Riding the Demon: On the Road in West Africa

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Niger has no railroads or domestic airlines - its roads are its lifeline. For a year, Peter Chilson traveled this desert country by automobile, detouring occasionally into Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast, in order to tell the story of West African road culture. The road in Africa, says Chilson, is more than a direction or a path to take. Once you've booked passage and taken your seat, the road becomes the center of your life. Hurtling along at 80 miles an hour in a bush taxi equipped with bald tires, no ...
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Overview

Niger has no railroads or domestic airlines - its roads are its lifeline. For a year, Peter Chilson traveled this desert country by automobile, detouring occasionally into Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast, in order to tell the story of West African road culture. The road in Africa, says Chilson, is more than a direction or a path to take. Once you've booked passage and taken your seat, the road becomes the center of your life. Hurtling along at 80 miles an hour in a bush taxi equipped with bald tires, no windows, and sometimes no doors, travelers realize that they've surrendered everything. The road is about blood and fear, and the ecstasy of arrival. On African roads, car wrecks are as common as mile markers, and the wreckage can stand in monument for months or years: a minibus upended against a tree, as if attempting escape; a charred truck overturned in a ditch. Chilson uses the road not to reinforce the worn image of Africa's decay but to reveal how people endure political and economic chaos, poverty, and disease.
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Editorial Reviews

NY Times Book Review
There's almost a flavor of science fiction to the scenes Chilson describes, as though he were giving us a glimpse into a 21st-century dystopia of mad egoism and hurtling hulks of metal.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this vivid exploration of road culture in the West African nation of Niger, Chilson describes a crucial aspect of African culture as a whole: the bush taxi, or "taxi brousse." A year spent taking journeys in this most common form of transportation in Africa leads Chilson further inside modern Africa than an earnest anthropologist would get, not least because of the danger involved. The people of West Africa abhor an empty Peugeot 504. The rickety old station wagons with balding tires, no windows and engines held together by a wing and a prayer gather at chaotic motor parks where they wait until at least 10 passengers are crammed aboard before taking off. These bush taxis are the great social leveler, since people from all walks of life use them. Auto accidents, horrendous and frequent, are a leading cause of death in Africa. Stationed along all routes are "checkpoints" manned by aggressive soldiers who expect bribes, the cost of which is factored in to the passengers' fare. Little wonder that a fatalistic belief in the "demons" of the road dominates the drivers--a set of beliefs that also draws in the author, whose own fear is assuaged by amulets and, on occasion, numb withdrawal. There is an unrelenting quality to the excellent descriptive writing, appropriate perhaps because of the unrelenting life, but readers will hunger for more humor and better characterizations of the people the author met. (Mar.) FYI: Riding the Demon received the Associated Writing Programs award for creative nonfiction.
Library Journal
For many travelers in Africa, the experiences most often remembered are those had on the highways and back roads. Africa has always been a continent with a mobile population where transportation routes are important. As a result, many unique aspects of African culture are connected to travel. Chilson, a young writer, has written an engaging and fascinating account of his road experiences in the French West African country of Niger, north of Nigeria. This well-written book is much more than a description of Chilson's trip, also explaining the history, culture, and personality of this part of Africa. Recommended for libraries with African studies and anthropology collections.--Mark L. Grover, Brigham Young Univ. Lib., Provo, UT
NY Times Book Review
There's almost a flavor of science fiction to the scenes Chilson describes, as though he were giving us a glimpse into a 21st-century dystopia of mad egoism and hurtling hulks of metal.
Kirkus Reviews
The raw cultural, political, and economic vitality of West Africa is sought by newcomer Chilson upon Niger's lawless, hair-raising, fickle, murderous-in a word, insane-roads. A freelance rural transportation network props up West Africa's economies. It is overburdened but vital, hideous and intimate, punishing, equalizing, indispensable. It is the bush taxi. Chilson, who spent a couple of Peace Corps years in Niger during the 1980s, returned in 1992 to tap into the bush taxi culture, one that endures in a nation of perpetual upheaval as a "metaphor for Africa's fight for stability and prosperity." It is also the driver's chance to experience a dollop of freedom and power on roads that are seemingly alive and restless, potentially cruel and violent, and critical expressions of Niger's visceral and spiritual nexus. The cars are the ultimate beaters, little more than mechanical prayers, and the roads are deadly venues, a 100-mile-per-hour free-for-all, where passing on blind curves is a sport and a challenge, and predatory soldiers man roadblocks so common you can see the next from the last. It's not just fun and games though; for Chilson, the roads are "bowls of human soup, microscope slides of society," that afford a glimpse into a world where misfortune is as often as not the work of demons, where out-of-body venturing and hallucinations are, if not common, elemental, and where powerful forces are ready to smite wrongdoers, a valuable containing force in a place gripped by male angst, venality, and religious fervor. Chilson's Virgil is road-savvy Issoufou, a bush cabbie with enough pride in his culture to invite Chilson to take a good look after he has opened doors otherwise locked tooutsiders-to marabouts, the contraband trade, a life lived sur la pointe. If Issoufou offered Chilson "a buffet spread of a nation's economy and politics," Chilson in turns offers it to us, seen through the dark and scary glass of the road. .
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780820320366
  • Publisher: University of Georgia Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/1998
  • Pages: 216
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


