side streets and alleyways, supposedly to avoid the traffic but also (I suspect) to keep themselves entertained. I’ve been in Freetown for almost a year now, and I’ve seen a lot of strange and hidden corners of the city in this way, and have had countless rides where I could swear we’d somehow wandered into another city. But this poda-poda ride rivaled them all. At one point we’d traveled for 20 minutes on a series of rutted, rocky footpaths, squeezing between enormous broken-down trucks and crumbling buildings. We then lurched our way inch-by-inch down a steep gulley and emerged back on the tarred road... just a few blocks from where we began.
The most interesting part of this stand-out ride was when the poda-poda decided to brave a particularly steep hill usually avoided by the weak and battered transport vehicles (and thus a favorite route for me when I’m in my own car.) The road runs through one of central Freetown’s most decrepit slums, Kroo Bay, and is lined with open gutters and ramshackle houses and packed with pedestrians. Though a two-way road, it seems barely wide enough for one and is further narrowed by the inevitable smattering of parked cars and trucks.
At one point the road curves steeply upward from the sea-level depths of Kroo Bay. To scale this obstacle, my intrepid poda-poda driver decided to zig-zag his way up the hill, across both lanes, ping-ponging from one gutter to the other. At the top, instead of returning to his own lane, he joined a few other jerks and pulled into the opposing lane, passing the standstill line of traffic on our right. I was both bemused and annoyed, wondering how far we would get before meeting an oncoming car and becoming embroiled in an inevitable stand-off filled with blaring horns and vehicular chest-thumping.
Sure enough, we quickly met oncoming traffic and everyone was brought to a halt. Passengers in my poda-poda started shouting at our driver, who seemed unfazed. Then an irate policeman appeared, understandably furious but storming about in an unhelpful rage. He started demanding that our poda-poda, and the cars before and behind us, reverse back down the hill we’d just climbed. The driver resisted for awhile and tried to pull instead into the line of cars on our right, but then started making signs of complying.
Now, I am not a generally nervous person. But there I was, in the very back corner of the poda-poda, with 16 people between me and the door, and a driver who was contemplating a backwards drive down a hill too steep for him to climb straight in the first place. I peered behind me and saw people and cars and an ominous telephone pole in our route, and I started to sweat. I knew these poda-podas were barely roadworthy, and apt to break down or fall apart at a moment’s notice. And I knew this kind of backwards drive would test both the driver’s skills and the poda-poda’s brakes. And I knew I wanted to get out of the car.
I was not alone. My fellow passengers were shouting wildly and threatening to revolt. Several demanded that the apprentice open the door and let them out. One woman in the seat in front of me – so also packed near the back – stood up and started trying to push her way over the sea of bodies toward the door. I decided that if she made it out, I would follow – and if not, I would climb out the window to my left.
But just as the driver was about to roll the van over the edge, he pulled instead into an opening in the proper lane, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief. And then I started to giggle softly.
Because, all difficulty and misadventure aside, I really enjoy taking transport. Despite the fair amount of sweat, dirt, hassle and inconvenience involved, I tend to be much more positive about Freetown when I’m schlepping around in taxis and poda-podas than when I’m cruising by myself in my cushy and enormous SUV. Yes, there are times – particularly at night – when not having a car can put a damper on my mobility. And yes, there are days – like when a taxi driver starts bugging me for my phone number, or when I spend an hour in a poda-poda that smells of vomit– when I wish I could escape to my Nissan Pathfinder. But on the whole, I like the feeling of being part of this mass of people, and I like how interactive (and adventurous) a normal commute becomes.