The raw cultural, political, and economic vitality of West Africa is sought by newcomer Chilson upon Niger's lawless, hair-raising, fickle, murderous—in a word, insane—roads. A freelance rural transportation network props up West Africa's economies. It is overburdened but vital, hideous and intimate, punishing, equalizing, indispensable. It is the bush taxi. Chilson, who spent a couple of Peace Corps years in Niger during the 1980s, returned in 1992 to tap into the bush taxi culture, one that endures in a nation of perpetual upheaval as a "metaphor for Africa's fight for stability and prosperity." It is also the driver's chance to experience a dollop of freedom and power on roads that are seemingly alive and restless, potentially cruel and violent, and critical expressions of Niger's visceral and spiritual nexus. The cars are the ultimate beaters, little more than mechanical prayers, and the roads are deadly venues, a 100-mile-per-hour free-for-all, where passing on blind curves is a sport and a challenge, and predatory soldiers man roadblocks so common you can see the next from the last. It's not just fun and games though; for Chilson, the roads are "bowls of human soup, microscope slides of society," that afford a glimpse into a world where misfortune is as often as not the work of demons, where out-of-body venturing and hallucinations are, if not common, elemental, and where powerful forces are ready to smite wrongdoers, a valuable containing force in a place gripped by male angst, venality, and religious fervor. Chilson's Virgil is road-savvy Issoufou, a bush cabbie with enough pride in his culture to invite Chilson to take a good look after he has opened doors otherwise locked to outsiders—to marabouts, the contraband trade, a life lived sur la pointe. If Issoufou offered Chilson "a buffet spread of a nation's economy and politics," Chilson in turns offers it to us, seen through the dark and scary glass of the road.
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