Togo Distances.jpgTogo is about the size of West Virginia. The main form of transportation between villages is by taxi brousse (bush taxi): private cars, trucks or vans which substitute for nonexistent municipal or regional bus service. Togo is an extremely poor country, and many of the public services that we are used to in the United States do not exist there.

The Togolese taxi brousse system operates under a syndicat (in French, this word has no “e” at the end), a branch of government which makes up the rules of taxi brousse operation. The rules seemed to be applied arbitrarily and most drivers ran their business as they pleased, paying fines to the syndicat people if they were caught. The drivers also had to pay bribes to syndicat people and gendarmes on a regular basis if they wanted to stay in business.

Taxi brousse vehicles are almost always in precarious mechanical condition, always overcrowded and frequently carried live goats, pigs or chickens aboard along with passengers. The animals would be tied up and stuffed under seats, under passengers’ legs or just anywhere there was a little space.

Taxi brousses were instantly recognizable. They looked like they had been through a war, and since it was a rare individual en brousse (in the bush: in a remote area far from cities) who owned anything other than a motor scooter, chances are that any vehicle going by would pick you up for a fare.

As bush taxis are privately owned, they did not follow any time schedule and would generally not leave the initial departure point until they were full, thus maximizing efficiency per each tank of gas. In Blitta, local taxi brousses ferried passengers from outlying villages to the main north-south highway. There you would flag down whatever vehicle was going in your direction. If there was an available seat, they would pick you up.

You could sometimes wait an hour or more before a vehicle came by that had an available seat or was going to your destination. Sometimes the vehicle was in such poor shape, you wondered if you were going to get there at all.

One day as I was hanging out with some village friends by the road in Blitta, a beat-up Toyota van taxi brousse came down the road. There were a couple of white women inside.

“Da Marie, are they Americans? Are they friends of yours?” the Blitta villagers asked me. Any time they saw a white person, they figured we knew each other. It wasn’t entirely out of the question. Most of the white people in these parts were Peace Corps Volunteers, and we really did know each other. However, there were also white people here and there we didn’t know who worked for other NGOs (nongovernmental organizations involved in development) and the occasional backpacking, granola eating tourist.

“No, I don’t know them,” I replied. “But if they are badly dressed, they are surely Americans.”

My Togolese friends laughed, but it was true. Only Americans traveled in sloppy shorts and T shirts. You could tell an American a mile away.

The taxi came to a stop at the Big Tree. The Big Tree was one of the few trees by the side of the road at Blitta, and it was one of the fewer places that had a shoulder to pull off to the side of the road making it a natural taxi brousse stop. The Big Tree provided the village women food sellers a shady place to wait for the travelers to whom they sold their goods. It was also a central gathering spot where everyone hung out to gossip.

The white women got out. They were young, in their early 20s, and wearing shorts and sloppy T shirts. I wandered down towards the Big Tree to see if they were from my training group, but I didn’t know them. By chance I glanced at the tires on their taxi and noticed how dangerously bald they were. Should I tell them? It might be a long time before they found another taxi going where they needed to go. They would probably continue in the same taxi anyway, even if I did say something. Everyone knew the dangers of riding in bush taxis. They were always in bad condition, dangerously overcrowded and there were no seat belts. Surely it would do no good to tell them, other than to make their trip more worrisome. There was also the possibility that the information would be greeted with a, “who are you, my mother?” kind of response. I decided to mind my own business.

I never again looked at the tires of any taxi brousse I was about to get into. If you started doing things like that, you’d never leave your village.