The road is patient, but it does not forgive.
—Wole Soyinka


The Fickle God


In northern Nigeria, I saw a Peugeot station wagon and a petrol tanker immersed in fire and smoke. The tanker lay on its side, hidden behind gushing clouds of bright orange and black—a gasoline fire. Clouds as big as Volkswagens shot up in dense stacks while the fire expanded into the fields of corn and millet on both sides of the road like slowly spreading wings.

    I remember the sound of fire and smoke whispering under a barely audible, stuttering thunder, as if a distant storm were passing. The scene shocked the eyes but soothed the ears. I could not immediately see the demolished Peugeot for the inferno. And I recall realizing that I too had just been riding in a Peugeot station wagon, a bush taxi headed north to the city of Kaduna, where I would get a car to Niger.

    I stood on the road beside our car, twenty yards from the fire, and watched as orange flashes at the base of the wreck mushroomed and dissolved in smoke that pushed almost straight up hundreds of feet, where stronger winds carried it south. I could feel the fire's pulse, a hot and warm probing in the breezeless air. Settling ash from the burning fields turned my white T-shirt splotchy gray and smeared my face, neck, and arms. Even without the heat from the fire, the temperature must have been near one hundred degrees. People milled about, dozens at first, and later hundreds, all road travelers.

    A man told methe accident had happened twenty minutes earlier. No survivors. The tanker crashed in the pocket of a long curve—made blind by high, thorny prosopis bushes hugging the shoulder—into a bush taxi crowded with people. The impact had turned the Peugeot to paste and scattered it in pieces. A few yards away, a tan chunk of car door lay in a ditch with its window frame intact; nearby, a lump of bloody clothing. A lot more of this sort of thing lay around, more than enough for me. Most of the bodies, the man said, were on the other side of the wreck.

    I started to back away and bumped into a small boy, a passenger from another car. Transfixed by the fire, he did not look at me but instinctively clutched at my trousers, standing behind me as if for protection. I was dimly aware of other people, and later realized that very few were watching the wreck as I was. A woman picked up the boy and carried him off the road. More vehicles pulled up, forming a long line. With my eyes on the wreckage, I retreated with slow backward steps, captivated by the feeling that I was witnessing something alive and horrible. A demon feast.

    Then I turned away, numbed, and headed for the shade of a tree to try and collect myself. Sitting down, I drew my knees against my chest and put my face against them, hands clasped tightly behind my head, trying to blot out sight and sound. Trying to think.

    It was late morning of a day in March 1993. I had been on the road since October. Before dawn, in the city of Ibadan, southern Nigeria, I had bought the last available seat in a white Peugeot station wagon, the four-cylinder model known as a 504. It was a bush taxi, one of the patchwork secondhand cars that define West Africa's public transport. This one carried nine passengers: two men in front with the driver, four men across the middle row (where I sat), and three women in the rear, a cramped space even with two people. The car had no intact windows except for the windshield, and the door on the middle-row right "window" seat, my place, was gone. For hundreds of miles I sat braced against the open air, without a seat belt to restrain me, my left arm thrown across the seat's shoulder so I could grasp the top, my right hand tightly holding the seat in front of me. I had to guess at the driver's speed—always very high—because none of the dashboard gauges worked. And the engine hood would not close. The driver had looped rope through the under latch and tied the hood down to the front fender.

    A bush taxi.

