Hustling, Bustling Just to Get to Work

When Einstein claimed that space and time are similar, though he meant it literally, at least from a theoretical point of view, he did not expect economists to agree with him quicker than did physicists. In fact, economists have been acquainted with the idea for quite some time, but their interpretation of the term was more metaphorical than that of Einstein’s.

Space is distance, and the amount of time it takes to reach a destination determines the success or failure of any enterprise. INRIX, a global Data as a Service (DaaS) and Software as a Service (SaaS) company, who agreed enough with Einstein to try out the physicist’s idea for size, determined that a United States commuter spends up to 42 hours stuck in traffic a year, after studying 240 cities.

In Ethiopia, no such data is available. But I venture the amount of time wasted waiting in traffic is significantly lower since there are far fewer cars to begin with. The majority of Ethiopians who own cars get to reach their offices or homes relatively painlessly.

For the others, the less affluent part of society, life is somewhat more complicated. Space has a rather significant meaning when one lacks a car. It means having to walk or wait. It means inconvenience, a nuisance just waiting to make everyone’s long and dreary work day even longer and drearier.

An individual in Ethiopia who buys a car makes a statement. A car is not just a vehicle to transport people or goods, but an exorbitant piece of machinery that elevates one’s standing in society. Acquiring one is considered a great achievement, especially if male, just shy of purchasing a house or getting married. Once, I overheard my own mother asking an overjoyed relative who had her daughter wed, “does [the husband] have a house, does he have a car?”

Of course, taking in the state of the nation, that is, citizens’ purchasing power, buying a car is indeed an impressive feat, one that should not be balked at. Thanks to a mind-numbing high customs duty on cars, and locally assembled cars that are similarly expensive, vehicles have become prized possessions, only owned by 21st century nobility – rich people.

But people do get from place to place; they do commute. To fill the gap, in the last decades of the past century, when roads were barely paved, when the majority of Addis Abeba’s dwellers walked or rode horse-drawn carts, minibuses came onto the scene, hoping to satisfy the growing demand and make some money along the way.

The blue minibuses rode side by side in those days. There was little competition, but the prices were fair. They were such a regular part of life that by “taxi”, an Ethiopian is always referring to the blue minibuses, instead of taxi cabs.

The average person, by my very own estimation, boards a blue minibus at least four times a day, interacts with four different redats (the vehicular version of a cashier), sits among some 48 other passengers (each minibus carries up to 12 people, 19, if there is no traffic police to punish non-compliance), and spends around three Birr per fare.

Morning and evening hours, when students and employees alike commute to school and work, are the most hectic. Around the city, long lines of commuters can be seen waiting for a minibus to take them to their destinations.

It used to be that these lines were unregulated, and people mostly waited around in a dishevelled manner, bustling and scuffling to board a minibus in such an aggressive fashion it made rugby look tame in comparison. Those were the days when the big and strong got to work earlier than the small and weak, proving Darwin’s evolutionary theory of survival of the fittest in practice.

It shall be acknowledged that Addis Abeba suffers from a dilapidating transport problem. The city has recently introduced a number of alternatives for commuters – the Chinese manufactured Sky buses and the Addis Ababa Light Rail being prime examples – but they have not gotten to the meat of the problem.

The city’s citizenry are still forever complaining about the issue, about having to wait in the rain or the blistering sun for a minibus, about having to squabble with the redat for a petty sum because he does not happen to have change, about how uncomfortable it is to sit as the third person on a seat meant for two.

There is a lack of think tanks and research centres to gauge out the real problems in our society and the economy, so we do not know how much productivity is lost as a result of the inconveniences caused by daily transportation. But I venture that the average Ethiopian wastes some 20pc of his energy, waiting in lines or scrimmaging for a seat in a minibus, before even reaching the office.

By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye ( is a writer/film critic whose interests run amok in both directions of print and celluloid/digital storytelling.

Published on Jul 29,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 900]



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