Come Commute With Me
Here’s Haile and me ready to drive off on our daily commute from Bingham to SIM HQ where my clinic is based. We leave at 07:25 or thereabouts, and get there sometime between 08:00 and 08:30. Just for fun on 9th May I took my GPS receiver with me and plotted the route on Google Earth. The route is different every day as Haile travels a fair way to get here and susses out the pandemonium before we set out and chooses the route appropriately. Not infrequently he changes course half way if there is a blockage (which often there is). Also on this journey I took my voice recorder and dictated what I saw and what happened. So come with me on my commute to work – this is a real journey. Also I’ll give you a peek inside Haile’s life while we’re driving.
We’re bumping our way past the guards (who ate the rest of Chris’s birthday cake last night) and a friendly wave sees us on our way. On the short rough unmade road out to the first junction are some folks from the church setting up a stall selling CDs and books (on the road – we narrowly miss them). Friday is a big day for this church - people mill around, just missing the car. Out we go into the main road past two taxis both overtaking the same bus bedecked with empty water containers. We swerve past a load of guys pulling wood off a lorry, next to a street sweeper dressed entirely (I mean entirely – head to foot including face plus big floppy straw hat) in orange. Street cleaners are always women. At the bottom of the road about 400 metres from Bingham we have a decision to make - an easy one as the road to the Kolfe roundabout is stuffed with non-moving traffic. We fork left towards the bus station AAAUGH! That Isuzu lorry just missed us!
Haile’s car is a 30 year old Fiat 124. It has optional extras absent on some other taxis such as seat belts and window winders (in the front; not the back). He looks after it himself. The other day I came to find him in the car park and he was lying on a sheet of plastic under the car. “Chigger alleh?” (“Is there a problem?”) I said. He slid out with his clutch cable in hand. “No. I fix. 5 minute.” he said. Grabbing a small nut from the boot (he calls the boot his “garage” – it’s full of car parts and tools) he ran off down to the school workshop and was soon back smiling. He’d used a vice to squash the nut on to the end of his clutch cable so it would fit into the clutch pedal and actually work when he needed to operate the clutch.
Why is that lady dressed completely in pink, head to foot? We are crawling along behind a bus and just passed a guy pushing a wheelbarrow with several huge bags of onions balanced on it. Watch that schoolboy!! Phew – he stepped back in time. Check out the teenager on our left – he’s on crutches with a severely deformed left leg. I wonder what goes on in the “Orion Beauty Skills Training Center”? – it goes past (slowly) on the right as we approach the mosque with minarets that strongly resemble missile silos. In front of it is a small metal shack made out of a shipping container, selling only footballs. How do all these buses and lorries manage to form so many (constantly changing) lanes? This is an ordinary road! (At this point on my recording I don’t say what I saw but I start laughing. I think this was because of several huge wicker-basket-like cages stuffed full of live chickens for sale over the other side of this big junction we’re now crossing). Watch out! The guy with the huge splitting bag of vegetables on his head nearly fell into the road. We’re now threading our way through the traffic by the teff market. (Teff is the grass seed injera is made from). Why is that donkey standing in the middle of the road? He should join all the others by the side of the road with all the goats eating rubbish. Some are loaded up with one or two 50 Kg bags of teff ready to set off who knows where. Lorries, buses, taxis and people mill around in random directions. “Crazy” mutters Haile.
Haile isn’t just a taxi driver. He does all sorts of other things, often for people at Bingham. One skill he demonstrates is plumbing. He often has plumbing parts in the car, and spends a lot of time helping out some SIM and Bingham people who live in rented houses with their water tanks and pumps. One morning two weeks ago he was unhappy and kept taking both hands off the steering wheel to rub his right hand. He had spent 20 minutes the previous evening with his arm hanging over the sharp metal edge of a water tank, pressing on his armpit. This had obviously squashed his radial nerve, so his right hand was weak and parts of it were numb. I constantly had to reassure him it would get better by itself, it was nothing to do with blood flow and no he didn’t need to go to a clinic for an injection or to get a massage. Its better now, and we had to stop on the way home recently to do a quick 5 minute plumbing job for a SIM colleague.
Here’s Emanuel Psychiatric Hospital on our right in front of which is an old guy selling pineapples from a wheelbarrow and another guy with a big pile of injera on his head in a plastic bag. We are passing a lot of clearly unwell people on the pavement (there is a pavement here; not that anyone actually walks along it – pavements are for lying on) and swerve round a lorry full of bags of charcoal. On the other side of the road large bunches of grass are for sale by women wearing white. This is for coffee ceremonies – Haile tells me today is the Orthodox celebration of St Marys birthday so there’ll be a lot of coffee ceremonies. Watch that lady wandering across the road leaning on her prayer stick! She’s going to Emanuel church, next to the hospital. The church is very busy with many white-swathed women thronging outside. Bang! OUCH! That was some pothole. We’re approaching another Isuzu lorry loaded with charcoal and a man standing in the back wearing a blanket. We manage to avoid the man sitting on a pile of tyres in front of a few small shops. Kids dressed in purple and blue school uniforms appear and stroll around in a variety of ways, some more risky than others. Two men go past - one with a huge basket of eggs on his head and the other with bunches of “cha’at” (the local “legal high”). The left lane clears so we honk and pass the Isuzu. More potholes, then into a junction with no markings, no traffic lights, no police and everyone negotiating their way through randomly and slowly. Haile goes through in a way that would precipitate a road rage crisis in the UK. Mind those dogs…ouch! And the potholes… We pull up. The road is now blocked by a lorry at right angles to the carriageway hopelessly overloaded with charcoal with three guys standing in the back. A white Toyota with a broken brake light tries to squeeze past on the other side of the road. We’re next to a load of ramshackle corrugated tin buildings incongruously festooned with satellite dishes. A woman is washing her hands by the kerb out of a yellow water container. Slowly the lorry gets out of the way and we pass a storage area full of wooden scaffolding poles. WHOA! Those two taxis so nearly collided, watched disconsolately by an expressionless old chap in a faded baseball cap. The drivers are chatting now through the window. Haile honks. They move off. A taxi undertakes us and pulls out in front as we pass more street sweepers with witch’s brooms. We approach a traffic jam so a Toyota van with no number plate goes down the wrong side of the road (which is empty so why not fill it?) An elderly lady wearing a blue blanket walks in front of us as we pass a lorry loaded to the sky with crates of Coca Cola bottles next to several guys carrying grass on their heads. Watch that taxi he’ll never get… oh, he does. There wasn’t much room on the nearside of us but now it’s full of taxi. If Haile had had a nearside wing mirror it would no longer be there. But he hasn’t. Here’s a roundabout with a melee of traffic … oops! watch the donkey! Gridlock, caused by the blue Toyota truck piled with scrap metal. “Crazy” says Haile as we squeeze into places no taxi should realistically fit. Bang! We bounce over a groove in the road as a Toyota saloon cuts us up while we try to leave the roundabout on to the dual carriage up to the railway construction.