    Vehicles just like it had filled the Ibadan motor park that morning—bush taxis with no windows, no hoods, no shocks; with balding tires and brakes that whined and screeched. So I took my chances with this one. We left at 6:30 A.M. on the 240-mile trip north to Kaduna. All day the car flew along Nigeria's narrow, crowded arterial north-south highway at speeds around a hundred miles per hour. We sat together, passengers and driver, grim-faced and silent, not uttering a word to one another. Occasionally I heard a soft exclamation, "Allah!" or a gasp. Much of the time I kept my eyes closed to protect them from the wind blasting through the door space—and because of the driving. We played chicken on blind curves in the inside lane, passing five, six cars at a time, and always seemed to regain our own lane with only a few feet to spare before we would have smashed into the oncoming traffic.

    Regardless of nationality, everyone who drives in Africa drives like this—with heat-inspired, desperate, pedal-to-the-floor insanity, heedless of reason, of their own or anyone else's desire to live beyond the next turn. The driver becomes his vehicle, soaking up the power—enjoying it mentally and physically—lusting for the freedom of unregulated roads. Speed limits are not enforced. He drives as if life must be chased mercilessly to its end and finished in a bright flash.

    Our driver that morning stood about six feet five, two hundred muscular pounds of bulk with large, pudgy hands that seemed to grasp the whole top of the steering wheel. He worked in a clean, well-pressed, navy blue wide-collared cotton tunic and matching trousers. A red fez covered his bald head. He handled the car with impatient bravado, the way a teenager might operate a pinball machine, slamming the thing from gear to gear, grumbling and laughing, making turns with wild jerks. With the palm of his right hand he thumped a staccato protest on the top of the dashboard when traffic frustrated him. That habit made it all the more difficult for me to endure this driver, whom I felt certain had lost his mind.

    Or maybe I was losing mine to paranoia. Not far south of Kaduna we witnessed, from miles away, the sudden rising of a plume of black smoke. The sight alarmed us instantly. Against a hazy sky, the smoke formed a sharp silhouette over tired, sandy terrain, the West African Sahel, where lingering savanna struggles against invading desert. I had seen many such sights across West Africa, smoke from burning tires and garbage, from farmers clearing fields to prepare for a new crop. Yet this smoke, so dark and ascending so quickly, unnerved me. I thought of the road demons my driver friends in Niger had described to me, beings that appeared on the road suddenly, often in black and in virtually any form, to distract and frighten drivers—to kill them, in fact, and all those with them. An old woman in dark rags, a black bull, a goat, a dog, the silhouette of a horse and its rider, a leviathan black truck covering the whole road and bearing down from the opposite direction. My friends drove with talismans they called gris-gris hung from rear and side-view mirrors and steering wheel. Some wore them as necklaces beneath their shirts, like our driver on this trip, a Hausa from northern Nigeria near the border with Niger. His two leather gris-gris hung on a cord just below his neck. All of this recalls Nigerian writer Ben Okri's words in his novel The Famished Road: "The road swallows people and sometimes at night you can hear them calling for help, begging to be freed from inside its stomach."

    Now, under a tree, I sat hugging my knees, feeling that I had been left without an escape route. I thought of fate—the fact that the tanker and Peugeot had collided not long before we arrived on the scene. Fear changes things, stirs up mind and body. I tried to focus on mundane subjects but failed. I could not recall what I'd had for breakfast that morning or what clothes I had worn the day before. I was left suddenly with only bits of myself—a fleeting tangle of thoughts: family, friends, failures, ambitions—as if I were paper shredding in a whirlwind. My abdomen ached, my temples felt numb, my scalp hurt.

    I was not involved, knew none of the dead, but fear held me anyway. For months I'd been traveling on roads dominated by predatory soldiers and lined by wrecks, some still burning when I passed. The day before, I had seen a tiny hamlet in southern Nigeria—just four or five mud homes—hours after a single careening eighteen-wheeler had razed it, every house.

    There were roads in Niger that suddenly vanished into walls of blowing sand, like a soda straw dunked into chocolate milk. I met and traveled with drivers there who paid homage to the unseen beings controlling the roads. They spent huge sums on protective talismans and sacrifices and then drove with homemade petrol tanks—plastic jugs—sitting in the lap of a passenger, me. I heard people talk of demons of the road, and of the road itself as a fickle god, a compassionate, jealous, violent, hungry being.

