“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.
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.