“It’s not heavy,” Sanou Top insists, as she takes a suitcase out of her client’s hands and hoists it into the trunk of her cab.
“I hope you drive like a man,” the customer says. The small-framed, head-scarfed 25-year-old laughs.
Top is one of 10 women chosen for a pilot project by the Senegalese government to get female taxi drivers on the road.
And after more than a month behind the wheel in one of the world’s most chaotic capitals for driving, Top says it’s been a smooth ride.
“At first, it was difficult,” Top says. But now? “Complete satisfaction.”
Her cell phone rings. She tucks it under her head scarf and begins a conversation, all while shifting gears and keeping an eye out for customers. It’s a system she seems to have mastered.
Money and autonomy
Under the ‘Taxi Sister’ project, 10 women have been given brand-new cars, which they will gradually pay for and eventually own.
The project is touted as a way to pull women out of poverty and introduce them to new occupations in Senegalese society. Within two years, the government hopes to have 50 female taxi drivers on its streets, and hopes to expand the project beyond the capital, Dakar.
According to the UN 2006 Human Development Index, Senegalese women lag behind men in development indicators. Less than 30 percent of adult women are literate, compared to 50 percent of men; and on average, women earn just over half the income men do.
Still, the new initiative is “not a purely financial activity,” explained Awa Paye Gueye, administrator of the national fund for the promotion of female entrepreneurship at the Ministry of Family and Female Entrepreneurship. “It’s a female leadership project as well.
“Where some say, ‘It won’t work because it’s women’, [this project] allows certain barriers to be broken,” Gueye said.
It seems to be working.
“I’m autonomous. I’m free. I’m my own boss,” said Top, a former accountant and secretary, who quit because she felt she was being exploited by her boss.
Other than their bright yellow and red uniforms and the Taxi Sister signs on the roofs of their cars, these women fit right in. They may be slightly less aggressive on the road, but they honk and argue just the same.
“Who do you think you are?” Maj Samb screams, her head out the window, to a male driver after their cars nearly collide in traffic.
“They don’t like seeing women driving taxis,” the Taxi Sister explained afterwards. “I don’t know why.”
For the most part, foreigners and Senegalese alike have been supportive of the project, a partnership between the government and the private car dealer Espace Auto. As the women drive by, people wave, little girls smile and young men call out “Taxi Sister!”
Top says the clean, well-kept cars – a far cry from the often dilapidated vehicles driven by their male counterparts – are good for Senegal, since “a cab is the first image of a country [to a foreigner]”.
Still, some men are having a hard time accepting the idea. The female taxi drivers complain of men who cut them off on the road and speak out against them on the radio.
Just outside the driveway to the Novotel, one of two hotels in town where the Taxi Sisters are stationed, a group of male taxi drivers sit around on shoddy wooden benches, protesting the extra support given to their female colleagues.
The women are allowed to park right outside the hotel doors, while the men must remain in the traditional taxi area, outside the hotel grounds.
“They get all the [customers], and we stay here with nothing to do but sleep,” said Alioune Ndiaye, 60, who has been driving a cab in Dakar for 35 years. “Before, there weren’t any problems. But now, the sisters have ruined everything.”
The state’s claims to alleviate poverty and raise the status of women in Senegalese society are noble, Talla Ndiaye, another cab driver, told IRIN.
“The state talks about equality. Yes, sure. But this isn’t equality.”
Besides, he said, “taxi driving isn’t for women. It’s hard work.”
The attitude that women should not be driving taxis is not uncommon, but it does not faze the women.
“There are some people who don’t want us to succeed,” said Assaïtou Goumdiam, 32. “It’s very normal…I don’t pay any attention to them.
“It’s those who say no [to the idea] who give you the courage and the strength to work,” she said. After two years of unemployment, Goumdiam will not be held back by a few skeptical comments.
That is not to say there are no challenges. The diesel is expensive and traffic is difficult to bear. Security has not been a problem thus far – the women were given self-defense courses and have internal communication systems in their cars – but Top says a customer once came on to her.
Still, they believe they will serve as examples to other women in Senegal and neighbouring countries.
“Many people thought it would never actually happen,” Top says. “This will really give [other women] courage.”
The Ministry of Family and Female Entrepreneurship has financed more than 700 projects for women since 2005 and says it will continue funding projects that encourage women to enter new occupations. The ministry has already received a funding request from female mechanics.
“Women must contribute to the creation of jobs in Senegal. They can contribute,” the ministry’s Gueye said.
As for Top, who hopes to own her own taxi business in the future, she says she is proud of herself for taking part in this initiative.
“For a long time, there were many occupations that were reserved for men. Now, people are realising that women have the ability too.”