    In Nigeria, I heard and read of Ogun, the vengeful Yoruba god of iron and the road. One day a Nigerian newspaper headline caught my eye: "Seven Pregnant Women Roasted to Death." The report of the auto accident beneath the headline began with these words: "Thursday January 21, 1993 will always be remembered as a day Ogun decided to feast on the Ukwa Kin Highway."

    Months earlier, in Niger, I had bought my own gris-gris: three eyeball-sized goatskin pouches filled, perhaps, with Koranic prayers written in Arabic on bits of paper. I could only guess their contents from things I had heard. Issoufou Garba, a driver I came to know well in Niger, told me that gris-gris are also filled with grains of blessed soil. Mine were sewn shut and given me by a marabout, a teacher and holy man of Islam, who forbade me to open them so as to protect their sacred value. He told me to keep the gris-gris separated from one another in pockets of my pants or my bag. "Be careful," he added, "not to put money in with them."

    In my time in Niger I cultivated a sort of road neurosis, beginning with the gris-gris. Even when paying for passage in a bush taxi, I argued passionately and bribed shamelessly for the same spot, which I had convinced myself was lucky—the right window seat in the middle row. I don't know why exactly, but that particular seat felt right, far enough away from the front to keep my legs from being pinned and cut off in a head-on collision; and maybe sitting next to the window helped my claustrophobia. I inspected brakes, steering, and tires, pushing drivers and mechanics to exasperation; and I always insisted on seeing the papers of the car and driver, believing this would somehow ensure my safety. Drivers would stare at me in puzzlement, as if I had attacked their integrity, which I had. They would ask, "Don't you trust us?" Other people, even passengers, would laugh at me and say, "He is afraid of death." My neurotic rituals never erased my fears, but they helped control the anguish of travel.

    I had to talk myself through every trip with every driver, dozens of journeys, long and short, all the time building a case that traveling in a bush taxi and challenging the odds against dying in a high-speed crash worked to my story's favor. On the road, I scribbled notes—bits of dialogue, landscape details, or lines like, "crazy bastard's going to kill us"—as if the display of hard work would prove the importance of my task to a higher authority, and thus somehow excuse me from death or maiming. A kind of draft deferment owing to my indispensable journalistic existence.

    That morning, as we hurtled toward Kaduna and the billowing smoke, my mind was fragmenting. I was thinking I did not know the Nigerian driver's name and did not want to know it. Then, on impulse, I took out my notebook and wrote, "See big plume black smoke not far off. I don't like this."


The road in Africa is more than a direction, a path to take. After you've paid the passage and taken your seat, the road becomes the very concern, the center of life over every mile, a place where you realize, suddenly, that you have surrendered everything. Even the right to survive. The first time on the road in a bush taxi is like boarding a rickety plane or bus only to find you've been kidnapped, which places every experience that follows in a different, sobering light. For me, the term bush taxi became far more than just a road transport term; it became an image of memory and road culture.

    My first memory is of a road. I was five years old, confused and sad, leaning against a lamppost. I had just watched my father drive off in a blue sedan on another business trip. Details of that morning surface easily: the pimply surface of the silvery steel post against my arm, and the summer heat of 1966, wet and insistent. I recall no other cars, no homes or lawns or bushes. The road governs the memory, as if the world ended right there, on asphalt. Empty, sparkling road. Under the sun, needles of light boiled so the gray surface appeared to move with slight motions of my head, like something on a giant rotating spit, vaguely subversive. A tease. It was only a suburban road in Detroit, but to me it was a gangplank off the fine edge of the universe.

    I imagined that all the fighting in green jungles on the TV news happened somewhere nearby that the road touched. My father, I believed, often drove by those terrible things, or through them, never frightened, always knowing what to do. He had been a soldier. Sometimes I would go to the basement closet where his uniform lay in a long cardboard box and sit and look at it, try on the peaked cap, finger the brass buttons on the jacket. These things interested me because they had been down that road, which I wanted to travel, not alone, but in my father's company.

    The next summer brought burning and rioting in Detroit, although I didn't understand what it was or where it was happening. Electronic images of violence lunged at us nightly in our living room, all coming, I thought, from the same place: somewhere the road would take me, beyond home and school, like a kidnapper, unless I fought it—which, in the end, I did not. I embraced it.

    In the salad of my memory there are bits and pieces about the heart attack that nearly killed my father when I was seven—a scene in a crowded hospital waiting room where a row of empty steel blue wheelchairs waited by a glass door. The heart attack forced a family decision that took us, two years later, from city troubles to a calmer life in the Rocky Mountains. That was twenty-eight years ago.

