The Zemidjan

Waiting for a fare

“ame siamebe yaku zemidjan,
ame siamebe yaku zemidjan
togo, benin, ghana, nigeria,
mesiamebe yaku zemidjan.”

“Everyone wants to be zemidjan,
Everyone wants to be zemidjan,
Togo, Benin, Ghana, Nigeria,
Everyone wants to be zemidjan.”

The zemidjan, or moto-taxi man, represents an important part of the informal economy here in Lome. For most people, almost all transportation more than 1-2 miles within the city is relegated to moto-taxi. In a place where business, school, and social engagements are beginning to take people farther and farther from their homes each day, but most cannot afford to purchase their own means of transport, the zemidjan business has literally exploded.

Who are these men? They’re everyone really. Artists, musicians, engineers, university students, and graduates who cannot find other work. This is a city where it’s very difficult to earn more than a couple dollars a day. Serving as a moto-taxi can bring in up to $80USD. The average fare is 150FCFA, about 30 cents, and working from sunrise to sundown, and sometimes later, an aggressive driver here can carry 100-200 customers/day. After dark there is much less business so prices are more expensive.

on the move

Using a taxi-moto daily to go to and from work, visit friends, or explore parts of the city, I’ve had many fine drinks and good conversations with people who work as ZMJ.

Edem – 27 years old. Married with two girls, 4 years- and 4 months-old respectively.


Edem works at a station of zemidjan at the corner where my neighborhood (Adidogome Franciscan) meets the main road. There are 37 other moto men who work this station and pay member dues to the association – non-union moto-taxis are not able to poach customers in this area without repercussions. They list their license plate numbers in chalk on a board when they arrive, which determines who takes the next fare based on who’s been there the longest. “It is a good system and prevents fights when it is followed. Sometimes someone does not pay attention and someone else takes their fare, then there can be strife. But its just words and passes after 5 minutes.”

“I began 7 years ago, when I turned 20. I had just finished my bac (U.S. equivalent of High School or G.E.D.). In Lome there are no real good jobs for a man so I decided to be zemidjan. This way I could make money, sometimes.”

“I average now about 150 passengers per day, and at an average fare of 150FCFA. I use about 4 liters of petrol per day. A friend bought the moto and allowed me to pay a little each day for 1 year until it was mine. Most of the fares are women. Women have business taking them to the markets, to sell things and buy for their home. Men who work take their own moto normally.”

“Right now, the summer, is the hardest time for the zemidjan. The students are on vacation, so not only do they n ot need to take taxis to school, but many will try their hands at being zemidjan to pay their school fees for the coming year. Then it’s also the rainy season.”


When it rains the local economy shuts down completely. The roads turn to mud and anyone taking moto will get wet and dirty. “This stops our business immediately and sometimes for multiple days.”

Cruising like a lion on the hunt, the life is a different one, but not as different from L.A. than I originally thought. With a moto here you have freedom. You can go where you want when you want, and have the opportunity to make money quickly. You also have the possibility to lose it quickly if you are careless.

It is very easy to go for a drink or two after taking a fare. With the change clanking in your pocket, the sun on your brow and that dryness tingling in your throat, there is a reason there are so many small bars in every neighborhood and alley-way. A shot of high-proof “Togo gin” will only set you back 50 CFA in the shade of a small roadside bar, most drivers drink daily. Where I work, in the department of neurology at CHU Campus, when a man is admitted for a motorcycle collision and there’s head trauma, it is assumed there is alcohol in his system and is treated accordingly.

Alcoholism is referred to as the number-one disease afflicting the Zemidjan. But of course it’s not just them.

