“I can be a freak. I can, I can be a freak.” You hear it before you see it, American hip hop announcing the vehicle’s pending arrival like a trumpet does royalty. If it is loud from fifty meters away; by the time you’re inside, the noise is deafening. The cacophony has many parts, none more prescient than the “beep be beep beep” of the driver’s horn, serenading each and every pedestrian it passes. A church wedding is not even spared, the bride and groom walking through the front doors to applause, confetti, and our man plying the crowd for business. The crowd takes it in stride, some even quickening their step to catch a ride as we round the corner.
Any account of a journey to Africa includes the imperative taxi story. They are a fixture on the landscape of the continent, from the sands of the Sahara to the Paton’s “beloved country.” They go by various names, from the matatus of Kenya to the tro tro’s of Ghana while maintaining the same basic form of the 15 passenger mini-van. In South Africa, they go by the basic descriptive name of mini-bus or simply, taxi. They generally feature an audacious paint job with a name like “Luxurious” printed on the front, a fearless driver with a colleague who handles the money, and music that would make Run DMC proud.
Unlike the New York City subway, there are no maps for mini-bus routes. Without a modicum of trust, using this public transport “system” would be virtually impossible. It is the epitome of informal. As the taxi passes, some sprite, confident teenager leans out the window, yelling the destination of the cab. What I hear: “dslkjf dkjoihie wuiocn knvkc joj.” Eventually, you flag one down, state your destination, and someone tells you where to go to catch the appropriate taxi.
Meanwhile, my current ride plows through the next intersection, daring another vehicle to try and pass, the music changes abruptly, and the man caressing the steering wheel to my right bobs his head to “Shorty is a eenie meenie minie mo lover” under a threadbare blue beanie with “Nike” printed on the side. The cigarette dangling from his mouth is nonchalantly removed for a raspy cough and then replaced. I scan the taxi and notice a sign on the interior that reads, “Is there life after death? Mess with a taxi driver and find out.” Meanwhile, he weaves through traffic, speeding to cut in front of slower cars and then stopping immediately in front of them to swallow up a passenger. He takes every detour, prowling for little old ladies and their five rand fares. A wristwatch fastened around the rearview mirror helps him keep pace.
Outside, the bright clothing colors contrast with what is a typical Port Elizabeth day, gray and drab. A child screams from her mother’s lap as if to say, “Are you trying to kill me, mom? The next row features two women covered head to toe with black robes, which in turn feature ornate blue embroidery. The driver leans over to ask where I am going. I tell him that I stay in Riemvasmaak. “Riemvasmaak?” he repeats, shocked. I nod. He makes a quarter turn to report the news to his “cashier.” “He says he stays in Riemvasmaak!” He says it again, the r’s rolling gloriously off of his tongue. I invite him to come and visit, but before he can reply, Shakira’s Waka Waka surges through the speakers. He reaches to increase the volume, setting aside his disbelief, be it ever so briefly, to croon along with the World Cup theme song, “…Cause this is Africa.”