Posts Tagged ‘Sotrama’

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

April 27, 2020

Part six – no distance (note: the term “social distancing” is patently preposterous, as it is entirely clear that the distance required to avoid catching The Virus is physical…)

pic: me.

A Bamako street corner. A very average Bamako street corner, with roadside vendors trying to make a few cents, taxis looking to gain the edge at the traffic light, the Sotrama boys running across the street looking for passengers, the impatient beeping and revving of cheap Chinese motorbikes forever in a hurry, pedestrians looking for a safe place to cross, corrupt traffic police and their sneering whistles, car horns blaring…. Once that red light goes green all that energy will be unleashed and there will be a tremendous roar as thick traffic races to the next light.

That traffic thinned out somewhat after the government announced the strict measures designed to keep COVID-19 manageable. But it’s already growing back to its previous volume – most certainly the motorbikes and their gravity-defying habits.

I recently went to visit a political analyst who explained to me the folly of going ahead with last Sunday’s second round of the legislative elections – more about that in a later post. Enthusiasm for these polls was at a bare minimum and the reason people gave for not going to the polling station was the obvious one: Corona. Rather bewilderingly, fear of the virus vanishes entirely in other places. On the way to the interview my taxi crawled through a densely crowded market, there was the usual sight of the people packed like sardines in the Sotrama minibuses…

I am also reliably informed that mosques fully fill up for Friday prayers. There are very prominent religious leaders in the country who are virtually untouchable and whose authority goes way beyond that of the secular government, again for reasons that are perfectly easy to grasp.

Rushing to market. Pic: me.

So actually, none of this is terribly bewildering. Buying groceries, moving around town and going to pray – especially in this time of Ramadan – are activities that are an order of magnitude higher on peoples’ priority lists than taking part in a pointless exercise in what passes for democracy but is, in point of fact, a complete irrelevance to the vast majority.

In crisis times such as these people have a very stark choice to make: if we stay at home we’ll have no business and no money and we will starve; if we go out and do our business on the streets we may risk contamination. You die – or you die.

That’s a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, if I am permitted a maritime image about 1,200 kilometres from the nearest coast.

Similarly, it is the ordinary folks that get into the crosshairs of the men and women in uniform. In some places street vendors are the target of sustained harassment. Here it is those who are breaking the (increasingly pointless) 9pm to 5am curfew, in place since March 26.

Not exactly locked in but close enough. Pic: me.

Increasingly pointless, indeed, because what’s the use of letting bars and music venues and restaurants – and the many street vendors they attract – go bankrupt because you want to avoid contamination while it is actually during the day that far more people run that very same risk? ‘The only folks happy with the curfew are the people in uniform,’ says the good friend and neighbour you have already met. ‘It’s business for them. The only good thing about it is that they leave people like me in peace when I am at work during the day because they now make their money at night…’ But for him, and many of his colleagues, the very lucrative night business cannot come back soon enough.

Enforcing the curfew now is the new sport in town that extends to the furthest nook and cranny of this vast city. Don’t think you can sneak about in your remote corner of Bamako because there will be patrols and you will be chased, beaten up and be made to pay a fine that goes straight into the pocket of the chap that’s just beaten you up.

Nobody knows how long this will go on. But everyone knows that this can not last for much longer. Requests for money multiply. Food stocks, such as there are, run out, as does the patience of people you rely on for survival. Remittances have ended because the places where your relatives are working, in Côte d’Ivoire, in France, in Canada, wherever, are all closed, too.

There is no full lockdown and it’s unlikely one will happen. And this half-half position keeps full desperation at bay for now, as Mali’s contamination rate creeps upward to 389 with 23 dead, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker. Does this justify the continued restrictions? That’s up to the government and it does not appear new announcement are forthcoming. So for now, we just muddle through.

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

April 8, 2020

Part two – How do you do social distancing when closeness brings you money?

 

March 26. I’m having a chat with a good friend and neighbour, who is part of a taxi business. We have just had the first of what is likely to be a long-ish series of very quiet nights. Immediately after the public confirmation of the first two cases of COVID-19, president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita announced a 9pm to 5am curfew.

This follows one week after public gatherings of over 50 were banned. This has meant the unthinkable: that quintessentially larger-than-life Bamako phenomenon, the Sunday Marriage, immortalised by Amadou & Mariam, can no longer take place. In addition, schools have been closed and now that the curfew is in full force the bars, restaurants and music clubs, already taking a hit from the less-than-50-only rule, will be closing entirely.

Another measure is the social distance rule for urban transport and this makes my friend’s life rather difficult.

“There’s already very few people out,” he says, “and with this rule I can only take two paying passengers at a time. It’s not worth it. Yesterday I drove around the city for five hours and collected – what… CFA7,500.” That’s 11 euros 43 cents, not enough to cover the petrol and the bribes.

“But,” he went on, “I will probably ride this out. How about the fellows on the Sotrama?” I had already noticed that those ubiquitous green minibuses – named after the long gone SOciété du TRAnsport du MAli – were becoming scarce. Not bad for road safety, as a good number of the (mostly) young men driving them are pretty reckless, if they’re not tired and overworked. A day starts as early as 5am and can go on until 10-11pm (when there is no curfew of course). Money must be given to the owner of the vehicle and what’s left gets divvied up between the driver and the parentikè (apprentice), who ushers the passengers in. Hang on, that’s after the traffic police and sometimes even les coxeurs have had their cut: the former a big slice, the latter a very small one, both paid on the spot.

Your Bamako transport at a glance: Chinese motorbikes (everywhere), private vehicle (increasing in number), taxis (always yellow) and your Sotrama neatly in the middle.

“So what happens,” I ask, “when the Sotrama must halve the number of passengers to respect the new social distance rule?”

“Oh, that’s simple. If you have some 20 passengers on board and they all pay 150 francs, say, you’ll get CFA3,000 for one ride.” And that’s not counting the numerous times people get on and off en route: whenever the apprentice bangs on the roof, the driver veers to the curb and stops. It is everybody’s job (yours and mine) to stay out of their way.

“Now they can only take ten…”

Cycling around the neighbourhood, I did see a few half-full Sotrama doing the rounds with drivers and apprentices looking even gloomier than they normally do. Of course: there’s zero money to be made from a half-full vehicle. And there’s definitely fewer of them on the streets.

In a country without any official safety net both your own money and the patience of the family you will now have to rely on run out pretty quickly. And then what? Your guess is as good as mine. But the longer this goes on, the harder it will get to grab that lowest rung of the ladder that is now disappearing out of sight as a thick Corona-mist hides it from view.

 

To be continued.