DAKAR, Senegal — Much more is riding in the backseat of Amy Ndiane’s chic neon yellow cab than the occasional passenger.
A Muslim woman, 30, who supports two kids from the fares she negotiates, Ndiane is an official, supported-by-the-president “Taxi Sister” — one of the select few female cabbies in Senegal.
“I heard there is a woman in the United States who drives a taxi,” mused Ndiane, a former data entry typist. “For Africa, this is a first, for a woman to have a taxi.”
Her novelty can be measured in the exclamations of well-wishers cheering her on from the crowded sidelines of Dakar’s chaotic rush hour.
“Taxi Sister!” hollered a young man trudging up an unforgiving hill pushing a cart of juice for sale.
A laughing male taxi driver waved hello as he and Ndiane orbited a traffic circle together.
The rest of her fans are women — or girls like the teenager in school clothes who heave both hands into the air and cry out “Taxi Sister!” as Ndiane zips by.
“They all want to be taxi drivers,” she said, then chuckled.
She isn’t joking. Three years ago, when Senegal’s government launched its all-women taxi fleet, it targeted modest numbers: Following a request by President Abdoulaye Wade, the state leased 10 hatchbacks on a rent-to-buy basis for women who wished to drive a cab.
Taxi Sister, the thinking went, would be a microfinance trial run for a government that is all but arm wrestling bank chiefs into lending to Senegal’s un-banked masses. In addition it would be a nifty gesture towards female empowerment.
Hundreds of women applied — a testament to the deep reserve of female talent in this country where the job market can hardly accommodate its men, let alone the other half.
Senegal is an overwhelmingly Muslim country and the Taxi Sisters wear head scarves. They have not been confronted with significant religious objections to their work.
Now, the government wants to roll out 2,000 Taxi Sister taxis by 2015 — an influx of peppy four-door coupes that delights gender rights activists pushing to reform this somewhat conservative Muslim society.
Dakar’s 15,000 taxi brothers are decidedly less than tickled.
“We have too many taxis and not enough clients,” lamented Moussa Iss, who has witnessed the cab lines overfill since he first picked up the keys in 1954 — and who, at 4 p.m. on a Thursday — hadn’t found his day’s first customer. The Taxi Sister parked nearby had managed just one, a $2 lift across town.
Neither had begun to earn their daily car payments — $12 for her, $20 for him.
Iss, 85, doesn’t fault the Taxi Sisters — “they are in the same bind as us,” he said — but the math is clear.
“This work is becoming so bad,” he sighed.
And yet the wheels roll on. However poorly the country’s cabbies may fare, the taxi sister’s struggle for their share of the yellow cars is seen by many as symbolic for a wider fight for women’s jobs and rights.
The Taxi Sister drivers are trained in driving and mechanics and they have taken self defense courses, too.
Not to mention, a few more women on the road might be a good thing to moderate Dakar’s aggressive driving culture.
“In the traffic, women don’t go for speed, they think more about safety,” said Maiga Ndeye, secretary for Femme Auto, Dakar’s women-manned car repairshop, and the only woman on-site whose hands weren’t manicured in grease splotches.
“Women are getting to be everywhere now,” she said. “We’re working as auto mechanics, as bus drivers, and now taxi drivers, too.”
She added a prophecy: “We’re on our way to dominating the transportation system.”
Ndeye may be right, or at the very least, being a woman has its advantages in this economy of un-metered taxis and haggled fares.
“We negotiate better,” bragged taxi sister Oulimata Samba, 28. Transport consultant Papis Bassene agreed:
“The taxi sisters are more charming,” he said. “Psychologically, you may think that the woman has more need of the help.”
Indeed. Shortly before Ndiane coaxes a $10 fare from a GlobalPost correspondent — five times what he would have paid a taxi brother — she made a vow.
“After five years, we’re going to buy these cars,” she said. “And then we’re going to buy some more cars, bigger cars.
“One, two, four,”— she hesitated —“then a thousand.”
Iss, the octogenarian cab driver, hopes he lives to see it.
“They work hard,” he acknowledged. “We the men have to let them earn, because we have so many women who live on the street. We need to lift them up.”