    My father, mother, and two older brothers drove to Colorado. Our belongings went by moving van. I flew with my two younger sisters, staying with relatives en route, escaping the road. I hadn't wanted to escape it, and for years I dreamed about that missed opportunity. I wanted to know, for example, what it was like to approach the Rockies from the Great Plains. I wanted to understand states and borders and distances, to become entangled in the veined terrain of maps, where interstate highways are thick and green, state roads wobble around in red, and lesser roads weave along in various shades and widths of black—all depending on the map, of course.

    Around our new home I hiked trails and found abandoned dirt roads that led to old mines—roads that waved, buckled, and snapped. These roads turned driving into a boxing match and required vehicles new to me: all-wheel-drive cars with big tires, extra horsepower, and heavy shocks for terrain that casually busted axles and blew radiators. I loved that excitement. My father's Nissan Patrol broke an axle when one of its front tires plunged through ice into a deep pothole on a mountain road. At seventeen, in the same Nissan on a December evening, I spun out on an icy curve on a dirt road near our home. I remember sitting in the car in a snowy field wondering how I got there. I put it in reverse and bounced right back on the road. Two years later, on another wintry route, I took my eyes off the road for a moment and ended up nose first—but uninjured—in a ditch. My fault, both incidents, but each time it felt like the car had been snatched off the road. Ten years after we moved to Colorado, I went to college and a heart attack killed my father. I have never returned home. Home was Aspen, a resort where wealth distorts reality.

    I grew up curious about life elsewhere and consumed books that offered contrast. In sixth grade I discovered Graham Greene and his Liberia memoir, Journey without Maps. I liked Greene's sensuous detail and eye for seediness, as in his novel The Power and the Glory, in which a man lay on a cot, watching beetles as they "detonated on the ceiling." But I especially liked Maps—for its irony and because the book explores expectations of place and self that go awry. I underlined this passage on page 1: "It wasn't the sort of beginning I'd expected when I was accumulating the tent I never used, the hypodermic syringe I left behind, the automatic pistol which remained hidden underneath boots and shoes."

    After college, in 1985, I went to West Africa, where I was first a Peace Corps English teacher in Niger and then a journalist based in Ivory Coast. I traveled in bush taxis across a dozen countries. The endurance and ingenuity of drivers, mechanics, and passengers—and their curiously fatalistic view of life—frightened and fascinated me. I first rode a bush taxi on my way to my Peace Corps post. The vehicle, so heavily dented that it resembled a crumpled shoebox, was an early Mercedes heavy truck with a cab that looked out over a wide snout. The radiator hung at an angle, as if someone had tacked it to the front of the engine as an afterthought. I could see steel webbing on the tires where the treads had worn away. Someone had refashioned the trailer by cutting window squares in the sides; and installing plywood benches for thirty people. But in fact, some fifty passengers sat inside, squeezed onto bench boards that were screwed into metal frames bolted to the floor. Four men were stacking luggage five feet high on the roof—nylon bags, bed frames, mattresses, grain sacks, a bookcase, bundles of sugarcane, chickens in a palmrope cage. When I paid my fare, the ticket seller at a wooden table must have read something in my face. He smiled and pointed at the bus. "Taxi de brousse," he said—It's a bush taxi.

    Inside, I sat on a bench with room for five but packed with nine: two old farmers in tattered khaki robes; three delightfully happy, very large women wearing colorful cotton cloth wraps and carrying a baby each; and me, struggling for a space on the aisle. Cultures blended in this vehicle: Fulani men with fine-boned faces and conical hats; women traveling on market business—women I had seen firmly directing the men loading their goods on the roof; Tuareg men in indigo turbans that hid their faces; and Hausa merchants in bright, wide-flowing robes called boubous and striped cylindrical caps. I lost track.

    After three and a half years, I left West Africa, exhausted, my nerves raw. I was glad for the respite but dissatisfied with my understanding of the place and its effect on me. That alone does not explain why I wanted to go back and once again face fear on the road. There was as well my curiosity about the road culture and the story it had to tell. And there was restlessness: a desire to know better the outposts of my limitations.

    In 1990, I began planning my return to Africa. I spent two years working on my French and Hausa, and studying African transport, history, literature, and religion. I pored over maps and interviewed road engineers and historians. I drew up a research proposal and won a Fulbright grant. I gave up my apartment. I made out my will.

