LETTERS TO GAMBIA – 5
Dear Mother Gambia,
Happy New Year. We know we have wished you happy New Year already, but we can always wish you happy new year again and again. For you, Mother Gambia, every day is a new year for us, as our love for you is born anew every day, and grows stronger every day. Which is why it hurts so much when everywhere we look, we see signs and displays of anger, hatred, indiscipline, intolerance and every vice in the book of life among our fellow Gambians. Every day, Mother Gambia, we are assailed by a plethora of annoying circumstances ranging from dysfunctional institutions to dusty roads, water shortages and dirt poor beggars who have mortgaged their dignity to the imperative of survival and who daily swallow the biting shame of having to beg for a living. We will write to you on the issue of our increasing beggars, Mother Gambia; but for today, we want to talk to you about driving on our roads these days.
Mother Gambia, the other day we witnessed a strange spectacle. A green taxi driver hit a man, just slightly, so that the man just staggered and walked on to the other side of the road. The driver jumped out of his car, crossed the road to the other side, and assaulted the man he just hit with his car! It was heart rending to see the frail victim raise his hands to protect his head as the driver raved and threw punches. It took a van to stop and the driver and passengers to hold the angry driver back. It turned out that the frail young man who was hit was either very sick physically, or mentally ill, or both. You hit the man with your car and then you assault him, Mother Gambia?
That incident happened at least two months ago, Mother Gambia; but it is one of those unforgettable incidents that still haunt our memory. The taxi driver’s behavior defies all standards of rationality and yet Mother Gambia, I wouldn’t be surprised if that driver calls himself a Christian or Muslim who regularly prays to God. Why in the world do so many of us who claim to be regular followers of a religion behave in ways that defy all the tenets and teachings of that religion? Surely if the taxi driver could not bother to say sorry to the man he hit with his car, he should just let him deal with his injuries. To step out of his car, cross the road and assault his victim could only be attributed to sickness, not of the kind that could physically kill us, but of the more malignant kind that warps the human soul and turns people into monsters even as they pride themselves in being among the most faithful worshippers of a kind and merciful God. Certainly, the taxi driver felt justified in assaulting the man he hit with his car. What was he thinking that made it feel right to assault the man he had just hit with his car, Mother Gambia?
We are sorry to say, Mother Gambia, that this propensity to assault each has become ubiquitous in our society nowadays. And nowhere is it more blatantly demonstrated than on our roads. Driver against driver, driver against everyone else weaker than his car. Several years ago, we wrote a series of short stories about Donkey Driver, a character who used to live in our little town. Donkey Driver did not give a damn who he hit or where he drove his car. When he was in the mood, he just shut his eyes and slammed the accelerator of his car to the floor, a driving style that landed him in hot soup many times and eventually caused him to unwillingly drive himself into Never Never Land where he lived unhappily ever after. Well, Mother Gambia, Donkey Driver seems to have created and left us a culture of angry driving that now manifests in so many ways, including hitting then assaulting pedestrians.
Mother Gambia, one of the most dangerous things on our roads these days is what we may call blind driving – the practice of driving at night with no headlights or backlights on. Driving on the stretch from Turntable to Airport Junction and from there to Soma at night, one sees a number of vehicles, including big trucks, driving with no headlights, backlights, or brake lights. Needless to say, this is a recipe for disaster and no wonder so many fatal accidents happen in our country these days. With all the police stops on our roads, one wonders how drivers get away with this blind driving behavior. Would the police let them go if they “drop” something in their hands? Most likely so because as we all know, Mother Gambia, our service men and women cannot survive on the pittance they receive as salaries at the end of each month. So they are willing to risk someone losing their lives to avoid starving themselves and their families. Are they justified? No. Can we blame them? Yes, but not entirely. They need living wages Mother Gambia; and you must endeavor to give them living wages. We know you can if you would Mother Gambia.
Mother Gambia, another irritating and dangerous form of driving on our roads nowadays is cow driving – the habit of just barging into traffic without looking left or right, signaling your intent, or caring if a person or vehicle was coming from any side whatsoever. Ever so often, one has to quickly blast the horn at a vehicle that seems to appear from nowhere just barging right in front of you and with a sense of entitlement to go no matter what! We call this driving behavior cow driving not because we are equating the drivers to cows, but because in driving, they behave exactly like cows determined to cross the road. When a cow wants to cross the road, it goes, no matter what. Both cow and vehicle are lucky if the cow is spotted in good time. In which case the vehicle slows down or stops to allow king or queen cow to majestically amble across the road. The difference between cow crossing and cow driving is that cow drivers rush, rather than amble right into the road with no care in the world but go.
And then, Mother Gambia, there are the boohanteh drivers – those drivers who, because traffic is slow, suddenly swerve off the road and drive at breakneck speed on the sidewalk, loudly blasting their horns with not so veiled threats to pedestrians, bikes and motor bikes to better give way or else! These boohanteh drivers who pretend that they have more urgent business than everyone else habitually get off the road and hit the sidewalk with vengeance apparently because they are frustrated at the now everyday traffic jams that characterize our urban roads. A ten minute driving distance could now take up to forty-five minutes or more. For this reason, the boohanteh drivers consider it justified that they should just get off the road and go, as if they are more entitled to moving quickly than everyone else. And then these boohanteh drivers would suddenly try to force themselves back onto the road, ahead of equally frustrated motorists who had been patiently dragging along in the long queue of slow traffic. Most times, the boohanteh drivers are blocked by irritated motorists when they want to get back into line, and an environment of hostile impatience thus prevails on our roads. This is a very sad and unhealthy situation Mother Gambia, and one that needs to be redressed by the building of more roads to ease our frustrating but needless traffic jams! Just expand the current roads or tar the many feeder roads around and voila, both cow and boohanteh driving will be reduced Mother Gambia! And there will be more peace and less hostility on our roads and therefore in the land Mother Gambia. This hostile behavior on our roads is never justified Mother Gambia; but it is born of a frustration whose causes can never be justified either.
Gambians are tired of driving in perpetually blocked traffic Mother Gambia, not for lack of road space, but for lack of road expansion! And it gets worse every day, Mother Gambia, and it makes public frustration and annoyance and impatience worse every day. And so you have some of us who, unable to contain the persistent frustrations of slow traffic, decide to do some cow driving while others do boohanteh driving and get off the road at breakneck speed, threatening to break the legs of all who dare to be slow on their path! They blast their horns and forget that they have no right to drive on that part of the road anyway! And sometimes, some of these boohanteh drivers even drive on the opposite side of the road, in the same direction, and suddenly block incoming traffic and forcefully try to get back into the proper lane they left earlier! One feels that these boohanteh drivers imagine that what they do is smartness; that they are smarter than everyone else! It’s both annoying and amazing Mother Gambia!
And you know Mother Gambia. One other thing that perpetually amazes us is the fact that in those countries where vehicles are made, vehicles respect people. But in countries like ours that cannot make vehicles, vehicles have no respect for people. They dash around honking their horns and threatening to hit people walking on the sidewalk where they should walk. It reminds me of Donkey Driver 101 and paints the picture of a powercratic culture on steroids! It is the damaging result of our inability to get more roads as we get more cars, Mother Gambia! Both cow and boohanteh driving will surely lessen if not disappear if you invest in more roads Mother Gambia. This is one urgent national priority that you will continue to ignore at our own worsening peril Mother Gambia! And you must stop those boohanteh drivers who, thinking they are smart, often hit their double signals and drive at breakneck speed behind ambulances on our roads Mother Gambia!