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TIA This is Africa

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For me each day feels like an eternity here.  This allows me to enjoy and get much out of each moment, as is necessary in a life as short as we have.  I’m having a good time, and its been a great experience til now.  I realize I can’t help people anywhere that much until i have more experience in a certain field and understand the politics, culture, history, and the current situation and needs here really well. The best thing for me to do is to learn as much as possible, make as many friends as possible, and return in the future to try some other projects.  The humanitarian group which invited me here, AS-OISOU ( has years’ worth of experience working in the villages here and has a lot of knowledge concerning the planning and realization of short-term goals to strongly impact foreign and native volunteers and improve the quality of education for years of children to come.  Importantly, they influence the mentality of everyone they work with towards greater cross-cultural understanding and realizing the potential we all have when we work together in peace.
I know that even though I’m one small person, I can really do a lot, here or anywhere, and am confident my impact will be positive and lasting.  My goals of learning a lot are going well… I can survive in French and the local language, am not sick as often any more, though it still comes at times and knocks me on my ass.  I am eating a lot more too and thanks to good vitamins from you friends I am in good form.
I switched departments at the hospital and am now working in neurology, with very sick patients who are hospitalized, some hvae been there for a month or longer.  Many were ill at home, bedridden fora month before they were brought in.  Many come in with paralysis over a large part of the body and some with seizures.  Most are elderly, and many are HIV positive.  Its pretty depressing in general.  I change the IVs on the patients, help transport them to different parts of the hospital, help them change beds, still taking blood, recording their temperatures, blood pressure, breathing rate, and what medications they had atken that day.  I follow the doctors and nurses on their rounds and read their charts and listen to their stories.  I’m learning some things but that is beginning to slow.  Many of the medications they use are different here and i dont know if the medicine they practice is the best possible or if they’re making do with what they have and what they know.  My boss, the head of the department, is the only expert and professor in neurology in the country.  He’s also the son of a former president.  There are two other neuro specialists, both in the city here, and thats it.
Next to every bedside is a family member, or many family members, who are responsible for cleaning the person, feeding,  and calling someone if there is a problem.  There are some problems with hygiene due to the people having food near the patients bedpans and using the same towels for long time that the health workers end up coming in contact with.  The hospital has open windows and doors, so patietns are exposed to the outside world as well.  There are few fans so some patients do without, and in general it is very hot in the wards on hot days.  Me and the other workers get very sweaty just standign in the room for more than a minute.  The families are very devoted and will stay with the person the whole time tehy are there.  When a doctor writes an ordonance for some medication or tests, the family member has to go to the pharmacie to buy the meds, including all IV perfusions.  (the IV vessels are cleaned and re-filled with more fluid afterwards too).  All tests, including blood drawing, x-rays, etc, must be paid for first, and in general they are not cheap.  Insurance is very very uncommon here, in my experience.  A cat scan will cost 100 USD, biochemistry tests like 26 USD, and each medication (of which they have many daily) can range from 5 to 30 or more USD.   General hospitalization will cost the family about 18 USD a day generally, but there are different prices for different levels of hospitalization.  The work I’ve seen has kept the people alive, however, and there has been relatively few deaths in my time there, which is good considering how sick people often are.
To answer questions I got about babies – Here i see many babies, and they are really adorable.  the mothers carry them normally tied to their backs with fabric matching their dress, so their hands are free to do whatever.  its funny because sometimes you’ll be talking to a woman, or walk up to flirt with a chick and not realize she’s carrying a baby.

they generally have babies pretty young here, starting often at 18, 19, 20, but it depends where you go.  I have friends wit and without children. the streets are generally filled with playing children in every neighborhood and in every village, especially now that its summer, but really all days and until night.  there are a lot of kids here.  i think the women often have many children too; some people have told me they have 7 siblings and things like that.  polygamy is more common here than back home but its not publicized a lot – its something more private that people do at their homes.  I also can’t tell if someome is joking when they tell me them or another man has 3 wives.

It is a pretty young region, as youd expect with low life expectancies and high birth rates.  Most people give birth at their homes with a midwife or friend, if not that then at a local health clinic that helps women with that.  drugs are not commonly used here and caesarean sections have a bad societal stigma – it is thought if you have a c-section then the mother wasnt able to do it herself and not only is something wrong with her but that the baby isnt really hers.

here women do not have a lot of rights and have to work very hard for not much in return.  i think this is the case word-wide but here everything about the world and human life is laid bare to witness.  many women walk around selling food or other goods from large bowls on their heads, baby in tow.  workign in a cafe, as a tailor, or selling things from a store store is considered a good job.  other women just have small stnds where they sell fruit, medication, fabric, some smoked fish, or yogurt, porridge, bread, rice.  informal economy is big here.  there are also small stands where a woman will have prepared a big pot of rice,macaroni, and has some sauces and spices and maybe some hard boiled eggs or fish available.  it is at these places where you see many men eating for cheap every morning and afternoon, all calling the cook ‘mama.’