    In 1992, I landed back in Niger having decided not to travel the entire continent—too difficult to do without inexhaustible time and money. I chose a tighter focus: to filter the road's story and character through the experience of Niger, the African country I know best. Although my story is chronological, it does not follow a steady geographic progression. I made the southeastern city of Zinder my home base, and I traveled many roads over and over again with the same driver, Issoufou Garba. I wanted to get to know one driver well enough to understand his point of view. I detoured occasionally into Nigeria—whose northern regions share much with Niger culturally and geographically—and hitchhiked from Niamey to Abidjan in Ivory Coast, riding in cotton trucks. In Niger, I also traveled with other bush taxi drivers, truckers, road engineers, an anthropologist, Niger's only licensed woman commercial driver, and a customs officer. In my time on the road I sometimes thought of a Sierra Leonian official who years before told me his opinion of Washington, D.C., which he had visited once. "It makes me crazy," he said. "Those damned traffic lights and speed limits."

    It isn't that automobiles or the road hold more cultural importance in Africa than in the West, or that accidents there are more gruesome. Somehow the road takes a more dangerous, visceral, and spiritual position in everyday life in Africa. Demons dwell in wrecks strewn about like the carnage of a vainglorious hunt: a minibus upended against a tree as if attempting escape, a blackened truck overturned in a ditch.

    Accidents on United States roads attract stares, slow traffic, and are quickly cleared away. On African roads, car wrecks are as common as mile markers. And the remains stay in place for months or years. The violence predates the automobile, tracing its roots to the old Saharan camel caravans that fell under attack by desert nomads, the Tuaregs, and to the destructive itineraries followed by European military missions at the end of the nineteenth century. Those expeditions' pathways often roughly match the motor highways—unintentional monuments to murder and plunder.

    The African road is about blood and fear, about the ecstasy of arrival: the relief of finding yourself alive at the end of a journey and the lesser relief of passing unscathed through another army checkpoint. The road is boredom, joy, and terror punctuated by heat in the air and under your feet. The African road is a world of extremes lived out with the punching of a foot against a gas pedal.


As we approached that rising black smoke, I saw a clearer shape: a thick, leaning column like a giant tether to the sky. The driver kept an eye on the smoke and uttered a prayer to himself in Arabic, not his language or mine, but it was a prayer I had heard before and understood: "Belsfemallah Arahman Arahim"—a plea for God's protection. Then he struck his chest lightly with his right fist and fell quiet. A moment later, as the plume of smoke got closer, higher, blacker, he mumbled and frowned, shook the index finger of his right hand at the smoke as if he had just identified a thing he'd rather not encounter, and made a sound: "Yai, yai, yai."

    The next minute we rounded a curve to see five cars backed up behind flames and smoke on the road, as if the asphalt demon itself had reared up to reveal its face. We were just in time to see a burst of flame as part of the petrol load ignited. The sight sickened me, already fatigued by fear. I could feel myself going up in the flames, wishing it would just happen, finally conclude in a spectacular, painless explosion that would turn my life to vapor and end the fear and uncertainty of the road. When I began traveling, I had not expected this risk, this emotion.

    As I sat in the shade of that tree, risk consumed my thoughts. I was nauseous, in need of a walk to clear my head but afraid of what I might find lying on the ground: human remains that might have been mine had I left earlier that morning, reminders of the terrible fate that might lay ahead for me. I didn't think to just walk away from the wreck. Clear thought didn't come. All I knew was on that spot of earth, off the road, I felt safe.


Transport in Africa is a free-for-all system so chaotic that few travelers, even Africans, agree on a precise definition of the bush taxi. Consider this broad interpretation: Bush taxis are dangerous, dilapidated, slow, crowded, demoralizing, and suffocating; they are also fast, intimate, exciting, equalizing, and enlightening. They are bowls of human soup, microscope slides of society, mobile windows on the raw cultural, economic, and political vitality of Africa. Most bush taxis are Peugeot or Toyota station wagons, minibuses, or pickups, but big semis and cars of other makes do the job as well: Renaults, Mercedes, Mitsubishis, Hondas. More specifically, bush taxis are private cars rented out to transport goods and people. They are unregulated; they leave when they are full and arrive whenever. Bush taxis are cheap, are used by all levels of society, and are an important means of transporting trade goods. Any automobile can qualify, but most come secondhand from Europe.

