Life on the Highway
I had never ridden a motorcycle in my life before I came to Benin. The most dangerous thing I did was to drive without my seatbelt between McDonalds and the Gas Station. When we received our Benin Welcome Book before leaving, I was confused. I didn’t realize that “moto-taxi” meant “motorcycle-taxi,” and I was puzzled by the idea of wearing a helmet inside a taxi.
Those first few days were shocking. Every time we hopped in a big van and ventured through the city, our vehicle would be surrounded by motorcycles. Traffic was made up of a few cars, a few semi trucks, and thousands of motorcycles. Those motos zoomed around with no regard to which side of the street they should be on, how to pass, or the meaning of a red stoplight. Benin was and is a motorcycle country.
A few days after we arrived, we had “Zemijahn Training” – Zemijahn being the local lingo for moto-taxi. Peace Corps gathered together 20 drivers and paid them to take us around the block. Old volunteers taught us the French to use.
“Ah! C’est cher! Cent cinquant.”
Knowing that it was just an act and he would get paid anyway, the Zemijahn accepted the fake price. We zoomed away and were back in sixty seconds.
In an effort to prove their intelligence to us, volunteer trainers instilled a fear in us that, for me at least, would never go away. Zems will take advantage of you. They will attack you. They will rob you. They will take advantage of you. The truth is they’re not that bad, but I can’t count how many I’ve become furious. Running out of gas. Talking on their cell phones. I was always sure they were taking advantage of me because I was white. It turns out they do that to everyone. It turns out everyone does that to everyone.
Overtime, my shiny new helmet became scratched and worn, as did my patience for Zemijahns.
They’re ambitious too. If you’re on foot, they’ll heckle and kiss at you until you decide to use them. I remember hearing a story about a volunteer who was standing on the corner with a sack of hot beans, which I imagine she was going to eat. A Zemijahn drove up to her and said, “Tu vas ou?” She was so angered by his presumptuous approach that she took the hot beans and hit the Zem over the head with them. According to others, she felt no guilt or reproach for her actions. In her opinion he had it coming. I imagine in the Zem’s mind, picking up white people was no longer very lucrative.
In the north, Zems are pretty easy to deal with. Usually they will give you the right price and you don’t need to negotiate with them. This is definitely not the case in the south. If the Zem realizes you’re not from the area, he might ask you for double, triple, or quadruple the price.
Waiting in the hot sun for a Zem to pass by. Turning down multiple zems because of their outrageous prices. Stopping for the zem to get gas or to take a call. None of these things I missed when I finished Peace Corps and became an expat.
My organization bought me a moto, which I rolled all over town. That pain disappeared and my life dramatically improved in Benin. I dreaded riding motorcycles before. Now I loved it.
|Mom and I on CIAMO's old cruiser|
My first attempts at driving a moto were on barren roads with no traffic. A few times we went to the stadium to practice turning corners – essentially driving in circles. Adrien was my teacher, although he had only learned a few months ahead of me.
I just let Adrien drive and sat on the back of the moto for a while, but then the day came. He needed to travel north to get Jacob. I was stuck. During that time I was constantly embarrassing myself on the road – the engine cutting, forgetting to clutch – but, by the time Adrien got back, I knew how to drive a moto.
I love riding motorcycles. I love the power between my knees. I love the air at my face, I love that motorcycles force you into a community. Africa is inundated with cheap Chinese motorcycles, with names like Sanili, Sayna, Dayun, Dayang. You can buy one for $600 to $1000. They drive very well, but require constant maintenance. Fortunately those parts are also cheap – spark plug $1, breaks $3, etc.
After a year with my organization’s moto, it was beat up. Myself, plus 2 people in the office and Adrien had used it regularly. It was scratched up, tired, and ready to be passed on to someone in need. I decided for my last ½ year in Benin, I would travel in style.
So I bought myself a new moto.
I had toyed with buying a car, which I could probably resell for about the price I paid, but I told myself no. I love motos.
The moto I bought is cool. A dark red dayang, less of a cruiser and more of a motocross. I joked with the boys that we would be jumping other cars in traffic. I paid $800 for my new moto, and zoomed home. It was powerful.
Then the rainy season started.
My work requires almost weekly trips to Cotonou. Three days after I bought the moto, I took it into the city. As I was finishing my last meeting I looked out the window and thought, “I need to get out of here!”
I ran to my moto, and zoomed out of town trying to escape the rain. Just as I was about 20 minutes from Ouidah, it got me. I continued driving, slowly and cautiously. I wanted to get home and get out of my soaked clothes.
A car braked in front of me fast. I braked too, and my tires couldn’t handle the slippery pavement. I slid to a halt, toppled over. I bounced off the motorcycle and lifted it up. A mirror was broken and the front was scratched. I was ok, but three days after having bought my moto, the bike was already damaged.
Since then, and it has only been 3 weeks, I have been repeatedly soaked while on my motorcycle. The joy of riding in the fresh, open air, is slowly being diminished by the fear that that fresh air will turn into cold rain.