The Bolekaja—West African Mammy Wagon
By “Awake!” correspondent in Nigeria
THERE are many means of transportation used in Nigeria. However, traveling on foot has continued in many parts to be the most dependable, and on occasion the quickest and most comfortable. Next to it is the Bolekaja—a Yoruba name for a very popular mode of transportation, otherwise known in West Africa as the Mammy Wagon.
The Bolekaja, or Mammy Wagon, is a light truck or lorry that has been converted to carry passengers. In the Nigerian capital of Lagos, in and around which I have lived for twenty-five years, many persons still prefer it, despite the fact that there are also many buses and taxis. Why? you may inquire.
Reasons for Popularity
Well, to catch a bus, one has to go to the bus stop, and in some cases it means walking a long distance. But you do not have to do that if you are prepared to travel by Bolekaja. It stops anyplace along the road where passengers are to be found.
Also, the Bolekaja is not tied down to any particular route, and so it will take shortcuts, which can be a real advantage during rush hours. Workers often find it a quicker means of transport to their factories than the buses, which are also fewer in number. So if a person wants to get to his destination on time, the answer often is: Take the Bolekaja.
Another advantage of this mode of transportation is that a person is permitted, for a certain charge, to carry with him heavy loads. One is not permitted to do this on the buses. Since Bolekajas operate between marketplaces, African women find them convenient for transporting wares to and from markets. The frequent use of them for this purpose is why they are also called Mammy Wagons.
Description and Operation
Although there is nothing very attractive or luxurious about it, the Bolekaja has survived as the most popular means of transportation, even in a big city like Lagos.
Its seats are made of plain planks, like benches. There is a row of seats along each side, and also down the middle, so that passengers in the middle can sit facing persons along the sides. Underneath the seats is space for loads.
The roof is made of plywood and is covered over with tarpaulin. The upper sides are mostly open, providing plenty of air. A gate, or door, is at the back. In recent years an improved kind of Bolekaja has been constructed, called a Mauler.
Each Bolekaja has a driver and a conductor or apprentice whose job it is to guard the rear. The conductor has a string to a bell in front of the Bolekaja, so as to inform the driver when to stop and when to move. He also has a short heavy block of wood to wedge under the wheels when stops are made to pick up passengers. This is to prevent the vehicle from rolling backward, since sometimes the brakes cannot be depended upon.
The conductor sits or stands on the steps, depending on how loaded the Bolekaja is. He is a busy person, for apart from being the eyes and ears of the driver from behind, he also supervises passengers and collects fares. This is not an easy job, since at times he has to fight to collect fares from stubborn passengers. And from these frequent altercations comes the name Bolekaja, meaning simply, “Come down and let us fight.”
Of course, the name Bolekaja is not written on the lorry. It is just the nickname given it by those who have had experience with it. And the fact is, all those who have lived in towns along the west coast of Africa are well familiar with this means of transportation. Bolekajas and Maulers frequently have titles or slogans written on their sides, such as, “Man proposes, God disposes,” “No telephone to Heaven,” “The fear of God,” “No money, no friend,” “Simplicity is a talent,” and so forth.
The law allows a Bolekaja to carry about thirty-nine passengers, including the driver and the conductor. But as long as there are passengers, the conductor will squeeze them in until some can hardly breathe. Any number, from forty-five to fifty persons, are frequently jammed aboard. The speed limit in the city is thirty-five m.p.h., but it is not uncommon to find the Bolekaja going fifty or sixty!
Bolekajas are frequently badly serviced, not only having bad brakes, but sometimes containing insufficient fuel to last for the full trip. When the brakes fail or they run out of fuel between stations, attempts at repair will be made right there, while the passengers are kept waiting. And no fares will be refunded should one decide to leave to try to find another means of transportation—a factor also contributing to frequent fights.
Long-Time Personal Use
I have many times traveled by the Bolekaja during the past twenty-five years. In 1956 I was obliged to move from Lagos Island to a suburb about ten miles from my office. It happened that at the time the only transport plying the road from this small village to Lagos was the Bolekaja. The first one always left at about five in the morning. The sound of it and the noisy voices of the conductors would awaken people who lived along the road.
At about six a.m. I was usually ready for a few minutes’ walk to the station. I would go there because it was easier to determine the correct fare from that starting point to the last station inside Lagos. Those who would catch the Bolekaja along the road would have to depend on the judgment of the conductor as to the amount to be paid, and disagreements led to frequent fights. One Bolekaja ride was particularly memorable.
A Trip to the Office
It was a Monday morning. I woke up very late and made a hurried dash to the station. There I found only one Bolekaja. The engine was humming, the driver was already in his seat, and the vehicle was, as usual, loaded with people. I would not have tried to get aboard if it had not been for the conductor who, seated at the tail end of the vehicle, was still calling out for more passengers.
So, with briefcase in one hand and holding the wooden gate with the other, I placed a foot on the step so as to peep inside to see if there was any space left. At that moment the vehicle started moving. By the time I was aware that there was no vacant seat inside, the driver was making about fifty or sixty m.p.h. on a very rough road!
My tie was flying in the air and my unbuttoned coat blowing to one side. Yet the conductor thought nothing of my plight. He was demanding that I pay my fare, though he could see, I thought, that to lose my grip on the gate could mean an instant fall to death! However, I was careful not to say anything that might provoke a fight. I just prayed that I would not fall off. After some miles, we came to a stop to let passengers out, and I had a chance to sit inside and pay my fare.
A man, who had just entered and taken a seat opposite me, was also asked to pay. However, he stoutly refused to do so until he reached his destination. I do not know why he refused, but it may have been that he had recently ridden a Bolekaja that broke down before reaching its destination and, as is the custom, his fare was never refunded.
At any rate, the conductor now insisted that he pay then and there. After exchanging some uncomplimentary words, they began to pull at each other, and others in the wagon took sides. Shortly the vehicle was brought to a halt, and the driver came back. He joined in demanding that the fare be paid, or the man be put off. The driver and the conductor tried to drag him off, and then the usual thing happened. There was a fight. All of us had to wait while passersby helped to settle the dispute. The fare was finally paid, and we started off again. But I was an hour late in reaching the office that day.
Some time ago, the Bolekaja and the Mauler were banned from traveling into Lagos because of the congestion on the bridge and because of the early-morning rush, but this law was openly defied and was never really enforced.
I am sure that if you visit West African countries, and especially Nigeria, you will still find the Bolekajas and Maulers operating. As long as there are the poor in the land and other means of transportation are inadequate, West Africa’s Mammy Wagon no doubt will continue to flourish.