April 22, 2009

by Vassil Genchev

The mini bus taxi should be a top indicator in any World Bank – or whatever institution studying how poor people actually are – report. It draws the line between the developing and the developed world, the North and the South, the East and the West. It also marks the difference between the rich, the middle class and the poor within the country. Here, in South Africa where I currently am, I live in a leafy suburb with nice houses surrounded by big walls and electric fences. This is the European part of me. But I work at the city centre where businessmen and lawyers rub shoulders with big women boiling stuff in huge corrugated cauldrons at every corner, skinny Rastafarians with blood-shot eyes, street hawkers peddling psychedelic-coloured candy, sullen-looking people distributing leaflets telling you to change your gold into cash, and many, many others. The mini bus taxi – which here is called just ‘taxi’ – connects these two worlds.


I do not quite come from the ‘North’ or the ‘West’ even if I pretend in the context of work by dressing smartly, wearing nice glasses and speaking correct English. I come from Bulgaria, often said to bridge the civilisations of Europe and the Orient, where mini bus taxes are widespread. I believe this is the last country, going from Turkey towards Europe, where you can travel standing in a van, together with 13 other passengers, loud disco folk music blaring from old speakers, traffic rules non-existent, instant mutuality emerging as the notion of ‘personal space’ gives way to a common, itinerant bubble of colours, smells, touches, laughs, cries. Right, we are bonding – not by playing golf or going for drinks after a day at the office but just by getting there, wherever this might be. And here’s another mark on my social indicator scale. We, Bulgarians, are being a lot more detached and formal in our common taxi – all fourteen of us are looking in different directions, someone is always trying to read the morning paper with the whole crowd moving in sync as a page is turned, we demand AC in summer and we often get it, the poor driver is expected to give receipts to every customer and trying, almost furtively, not to, which gives him some extra cash for himself. Here, in South Africa, despite the fact that I am almost always, except for two occasions from about sixty trips, the only white person in the bus, I take part in a lot more interaction.

jozie taxi

First, we shuffle around, positioning ourselves in the most optimal way – getting the right seat is like a game, you lose out if you end up squeezed in the last row which seats four instead of the usual three, or if you end up next to the driver who is always slamming the big gear shift into your knee (or worse!) while you are helping him out by collecting the change from the passengers. Collecting the fare for the trip is another ritual – every row spontaneously recognises a volunteer who collects all the money, distributes change, and passes it on to the next row and ultimately all cash is counted by the shotgun rider who settles everything with the driver. There is a continuous friendly vibe lasting throughout all the rituals and procedures. Sometimes there is loud music, sometimes just conversation in the local language with me being able to discern only the numbers which are pronounced in English. Sometimes I feel that the rich and the white South Africans who choose not to partake in this moving spectacle of good spirits miss out a lot. I know that the reason why big cities in Bulgaria rely on this means of transport is the poor state of the public transport. I also know that the South African government refers to the taxis that get me to work every day as the ‘moving coffins’. I have also heard, though, a lot of people complaining of being lonely or not meeting enough people. Hop into a mini bus taxi – you’ll meet lots of people, guaranteed. At least thirteen of them, each trip. And that should be quite enough for a virgin in this way of moving around.


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