I remember thinking “can’t forget to take a photo of these taxis!” as we cycled into Windhoek in August.
We’d reached the last road we had to cross to get to the guesthouse and I was sick of riding. I walked my bike across Bach Street, picking my way through the stream of taxis that I’d never seen before.
Uber doesn’t exist in Namibia, not yet. For now you get a taxi the classic way—call, flag one down or get in when they honk and slow down in pursuit of you. They can be any colour. They (usually) don’t have a light that illuminates if available. They’re plain sedans, but there’s something distinctive about them: the unique number on one of their doors: P 33, X 101, M 88, G 201, S 403…each digit as big as my forearm. They’re not painted on, but stick-on decals. The kind that look easy to put on—and change.
I wanted to know more about these taxis. I wondered how an ordinary Namibian person could afford to take one, instead of being crammed into a minibus or a large municipal bus. Not that either of those options seemed to be that common here.
But some visitors feel something besides curiosity about taxis. A traveller from France sat motionless in an armchair in the guesthouse living room. There was a bandage on his head the size of a chocolate bar, his hair had been shaved to make room for it. He stared silently straight ahead with a murderous expression on his face that made me afraid of him, even though I knew this wasn’t about me.
The other night his taxi driver had started acting weird and diverged from the route. The Frenchman assumed he was being taken somewhere to be robbed, so he opened the door, fell onto the road at speed and obviously that’s not going to feel great. Earlier he’d been in the communal kitchen, captivating us in the way that only bad news can. “When I see him again…” he trailed off, fantasizing about his revenge. Before he got it, he flew home to France.
Whether the Frenchman’s scary taxi ride was unlucky or predictable depends on who you talk to, but taxi safety is consistently on people’s minds and tongues these days in Windhoek. The local media commonly reports on the issue. Sometimes the victim is a passenger in the taxi. Other times a taxi pulls up near a pedestrian, and the driver or a passenger gets out and robs them. Passengers pick the pockets of other passengers—the driver tries to collect additional passengers along the way until the little car is at capacity. Other times the victim is the taxi driver, their car is stolen.
Some say the problem lives on because the police don’t do enough to stop it. For others, it’s also the symptom of few choices: “You know these young people who do bad things, it’s because they’re hurt, they have hard lives,” Tuhafeni tells me as we speak in the guesthouse. He looks sad as he tells me this.
There’s so many taxis and passengers because Windhoek is big and small. It’s Namibia’s capital, but its population is only about 400,000 people. That seems small only when I compare it with South Africa’s cities. Apples to apples, Windhoek is huge: About a fifth of Namibia’s population lives here.
Most people live outside the city centre—as Tuhafeni puts it, “it’s still very separate here, where people live, as a legacy of apartheid, that’s why it’s so quiet at night in town.” He looks sad about this too. He’s referring to another way in which small Windhoek is large. Wherever the topography isn’t too hilly, sprawling suburbs are built, but “suburb” feels like a euphemism. They do not look like the suburbs I grew up in. Some are shacks and simple houses built on dirt.
Whatever you call them—suburb, township, location, settlement—they stretch the city boundaries: Windhoek is a large city by area, but has a low population density per square kilometre. Ironic trivia for me, but what it means is that many people need to cover long distances—often by taxi. Public transportation only goes to certain places. People don’t want to walk long distances if they can afford not to. And another big-small thing about Windhoek is its frequency of tiny, steep hills. Who wants to bike?
“Ah, my dear, it is late and I live twenty kilometres away. Tonight I will have to take a taxi,” says Christa, who cleans the guesthouse. She takes a taxi every day but I guess what she means is that it’s going to take a while to get home, and that she’ll arrive after dark. She takes a taxi instead of a bus because if she took the bus she’d have to walk as well.
Unlike her, I never “have to” take a taxi. There’s no job for me to show up to and usually I get around hilly Windhoek on my bicycle. I’ve started to think that this freedom to cycle is what makes me curious. Cycling gives me breathing room. Without the choice, I figure I’d feel suspicious and irritated by taxi drivers, and fixate wholly on whether or not they’ll rob me.
My curiosity nudges me to speculate about their lives. I do this every few days when we watch them from a distance in a mall parking lot. I hope it’s less creepy than it sounds.
There are other things to do in Windhoek, it’s just that we have been staying inside unless we need groceries. Then, we put empty panniers on our racks and cycle the two kilometres to Pick N Pay supermarket inside Wernhill Mall. We pull into the covered parking lot and gawk at the chaos that is reliably there. A throng of male taxi drivers hang off the balustrade that separates the parking lot from the mall entrance. They yell at everyone coming out of the mall. They are persistent and proactive in the way we laud in entrepreneurs but find lecherous in other circumstances.
It’s not like I shake their hands. I brush them off and ignore their calls that they throw my way even though I’m wearing a bike helmet. Sometimes I roll my eyes. But when I get to the bench where Evan sits with our bicycles, watching the never-ending drama between the taxi drivers and security guards, that’s when I see them. I see men with names and girlfriends and kids and maybe degrees. And I think “it must be hard work yelling all day, I think I’d find that very demoralizing and my throat would hurt.”
