If you haven’t been following along, the primary form of in-city transportation here is moto-taxis, also known as zemijians (or just zems). Zemijian is a local phrase that means “get there faster,” and indeed, the zems zip along the streets of Cotonou, ferrying hundreds of thousands of people to work, school, and the market each day.
Current statistics show that in Cotonou, there is a zem for every 10 people. In a city of roughly 700 000, that means there are 70 000 zems. And that’s a low estimate. The thing about zems is that, in principle, it’s relatively easy money. All you need is a moto and a yellow shirt. Then you just cruise around town waiting to get flagged down. Motos are expensive, but if you’re someone well to do who’s lost their job, you might have one. Or maybe you bought it second, third, or forth hand. Or maybe a family member gave it to you. Or maybe you’re a Togolese refugee who brought it with you when you fled after the coup.
The point is, there aren’t very many barriers to a long and illustrious career as a zemi-driver. And because work for young men is so bloody scarce in this country, everyone does it. Even 500F a day can make a difference when everyone in your family’s working.
Yesterday, I caught a zem home from dinner out with Ben, Lyle, and Lyle’s family. He has a college degree in accounting and speaks English as well as I do. He also can’t find a job. His last employer folded a few years ago, and he’s been unemployed ever since. Driving zems is okay money for him . . . he already had a decent moto, and he’s able to come home to his family when he needs too. Nevertheless, it doesn’t pay well enough that he’ll be able to put his children through college, and certainly not well enough that he’ll ever be able to retire.
He wanted me to take him to the United States, where he felt he had a better chance of using hiss education. I smiled and told him that I wouldn’t be going home any time soon. He smiled back. “Madame, I know you can’t help me. But maybe you can tell your friends back in the States that it’s not lack of education that keeps Africa in poverty. I don’t know what it is, but that’s not it.”
I don’t know what it is either, but the fact that university educated men are reduced to moto-taxing to feed their families is heart wrenching. Days like yesterday make me cynical about everything the Peace Corps is about. We push education like it’s a universal solution, but the reality is that it’s not. It’s a good first step, but it doesn’t guarantee food on your table. The problems are both deeper and more superficial than that.
I don’t have a solution. The scary thing is, neither does the Peace Corps.