    Few Africans own cars, and African governments cannot support large transport systems. Bush taxis fill the void, making up most of the rural motor traffic. Much of what is manufactured, smuggled, or grown in Africa passes weekly through vast, seething outdoor car depots—the motor parks—in cities, and through smaller parks in villages. Similar systems exist in many countries where private car owners are comparatively few, from the Middle East to Southeast Asia, from Africa to South America. In other words, those who own cars cash in on them.

    I spoke about bush taxis with John Riverson, a civil engineer from Ghana who studies African rural transport for the World Bank, in Washington, D.C. Riverson views bush taxis as tools of reality. We talked in his cramped office amid shelves of technical reports and photos of road projects.

    "There is such a deprivation of transport that people are grateful to have anything that moves," he told me, pointing out that in rural areas most vehicles, government owned or private, serve as bush taxis at some point. Riverson's words called to mind a government ambulance driver in Niger who took on passengers at four dollars a head while delivering medicine to villages in a Land Rover ambulance. Riverson acknowledged the difficulty of defining the bush taxi, but offered this rough guideline: "If we're looking at bush taxis as something identifiable, we're looking at vehicles in the range of three tons' weight"—starting with heavier minibuses, then pickups, station wagons, and sedans. But the number and kinds of vehicles used as bush taxis fluctuate between countries.

    Our conversation came down to this: bush taxis are the legacy of an overburdened but vital freelance rural transport network that supports West Africa's economies—a network starved of motor vehicles, spare parts, fuel, mechanics, drivers, and decent roads. Whatever rolls, works.


It occurred to me that the growing crowd on both sides of the wreck was remarkably calm. I hadn't noticed where my fellow passengers had gone, but I realized that only I seemed to be alone. All around me people sat in the shade, sleeping, talking, or eating. Children played and traveling merchants laid out their products on the ground or on small folding wooden tables—clothes, vegetables, cheap jewelry. The scene looked as if all these people, perhaps two hundred by now, were traveling together in one big group. Only small clusters of drivers and a few children paid the burning wreck close attention. This was not a festive crowd, but rather a respectful and patient one that seemed to know better than to argue or complain about something they could not control. Being held up on the road by a calamity was a common event, something not to obsess about but to deal with. Why not sleep or do a little business during the wait?

    A man sitting with a woman and a baby a few yards away from me rose to his feet and approached, carrying something wrapped in newspaper. I looked up and smiled, though we had never met.

    "Have you got food?" he asked.

    "No, I'm not hungry, thank you."

    "You will be hungry. You must eat. God knows how long we will be here." He watched me for a moment and then handed me the object in the newspaper. "It's meat, take it."

    I was embarrassed but grateful, and I knew better than to refuse a food offering. I shook his hand and took the meat, which turned out to be roasted chicken breast. "Thank you, sir."

    "It's nothing, my friend." The man walked back to his family.


In Africa, there are fewer than twenty million motor vehicles to serve 700 million people. The number of cars that actually work is far less. Car accidents in Africa, according to the World Bank, number eight to ten times higher, proportionately, than in developed nations and are a leading cause of death. In Nigeria, home to 90 million people, road accidents consume 2 percent of the gross national product in destroyed vehicles, material, and lives—around 100,000 people injured and ten thousand deaths a year, according to Nigeria's Federal Road Safety Commission. In contrast, in the United States, with its 250 million people and 145 million passenger cars, the figure hovers around forty thousand deaths each year.

    Niger has sixteen thousand passenger vehicles and eighteen thousand commercial cars to serve its 9 million people. There are eight thousand miles of roads, two thousand miles of them paved; the rest are packed dirt road and sandy track. Almost 2,000 people are reported injured annually in road accidents; some 300 of them die. Many, many more injuries and deaths go unreported. Niger's national highway, Route Nationale 1, absorbs half the carnage on its thousand-mile east-west odyssey from Mali to Chad.

    Bad driving, poor road and vehicle maintenance, and chaotic traffic are the primary factors to blame for Africa's road deaths, according to a 1990 World Bank study entitled "Transport Policy Issues in Sub-Saharan Africa." The language of this paper employs the wordy bureaucratese of international development documents: "The deterioration of the road networks is causing heavy losses to both the road system itself and to its users and requires urgent action."

    On lawless roads the problem is obvious. The human impulse to speed, the desire to get there quickly, takes over. And the bush taxi, more than any other form of transport, rules west Africa's roads.

