By Allieu S. Tunkara
In a sultry Monday morning, a commuter, Fatty Bangura sweats profusely after she had been in the queue too long at a bus stop at PMB Junction, Wellington in Freetown. She had been waiting for a bus to pick her up so that she could report for duty at a school in central Freetown.
She was already late, but she had to find her way in order not to miss out for the day’s lessons with the kids. Buses offer the cheapest means of transportation in Freetown despite the discomfort of extreme heat and slow movement.
With Le1, 500 (One Thousand Five Hundred Leones), a bus could pick up a commuter at Wellington to PZ, the heartland of Freetown.
The sum is the usual amount Fatty could provide for the transport. On that day she had only Le10, 000 (Ten Thousand Leones) in her possession. Although she looked worried travelling to school, but she is more worried of returning home. The worries made her to take good care of her finances so that he could have some savings.
Madam Bangura, a mother three children, has taught for a considerable period since she graduated in 2011. She holds a Teacher’s Certificate from PortLoko Teachers College now one of the campuses of the Ernest Bai Koroma University. She gets a little over Le900, 000 (Nine Hundred Thousand Leones) which enables her to run the home albeit painstakingly.
Fatty’s arid situation makes it difficult to spend large amounts of money on transport services. In a brief interview whilst in the queue, she told this press that she woke up as early as 5am to catch a vehicle at the Junction. She explains her ordeal she encounters every passing day during the trek to the school.
“Every day, I spend over one hour waiting for the bus to convey me to town. Situation is not easy for me,” She complained.
Madam Bangura also stated that she faced similar problems while returning home after the day’s toil.
However, she faces the situation with courage hoping to see a change come what may. Madam Bangura represents a great generation of public sector workers who face a situation akin to hers.
Teachers, health workers, police, army officers and other government workers hardly reach their places of work on time. The transport constraints cannot permit them to report at the appropriate time. Government does not operate a public transport system for government workers making them vulnerable to the drivers who demand exorbitant fare even at short distances.
The problem of transportation has been around from time immemorial, a situation drivers never hesitate to use at their own advantage. A movement from PMB Junction at Wellington to Up-Gun Roundabout could attract Le6, 000 (Six Thousand Leones) Le7, 000 (Seven Thousand Leones) in a taxi car.
Those who cannot afford the taxi fare have to wait for buses and mini-buses [Poda Poda] for lengthy periods. The pronouncement of measures to combat Corona Virus disease by government worsened the transport situation.
The measures required taxi drivers to carry only three passengers (one in front and two at the back, tricycle (keke) riders too are permitted to carry only two at the back, and commercial motorists (Okada Riders) only one. Buses which used to carry six passengers in a seat reduced the number to four after government’s pronouncement.
These measures are to ensure that the chain of transmission of the virus is suppressed so that the country would not bleed as it did during the Ebola virus. It is true that congestion in public transport nurtures the virus with high prospect of fastly transferring to a great many people within the shortest possible time. It is said that Corona Virus can transfer from one person to another within a distance of one metre, but more dangerous when the distance is less than that.
The pronouncement of measures, medics say, is not to oppress the drivers or reduce their income but to keep the country safe from a virus dubbed as ferocious and devastating.
Government’s proactive action towards the virus may not be unconnected to the lessons learned from other countries where the virus wreaked the greatest havoc. No matter how genuine government’s effort at fighting the virus, drivers saw government’s action as a devastating blow to their finances.
The disillusioned and angry drivers embarked on sinister moves to supplement their incomes regardless of the inconvenience and suffering created for the commuters.
The half-way strategy, a game drivers have played for too long was made visible. Drivers especially taxi drivers prefers to run at short distances to get quick money.
The grumblings of the affected drivers does not matter to them. All they want is money in their pockets to sweeten the home at the expense of the exploited commuters. Bus drivers however have a different case. Their response to the pronouncement of COVID measures was one that brought suffering to the masses notably the less privileged.
Instead of appealing to government to reconsider its decisions, the bus drivers embarked on a sit-down strike action.
No bus plied the route, and commuters are at the wrong end. A bus driver who recently spoke to this press confirmed that the reduction of passengers dangerously undermined their business. The bus strike went on for weeks, if not months making a band of have-nots to struggle on the streets.
Taxi drivers were the happiest during the bus strike as they could lord it over to the commuters without hesitation. Sierra Leone’s transport sector is largely dominated by private individuals implying that they are free to set any price that suits them.
Any attempt by government to interfere leads to crises and strikes. Amadu Turay is the Chief Driver at the Motor Drivers and General Transport Workers’ Union in Freetown.
He Confirmed to Nightwatch that indeed exploitation of passengers by drivers is routinely carried out. Mr Turay said for many drivers, the move was to make money and nothing else. He also does not lose sight of passengers who force their way into paying excess money to ride in taxi cars.
“Most passengers offer high prices to drivers to convey them to their destinations. They do not wait for drivers to call the price,” Mr Turay said.
But, the claim comes back to him as other passengers have argued that they call such price to respond to drivers’ demands. It is the fastest and easiest way to move from one point to another.
Most times, those who cannot pay excess languish in queues for a lengthy period.