Traffic patterns

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.

Global Road Warrior has the following information for business people coming to Mali –Mali: Road Conditions

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).

Hiebert001

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.

Ref:
Hiebert, Paul G. “Traffic Patterns in Seattle and Hyderabad.” Journal of Anthropological Research 32, no. No. 4 Winter (1976): 326-36.

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You know you’ve been in Mali too long when…

Most of these have been posted on a Facebook group with this name. I edited some and added my own:

You know you’ve been in Mali too long when…

…you are personally offended by short skirts.

…you reuse Ziploc bags until they literally fall apart and after washing them you stick ’em to the wall to dry.

…you get excited when the thermometer reads only 40°C/104°F.

…you LOVE mangoes (in any forms- bread, dried, juice, whole…).

…you have multiple uses for your Air France eye mask.

…you no longer tremble at Bamako traffic.

…you run outside to see it rain.

…your clothes dry on the line in 10 min.

…you know somebody who has called Jorge Busch or ATT from Armee’s taxi.

…you’ve been offered at least 6 cows and 3 camels as dowry.

…you’ve been asked more than once to become a Malian man’s second or third wife.

…you had Malian women offering their husbands to you because they have pity on you for not being married.

…you find ants in your drink and think… huh, more protein.

…you never stop sweating.

…you have forgotten what real milk tastes like.

…your javel (chlorine) bottle is always at hand.

…you catch yourself saying… Yum- rice and sauce.

…you are cold because it’s only 20°C/68°F and its just too cold.

…you are getting excited when a lizard or gecko is crawling up your room wall because at least the flies and mosquitoes are getting eaten.

…you see a guy carrying a bench or a pile of chairs on his head, or on the back of a moto (moped), and you think nothing of it.

…you received a live chicken as gift from people and knew what to do with it.

…you accept to share a glass of tea the size of a shot with a shop owner.

…you think nothing of a man walking through a gas station selling this tea on a silver platter.

…you don’t notice when the traffic crawls in four lines where there are only two lanes and a bike lane.

…you are not surprised to see two adults and two children riding on one moto.

…you are not shocked when you pass five speed bumps in a row and the sotrama driver doesn’t even slow down.

…you are used to seeing a mud hut next to two large satellite dishes.

…you are content with sitting on one buttock only when riding on a sotrama because the apparentie (driver’s assistant) stuffed more than 20 people in the back of the minivan.

…you are always prepared to stop your car in the middle of nowhere because a herd of cows needs to cross the road.

…you know that it is unwise to offer a lift in you car to women with a calabash on their heads.

…you find it perfectly normal when two finely-dressed women are talking to each and one carries a bag of onions on her head.

…you don’t expect the bus to be air-conditioned because it says so on the outside.

…you know that a non-air-conditioned bus will be cooler than an air-conditioned bus because you can open the windows.

…you hold your paper cash notes from the corner.

…you know that you can’t return from a trip without giving everyone you know a cadeaux (present).

…you get excited when Azar’s got a new stock of cat food.

…you have seen someone with a leg of raw meat from some unfortunate creature strapped to the back of their moto.

…you travel without a toothbrush because you can always find a stick from a nem tree.

…you think of a religious sacrificial object when somebody uses the word “fetish.”

…you shudder away from kissing sounds.

…you realize how boring your dreams are when you run out of mefloquine (malaria prophylaxis).

…your feet are dirty and cracked and stay that way for the first three weeks back in your home country.

…you wonder where all these toubabs (white people) come from when you go home.

…you can’t help saying “toubabou, toubabou, toubabou” when a white person walks by.

…you order Coca light instead of Diet Coke when back home.

…you get back home and realize that you forgot that there is such a thing as a weather forecast.

…you have an instant shock reaction when somebody back home pays or gives something with his/her left hand.

…you have been back home for many years and you still say doni doni (slow slow, little little).

Feel free to suggest more if you know you’ve been in Mali too long because you …

Tribute to Tom Avery

I just heard that Tom Avery died, and found this neat story on the following blog:

The difference a friend made « From My Heart, Out Of My Mind

“For nearly 20 years Jack and Jo Popjes, Canadian missionaries with Wycliffe, tried to learn the music of the Canela people of northeastern Brazil. Jack and Jo could not grasp the subtleties of Canela music. The Canelas showed little interest in writing any new music for themselves. Despite their love of music, the Canelas sang only ancient songs. They did not compose new music. Everyone was content to sing the old songs about ghosts and water monsters, just as their ancestors had done. It would have been easy for the Popjeses to simply translate hymns (using the Canela language and the original European/American music). “But this would have caused problems,” they report. “Hymn translation can perpetuate the false idea that Christianity is a foreign religion.”

Jack and Jo sought help from Dr. Tom Avery, a Wycliffe ethnomusicologist also working in Brazil at the time. Tom did extensive library research on the tribe. He then went with Jack and Jo and recorded Canela music so he could analyze it using a computer program he had written. After making recordings of Canela music Tom transcribed the music note by note, aided by computer-generated graphs of the melodies. Every part of the Canela music system was examined — form, melody, rhythm, scale, and more. He discovered that the intervals between notes of the Canela scale differ from the European scale. Therefore, Canela music cannot be played on a piano, because some of the notes would “fall in the cracks.”

Then Tom Avery and Jack Popjes teamed up to create 23 Canela songs with Christian lyrics, most of which were direct quotations from Scripture. With lyric sheets in hand and a tape recording of themselves singing the songs, Avery and the Popjeses arrived in the main villages. The moment they started playing the tape, the Canelas became very excited. Within minutes, the Canela men started to join in. Soon the women added a high-pitched harmony part. “I just stood there and bawled. It was so perfect,” Jack remembers.

Over the next few nights, hundreds of villagers gathered to learn the new songs. One Canela song leader told the Popjeses, “I never realized we could make up our own songs.” Another Canela told them: “You have been here all these years and gave us writing. Your friend Tom has only been here a little while, and he taught us how to sing to God.” Jack estimates that between 5 and 10 percent of the tribe have now placed their faith in Jesus Christ. New Christians enjoy freedom from the fear of ghosts and evil spirits. Looking back on their whole ministry, Jack says providing the songs may have been their most important contribution. “While the Bible translation was essential, the Scripture in those songs did more for them than the Bible translation.” “