    I have come to know many bush taxi drivers, to like them and sympathize with how they work and live, if not to completely understand their point of view. They see themselves as transporters, honest professionals, survivors forced by circumstances to use guerrilla methods. So, during my travels, I was careful not to express my fears and concerns too bluntly; the drivers do not appreciate hearing about their roguish image. "People think we are irresponsible or thieves," my driver friend Issoufou Garba from Niger once told me. "But they don't understand the difficulty of our work."

    In the 1980s, bush taxi drivers struck me as a dashing, reckless male elite, akin to the image of early airplane pilots. The drivers worked blindly and intuitively, vulnerable to technology and the will of a hostile environment: sun, wind, sand, demons, darkness, and checkpoint soldiers. Today, the African bush taxi driver still strikes me as a rogue folk hero: adventurous, kind, cruel, and selfless all at once. A bit like the contradictions inherent in the American cowboy myth—the free-spirited, big-hearted soul with a malicious edge. The drivers, too, are struggling to survive.


It was probably half an hour later, though I'm unsure of the passage of time that day. The tanker was still burning fiercely. No police or emergency services had arrived, and they would not before I left that day. I sat and watched without really seeing. Can I walk to Kaduna? I asked myself. Fifty miles. Three days and I'll be there, still alive. I'll just follow the road and sleep in villages.

    The heat made me think again. In March, even the night offers little temperature relief.

    My gaze fell on our driver. When we arrived at the accident, he had huddled with other drivers in discussion. But now he was standing alone, as close to the tanker—perhaps fifteen yards away—as the heat would allow. He stood with folded arms and feet planted a little apart. I'm not sure how long he had been standing there, studying the burning wreck. He stood for fifteen minutes more, moving only to shift his weight from one leg to the other. After a while, I realized what he was thinking, and it scared me. I had seen him scouting detour possibilities just after we arrived at the wreck, but the bush was too thick to drive through. Now, I understood that he wanted to challenge the gods.

    He turned around, arms swinging with determination, and strode back to the car. This was both a game and a performance to this man, a career opportunity. He understood other drivers were observing him, waiting to see what he would do.

    He opened the door and leaned against the roof, looking first at the fire and then around at his audience. He pursed his lips, raised his shoulders and hands, palms skyward, as if he were asking God for help.

    He got into the car, moved it onto the road, and backed up a hundred yards or so. And then we heard him yell: "EEEOOOHHWW!" The wheels of the car spit dirt. He shot forward, aiming for the left side of the wreck, which was pulsing with just as much smoke and fire as when we first arrived. He had seen what others had not: that the haze masked a gap between the rear of the wreck and the bush about the width of his Peugeot.

    Issoufou Garba, I thought, would never have risked this—a point to his credit. But I found myself glad this driver had tried. I badly wanted to be gone from this scene, and this man was obliging me.

    The taxi disappeared into the smoke and reappeared seconds later on the other side of the wreck where the road began a low ascent. It lifted gently out of the curve where the wreck lay and then stopped.

    No one cheered when the driver stepped out from behind the wheel and looked around for his passengers. Time was wasting. Nor did he seem to encourage cheering. Maybe he didn't want to taunt the gods any further. He leaned against the roof, braced by the outstretched palm of his left hand. All at once, drivers and passengers scrambled for vehicles, sprinting to make the run themselves. Hundreds of cars, trucks, and buses lined up on both sides of the wreck to take advantage of that small gap. I thought of an hourglass, but with jumping grains of sand fighting and trampling each other from both sides in their efforts to get through the narrow middle before it closed.

    I made my way to the car by going through the bush, around the fire and wreckage. Looking back, I saw a fight start between two drivers, a pushing and shouting match. One man threw a punch to the face of the other, who went down. I heard more shouting in several languages, the rhythmic slap of sandals on cement, engines starting, doors slamming, the soft rumble of flames eating gasoline, and, finally, a siren wailing from the south.

    We drove away.

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Table of Contents

Map
Preface
Acknowledgments
The Fickle God 1
The Dogs of the Road 21
A Driver, a Checkpoint, an African Road 39
Waiting for the Marabout 60
Zinder Notes 79
Driving to Madness 99
Listening to Mariko 120
A Woman at the Wheel 140
An Ugly American 161
Notes 181
Bibliographical Essay 187
Index 193
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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2000

    Beautifully Written...

    Imaginative and Direct. Chilson takes the reader and puts him on the road in Niger- literally.

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