In addition to plumbing Haile does his own electrics. In common with other Ethiopians I have come across turning off the mains supply to work on wiring is viewed as an unnecessary nuisance. Haile just makes sure his hands are dry. He’s very proud of an event when he was around 15 where he put his hand on the exposed ends of two wires and completed the 380 volt circuit with his skin. He pulled his hand off immediately and thanked God that it obviously wasn’t his time to die yet. I’ve encouraged him to test for live wires, and he recently bought a small testing device. We had an odd discussion once about why electrical things need earthing. He prefers not to put earth wires in the walls as it’s a waste of valuable cable.
Vast crowds wait for blue and white taxi vans on our right as a van piled high with bananas goes down the other carriageway. Mind the dogs! That bus in front has so many people on it the rear door won’t shut. It’s still going though. Here’s the place that used to be a roundabout that is having a railway flyover built over the top of it. Several lanes of taxis, buses, vans and cars squeeze together to go over what used to be the centre of the roundabout. Watch that bus with blue windows doing a “U” turn! Several people including two small boys squeeze through the slowly rolling traffic as we all try to get into the only lane that can go past all the taxi vans stopped the other side of the ex-roundabout, several deep. We miss the dog chewing on who knows what. Hers’s another junction to negotiate, along with a truck from the Second World War probably, and a guy with injera on his head in the middle of the intersection. Up the now relatively clear dual carriageway we go, choking to death on the black diesel fumes belching out of the lorry in front. We survive to breathe another day, as do the large number of people now darting over the road in front of us. Carefully Haile negotiates his way around a man walking down the carriageway towards us wearing nothing but a tatty blanket. At least he has a blanket. One of the dozens of guy you see carrying and probably trying to sell brooms mops and buckets wanders along the side of the road as we approach the next roundabout. We go round in front of a very busy church with someone selling toilet rolls and tissues in front, and some other people trading bundles of “Cha’at”. Bounce! Bang! This is seriously the worst buckled tarmac in the city and Haile negotiates the least bumpy bit whilst trying to avoid an aged Muslim crossing the road. We squeeze past the taxis and a small truck unloading vegetables, next to people sleeping rough on the pavement. (The banging and bumping makes me laugh on the recording at this point. It’s been like this for at least seven years, as it was just the same last time we were here). Is that vehicle in front actually disintegrating before my eyes? No – it continues moving as we go past in our much younger 30 year old Fiat 124. The two guys over the other side carrying large baskets of bananas on their heads are off to sell their wares by the road a bit north of here. More brooms and mops are being sold as HQ comes up on our left opposite the Black Lion Hospital belching black smoke from its big chimney. The guards open the gate as we go past the lady with the scales who attracts business by playing (all day, without a break) a tune made up of tone dialling from a mobile phone. I thank Haile for getting me here in one piece again, ask him to collect me at 10 o’clock Ethiopian time (4pm) and bid him “melkam k’an” (a sort of Ethiopian “have a nice day”).
One day last week Haile came to pick me up but grabbed me before I made it to the vehicle and said “Sorry”. “What?” I said. “I have one shemagiley” he replied. Now back in November after one Amharic lesson I thought “shemagiley” meant “grandfather” so I told Hannah and Dominic by Skype that Natalia could call me “Shemagiley”. Bad call. I now know it actually means “very, extremely old guy”, an astonishingly good example of which as sitting slumped in Haile’s front seat. “Chigger yellem” (“no problem”) I replied, puzzled by the whole business. I checked this amazingly old man was actually breathing, then sat in the back and off we drove. Half way back to Bingham Haile double parked on the side of the road next to a lorry right by a very busy junction and ran round the car to get the “shemagiley” out. That took some effort, but eventually he had him on his feet. Clutching his inappropriately long walking stick in one hand and hanging on to the side of the lorry with the other he very slowly shuffled off into the crowd and chaos by the road, heading for an alley way. On the way back to Bingham I asked Haile about this. During the day while out on business he had spotted this old man, distressed and unable to manage the taxi line outside a hospital. He had been in hospital for several weeks after a car crash, and had just been released. He had no money, and no way of getting home. Haile discovered he lived near a junction he and I always go through, so he had manoeuvred him into the front seat of his taxi, and took him home. Haile has a heart of gold.
At the end of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25 – 37) Jesus says to his questioner:
"Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."