I got my answer as to why so many ordinary Namibians can take the taxi. A car is out of reach to many, but many can manage to pay for a taxi ride. A ride across town is 10-12 Namibian Dollars—$1.00 CAD, or $0.70 USD. It’s 20 or 30 NAD to the outer reaches of big-small Windhoek. But neither the prices in Pick N Pay nor gasoline is so cheap that this translates into good money. Nonetheless it’s a job, a scarce thing in Windhoek, a growing city where Namibians arrive in search of a better life.
And if you believe the rumours, it’s a good enough job that increasing numbers of “pirate taxis” are roaming the streets of Windhoek: unregistered illegitimate taxis in search of fares, and maybe more.
“Au revoir!” I said as I stepped onto the dirt sidewalk. I’m getting out of a taxi at the same Bach Street intersection that I’d walked my bike across weeks ago.
I’m saying goodbye to the young man in the front and the younger woman in the back. They both chuckle back at me. She, Congolese, was incredulous that he, Namibian, could speak French. She teased him, “You’re not Namibian…!” He told her—us—he speaks French because he learned it, and works for the French Government.
The taxi was full, our legs touched, WhatsApp messages on smartphones were visible, one person’s conversation was everyone’s. I was squished in the back corner, beside the door. I looked out the window, was a fly on the wall, felt content and broadly smiled the whole way home. My experience felt all the more spontaneous, unexpected and cosmopolitan because it was taking place in weird Windhoek, the small-town capital city.
The driver didn’t speak French. He spoke English, Namibia’s official language. He probably also spoke one or two other languages, but I was the lowest common denominator, so English it was. I had asked him to wait for me while I did my errand in the Katutura “suburb,” because I’d wanted him to be my taxi driver for the return journey. He’d gotten me here safely.
I’d told him I’d be quick. I ran to the bicycle repair shop, a shipping container set out on a dusty patch of land with rusty nuts and bolts scattered around. Evan had forgotten his thermos there. Turns out he had also forgotten his hat. The mechanic had both waiting for me. “Thank you so much Riann!” I repeated as I ran back. The taxi driver said “you weren’t kidding!” as I got in the back.
And then he became our competent pilot, wordlessly shuttling all of us to exactly where we needed to go. He silently listened to these unlikely conversations about French, or maybe the songs blaring from his stereo, or both. Maybe he was thinking about something else entirely.
When I got out I handed him the agreed-upon $20 NAD for the two-way journey. I felt grateful that he hadn’t robbed me—my ride with him to the bicycle repair shop had been with a man in the back, and then on my own. We’d picked up my entertaining fellow passengers on the way back to town. I wondered if my gratitude was reasonable or prejudiced.
We couldn’t see the woman squirming out of the open taxi window because the high metal fence rimmed with barbed wire and the pomegranate trees of the guesthouse’s front garden obscured her misfortune. The street is usually silent so it was jarring to hear her screams, “COME BACK COME BACK COME BACK,” as she ran along the road. He’d driven to the end of the road, had been stopped by people who’d heard her, and had successfully escaped on foot with her purse.
We often keep our biases and just prop them up with anecdotes that match. That’s why I’d rather tell you about my wonderful taxi ride with the Francophones and the awesome driver instead of the story of the screaming woman. My bias is a common one: to dwell on scary anecdotes, especially if it seems possible that the same could happen to me. I want to be skeptical of that bias in my writing.
Yesterday I had an errand that I could have done near the Pick N Pay where we always go, but instead I cycled to Katutura, where my taxi driver had taken me. Katutura is about five kilometres away from Windhoek’s city centre. It’s infamous because Windhoek’s black residents were forcibly moved here in 1961, during Namibia’s apartheid. On my cycle to Katutura I wanted to test a few things I’d written in this post you’re now reading.
I was wrong about all of Windhoek’s suburbs outside the city centre being shacks. From my non-systematic vantage point there was everything from the dilapidated to the comfortable. As I breathed in and out as I went up and down Windhoek’s small steep hills, sometimes I crinkled my nose at sewage fumes. It’s a smell far more memorable than its absence. It was usually absent.
While riding, I thought I was correct that my bicycle made me curious about the people on the road with me. I shared the road with many taxi drivers as I cycled along Florence Nightengale, Mungunda, Caesar, Independence, Sabi. Some talked to me, some honked at me, some cat called me, most ignored me. Their windows were down, it was hot. I peeked inside the taxis at the women, children, men, and thought “what a niche these taxis fill,” and “what’s their Friday like?”
But I thought that if I was stuck in a taxi on hot Windhoek days, month after month and year after year, I’d be petty, impatient and disinterested. Then I came across the perspective of a woman who lives here, and I became less sure.
Hildegard Titus, a Windhoek artist, relies on taxis. And even when the rides are draining, she casts her varied experiences with them as funny and sometimes philosophical. Some might argue that’s because nothing “bad enough” has ever happened to her. That she’s been lucky, or not unlucky. Or that her bias is strong and that the taxi drivers that are shitty can’t sway her. But maybe it’s something else. Maybe she sees something closer to the unsensational truth. Either way, the essay she writes about her experiences with them is entertaining and it shares what I can’t—an insider’s perspective. I’ll leave you with her closing words:
“In my experience as someone who doesn’t own a car, taxis and their drivers are essential. And despite getting into scuffles with cab drivers every now and then, I think taxis are one of the things that make living in this city such a unique experience.
Like London with its black cabs, New York with its yellow, and Cape Town with its minibuses, our taxis are a defining feature of this city, and arguably, well at least in my opinion, taxis are one of the things that make Windhoek so great.”
Thanks for reading,