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Gbakas Provide Transportation Lifeline in War-Divided Ivory Coast


Small vans, known as gbakas, are lifelines on the crowded, potholed and tightly policed streets of the southern Ivorian commercial capital, Abidjan. They also seem to reflect the hardships of a war-divided country.

It is a hot and muggy morning at the Adjame market.

Gbakas line up to take passengers to their jobs, other markets, schools, or clinics.

Kouassi Kouakou Bertin, 26, nicknamed the Dioula, usually a generic name for northerners, stands in front of his gbaka, which is cleaner than most.

Since the start of the 2002 civil war, Bertin explains, he willed and worked himself down from the de-facto rebel capital, Bouake, to Abidjan, CFA franc by CFA franc.

He worked as a fare collector, a job called apprenti here, meaning apprentice.

He finally earned enough money to afford a driver's license - a luxury for most, and now he drives a gbaka.

Bertin's own apprenti calls out the fare, 250 CFA francs, or about 50 cents, to the center of town.

The apprentice yells out, there is no change, not even for 500 francs or 1,000 francs.

Change is a problem in Ivory Coast, where vendors will not sell you anything, if you give them a big bill, and they have no change.

In this case, no change means no trip in the gbaka.

Still, passengers, including crying babies, pile in.

Bertin says he picks up hotel employees coming off their night shift, who have become his friends.

He says he even met his girlfriend driving this gbaka. She complimented his way of handling himself, always smiling and in a good mood, so he says he asked her out before she got lost in the crowd.

Passengers get off wherever they want to, just as long as it is along the route.

This woman says gbaka drivers should reduce their prices to, say, 40 cents per ride. She explains 50 cents is a big chunk of what she makes daily by reselling goods from a cheaper market to a more expensive one.

She says gbakas are badly maintained, with dangerous screws protruding from some of the seats. She says she once ripped her dress getting up, and all she got after complaining, were rude insults from the apprenti.

But this rider says, drivers are modern-day heroes. He says, it is surprising how they survive, amid the chaos of congestion, potholes, roadblocks and poor weather.

It is later in the day now back in Adjame, and it is raining heavily.

Bertin says the problem with rain is not really the flooding it creates, or the traffic jams, but that no one wants to go anywhere once it starts pouring. He says, he sometimes has to wait up to two hours for new passengers.

Gbakas have no schedules to follow. They only go when they are full.

So, Bertin and his apprentice turn to a national pastime here in war-strapped Ivory Coast - counting money.

Bertin accuses his apprentice of pocketing money from some passengers who came in and out quickly.

He says he knows all the tricks.

Bertin makes about $10 a day, which is above average. But he says he needs the money for his new girlfriend, who he adds, is sort of expensive to keep happy.

As he jokes about this, the rain stops, and his gbaka quickly fills up again and gets back on the road.

Riding around in a gbaka seems to encapsulate many of the present-day realities of divided Ivory Coast.