women are expected to do all the preparing of food, washing, and cleaning at home, and girls start having a lot of these responsibilities at home around puberty.  this is also the time that most girls stop school, which can be a big problem later in life when they have to teach their children and find work to support their family if the father leaves.  when i tell friends, male and female, that i prepare my own food, washmy own clothes, or clean the house myself, they are shocke d and dismayed.  the men tell me to find a woman and the woman tell me to bring my clothes to them orthat they will come to my house to help me.
its very common to see children working where I live, even as young as 5 they can clean, arrange things, and sell things.  if they make a mistake in business or come back short for the day they learn fast – this is the most common reason i see parents using capital punishment.

the kids love playing soccer and hopskotch, singing.  the boys play guns and marbles and the girls play patty cake and similar dancing games.  older boys will play cards, board games, and dice.  people of all ages, starting from childhood like to dance and play drums, its a big part of the culture here thats different than back home.  i’ll definitely encourage my children to dance freely.
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Some Pictures

I accidentally loaded on different blog here:

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Another day in paradise

“Warden Message – Demonstrations

U.S. Embassy – Lomé, Togo

June 22, 2010

The U.S. Embassy has confirmed reports of large protests erupting across Lomé as a result of a recent rise in fuel prices. The protestors are blocking roads and, in some areas, clashing with security forces. Security forces are also using tear gas on protestors.

Some confirmed locations include the Kpalimé Road stretching from Adidogomé in the North to the Boulevard Circulaire near the fire brigade in the South, throughout Bé and the Hedranawoe neighborhoods, and near the town of Agoé which is situated north of the Embassy on Boulevard Eyadema.

We recommend you stay clear of these areas and avoid walking or driving on streets where you see large crowds or stopped traffic. Please be aware that demonstrations may occur without warning anywhere in the city. We also wish to remind U.S. citizens that even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly escalate into violence. U.S. citizens are urged to avoid the areas of demonstrations if possible, and to exercise caution if within the vicinity of any demonstrations.

Additionally, there are reports that doctors at public hospitals have also gone on strike and are refusing to treat patients…”

The hospital i’m working at is on strike this week and the laboratory department im in allowed only a few serious cases, patients with leukemia and so on, in for tests… at a premium price.

Its at times very difficult to see a relatively successful hospital in terms of cash-flow using sub-standard materials, proceedures, and hygenic practices.  One example that makes me cringe everytime is not changing of the gloves and touching so many different crawy dirty things, such as money, doorknobs, cell phones, containers containing patient’s stool and urine samples, etc, and then continuing to touch and take blood from patients, and even touch the wounds.  The gloves become yellow and brown throughout the day… sometimes some blood gets on them too.  But, not everyone wears gloves where i work.  And its the premier public hospital in the country.  The general public can’t afford it, really.  They always pay before the treatments, consultations, etc, and are turned away if they dont have the funds.  There is no state-issued insurance or health option, and most jobs dont provide insurance either.  There is private insurance but 95% of patients, at least, pay straight in cash.
I know most of the world works in this way, and has so for most of human history.  I know most people live hand-to-mouth, do not have bank accounts, internet, motor vehicles, or an opportunity to go to a competant doctor if they want.  I know this NOW but its somethign I was not informed of directly in my 16+ years of formal education.

There are many ghettos and villages in the world.

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C’est combien?

1 USD is about 500 CFA.  Some prices here:

Big plate of spaghetti with bread and water           500

Half liter pure water                                                      25

Shot of 140 proof alcohol                                               50

Biggest avocado youve ever seen                               200

One year of medical school                              25000

One year of school at privat university         850000

New motorcycle, papers, license plate             400000

Meal of rice, beans, an egg and some sauce         300

Fresh fruit juice                                                          50

Pack of 4 condoms                                                    100

An orange  (they’re green here)                           3 for 100

One hour of internet                                                250

One liter petrol for moto                                      550

24-in-1 DVD                                                           1000

12 gallons of well water                                              25

average days wages:                                       1000, with luck

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