In a class on Folk Religion we read Paul Hiebert’s article on “Traffic Patterns in Seattle and Hyderabad”. His comparison between Seattle and Hyderabad made me smile because after having lived in two African countries and visited several others, I knew exactly what he was talking about.
Hiebert writes about the traffic in Hyderabad:
The first impression many Americans have is that Hyderabad traffic has no order. Obviously, this is false. So many people could not travel with so few accidents if there were none. Why, then, do Americans jump to this conclusion?
I am familiar with this kind of frustration when things don’t work like we think they should. Even if the official traffic rules in Mali are patterned after a Western example (France), there are often cultural rules that come into the mix.
Driving conditions in the capital of Bamako can be particularly difficult and dangerous. Few traffic signals function regularly, and drivers often do not follow the rules of the road. In particular, the small, green, van-like buses called “bashays” pay no heed to oncoming traffic, and bashay drivers are known to change lanes unexpectedly without looking. Please exercise extreme caution when driving in Bamako.
Over the years of living in Mali and navigating the traffic in Bamako, I discovered the following principles:
1) Egalitarianism – everybody gets a chance
When you come to a crossing from a non-priority street, after some time of waiting, you have the right to go, priority or not. This is often indicated by stretching out your palm towards the oncoming traffic on the priority road. When I saw this for the first time, I got really upset. I had priority and this was a violation of the rules. Plus, the person seemed to behave like a policeman but wasn’t one, and I thought: “Who the heck does he think he is?!?!” Once I understood the principle, I could see the advantage as I am, too, sometimes coming from a non-priority street, and if it went according to the rules, I might have to wait “until the cows come home.”
2) Cow path mentality – go wherever there is room
This leads me to the second principle. Most people in Bamako are more influenced by village life, than town life. Most grew up in a village or have spent a longer time with relatives in a village. Also, this kind of village mentality does not easily change and is passed on to second and third generation of town folk. I know from experience that there are few clearly marked roads in a village or between villages, and even less tarmac roads. So when the rain makes a stretch of road unusable, this is not a huge problem. People just find another way to get around the spot. By the end of the rainy season there are many different ways to get from point A to point B. The paths of cow herds moving up and down the country vary even more. Wherever there is no obstacle, you can go, and when there is an obstacle you just find a new path.
How does this now apply to the traffic in Bamako?
It’s simple – you go or drive wherever there is room. If there is a line of cars on the right side of the road, waiting for the traffic light to turn green, and nobody is coming on the left side of the road, you will of course use this “empty space” to circumvent the obstacle. This applies especially to bikes, motorbikes and pus pus (push carts). When you want to go over the Niger river on the new bridge, you will arrive on a kind of cloverleaf intersection / ingress ramp to join a two lane street. During rush hour these two lanes easily turn into four and a half lanes, as cars and motorbikes keep pushing their way in (four with cars, a half one with motorbikes). Amazingly, this does not happen when there is a policeman in sight.
3) Negotiation – establishing relationships at every crossing
The third principle does not only apply to Bamako traffic, but to many other areas of Malian culture. Who gets to go and who has to wait is a matter of negotiation, not of rules. You have to make eye contact and try to discern the other persons intentions, which is often communicated by hand gestures and/or head movements. When I discovered this principle (thanks to a discussion about traffic with Ibrahima), at first I was annoyed. Is it not so much easier and more efficient to follow rules instead of negotiating at every crossing who gets to go? You can go much faster on a priority road, when you know that everybody sticks to the rules and nobody will step or drive into your way who shouldn’t. Plus, it is so much less stressful! This is certainly the normal reaction of a Westerner and rather ethnocentric. Interestingly, Hiebert quotes an experience from 1974 in London that showed that traffic lights and marked lanes do not guarantee more effectiveness.
On the other hand, negotiating your position in relationship to others is very much an overarching principle in many areas of life in Mali. So it is only natural to also apply it to the traffic. In a way it is a more people oriented approach, while rules easily diminish other people to objects.
Hiebert calls the two approaches immediate and mediate transactions:
Marked lanes, stop lights, and signs controlling space introduce a particular type of order to traffic, an order based on mediated transactions. In immediate transactions players calculate their moves by observing the actions of the other players. In mediate transactions they calculate their moves not directly on what others are doing, but on their relationship to a third mediating agency (Figure 1).
Hyderabad traffic seems to have a lot of similarity with Bamako traffic. Similar to my remark above, Hiebert also concludes that:
The introduction of mediate transactions tends to standardize and depersonalize interaction. In immediate transactions a player is related directly to other players. …. In mediate transactions a player responds to an impersonal matrix. The result is a measure of standardization and of depersonalization. The difference between the two types of transactions is roughly analogous to that between tennis and golf.
Of course, there are many more aspects that come into play: the fact that the majority of road users is probably illiterate and has not learned in school how to behave in different traffic situations (I am not even sure whether thosse that go to school have had any kind of road safety education or not); people riding a motorbikes do not need a license and therefore had no instruction on traffic rules; most participants have no idea that a truck can’t stop as fast as a pedestrian; women have the tendency to cast their eyes down and not look men into the eyes, which some also do when crossing the road; few have heard that it is wise to also keep the road users behind oneself in mind, e.g. when moving to the middle of the road or avoiding an obstacle; there is a patron-client thinking that makes the richer person more responsible than the penniless road user, which means that even if it is not your fault, the one with money gets to pay the bill; Western traffic rules were made for situations were bikes are a minority – in Bamako cars are several times outnumbered by bikes and this creates whole different dynamic.
All of this makes Bamako traffic a challenge for everybody, but even more so for expatriates.
Hiebert, Paul G. “Traffic Patterns in Seattle and Hyderabad.” Journal of Anthropological Research 32, no. No. 4 Winter (1976): 326-36.