Hand to Mouth: Why Taxi Driving in The Gambia is No Picnic
Taxis have become a basic necessity for almost everybody. For those with no vehicles, they use taxis to move around. And for others who do not want to use their own vehicles for whatever reason, taxis are second option. For every commuting difficulty, there’s always a taxi driver ready to rescue. But how many of us ever take a moment to think about the everyday life of a taxi driver?
From the stereotype of being shady and always ready to rip off passengers, to earning almost nothing to take home, and stressful line of work – life as a taxi driver in The Gambia is no picnic. The struggle to make enough money to put food on the table is the biggest challenge local taxi drivers face on a daily basis.
On the side of a feeder road linking to the busy Senegambia main road, Buba Camara starts his yellow Mercedes Benz taxi and goes through some quick pre-drive checks to make sure that the brakes, lights, and fuel gauge are all in working order before he hits the road. He first took to the wheels of a taxi five years ago after failing to secure a job elsewhere.
“We face a lot of challenges but the issue of frequent fuel price increment is the biggest challenge so far and it doesn’t help us in anyway,” he tells The Chronicle.
Many of the taxi drivers do not own the taxis they drive. The owners lease the taxis to the drivers, who pay them specific amounts daily or weekly and take home whatever profits are left over. But Buba does not have to go through this because he owns the taxi he drives. With an ECOWAS cover, he’s permitted to even cross the Gambian border into nearby countries such as Senegal and Guinea Bissau. Over the years, he has driven thousands of of miles, and ferried hundreds, or even thousands of passengers to their destinations. Still, he struggles to cater for his family’s basic needs.
“Earning is very difficult due to regular price hike of fuel and basic items. The amount of money a taxi driver earns depends on the mood of the customers, the commuters. Sometimes I go home with D500, D700 or even more and other times I go home with less than D500.”
Buba has a family of ten back home in Jambanjelly in Kombo South. “I spend nothing less than D200 everyday to feed my family. The fuel pump price at the moment is D54.66 a liter and I need more than three liters a day. So basically, I work from hand to mouth.”
Like Buba, most taxi drivers in The Gambia are behind the wheels just to be able to feed their families. Momodou Sowe, a father of two, is a well known taxi driver along Brusubi-Airport Junction highway. With an old taxi, he complains of frequent breakdown which affects his earning power.
“I can’t afford a new car. But to keep on using this one, I have to get used to visiting the mechanics. I have one breakdown or the other every day and spare parts are getting them fixed is always costly.”
The money Momodou spends to get his car fixed, coupled with gas price means he struggles even more to put food on the table. “I struggle to make a profit of even D400 after working all day,” he says.
“Sometimes I work for two or three days without making any profits.”
He now wants a transport union in place that will cater for the welfare of taxi drivers.
“Car owners often terminate the services of their drivers for the silliest reason, and without any prior notice. They care about their cars but not their drivers. When a driver has an accident the first thing a car owner asks is whether his car has not been damaged. It doesn’t matter if the driver is injured. It’s like we are animals.”
Ndogal Cham started taxi driving seven years ago to take care of his mum, wife and child who are living in his village. He grew out of his initial plan of using taxi driving to build a house. Now it’s hand to mouth for him.
“Sometimes I make as much as D700 or D800 at the end of my shift. But I pay D500 to my boss, the car owner and take home the remaining D200 or D300. It’s not much but I manage with it. I make sure I spend the minimum on food or starve myself just to save up.”
Across the country, taxi drivers are some of the most significantly disadvantaged workers. They often struggle to earn a basic living wage despite working long hours in difficult and dangerous conditions.