Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The rules of the road: Another senseless death in Ouagadougou

Yesterday, I drove over a pool of blood. The dark maroon river spread out on Le Boulevard de Charles de Gaulle, the busiest thoroughfare on the eastern side of Ouagadougou. The blood was dry, but I know it was there because I was sitting at a macquis – a bar serving food – with a few friends two Saturday nights back. It was about 12:30 am and while the Rose du Desert was starting to wind down, the four-lane boulevard road and accompanying bike lanes was packed with motos and cars heading out to night clubs or carrying people home.

A man driving what I think was a small P-50 moto most likely passed our table and climbed the small hill to reach the intersection of Charles de Gaulle. From there he most likely traversed the piste cyclable – the bike lane – and drove directly into the inbound car lane. I’ll surmise he didn’t bother to look left. I know that because as the moto was in the middle of the two inbound lanes, a large, blue Hilux pickup truck struck it, bringing the evening’s reverie to an end.

At the sound of the crash, everyone immediately looked up and simultaneously gasped. I swear I saw sparks flying from the Hilux before it screeched to a stop. The driver of the pickup could not have been traveling fast because his breaking distance wasn’t anymore than, I guess, 50 feet. He jumped out of the car with a cellphone in hand and ran towards the victim.

One of the men at my table was once an EMT in the U.S. and said he should go up and be available for the mobylette driver. Along with everyone else, we stood up immediately to see him laying face down in the road in the cut of the medium strip. I noticed that the impact had separated his moto in two: its front tire lay motionless in the middle of the inbound land. The rest of the moto, I guess, remained attached to the front of the blue Hilux. Regardless, it was out of sight.

The crowd gathered fast, and from my companions’ vantage point, the driver was clearly deceased. “The back of his head was what we call ‘separated,’” he later told me, making a cutting motion in the back of his head. “It’s very common with accidents like these.”

I watched from afar as someone standing next to the body nudged it to see if he would move. “He probably didn’t want to do that,” my friend later told me, still thinking the driver could have a neck injury. “But I guess it didn’t matter. You can’t hurt him anymore.”

Although I didn’t wait around for the paramedics, I know he was dead. His blood stain in the road I drove over only set that home.

I’ve lived in Ouagadougou long enough to feel a certain pity about such things. Not compassion for the dead man – for him I only have anger. It’s the driver of the pickup truck I am sorry for. I remember thinking as I walked home that night: how is this man ever going to sleep again?

I don’t think of myself as a cold person, but there was no reason, not one, for the moto driver to be anywhere near those car lanes. Actually, there was one explanation: he didn’t look. Some days, when I am more generous and understanding, I do think it’s kind of cute to watch the two million motos of Ouagadougou driving around on all sides of your car at all speeds, zipping in and out of traffic, running stop lights and generally having complete disregard for the rules of the road. If you can learn to drive here, you can drive anywhere, I often tell my guests.

But, when these moto drivers – and we are not only speaking of teenagers on a joy rides – take their lives into their own hands, they also place it directly into ours. And that’s not fair. Auto and truck drivers become ultimately responsible for their safety. It’s us who have to live with the consequences of their actions, not only legally – for West African justice often deems that those who can pay for the damages are at fault – but morally and emotionally.

A similar incident happened to a Burkinabé friend in broad daylight a few years back. Six months later he still couldn’t sleep – not without replaying the image of this moto driver slamming into his truck. (In this case, the moto driver took a left turn without bothering to check traffic.) It affected my friend’s work, because he wasn’t allowed to drive the company truck for a year.

My guess is the pickup driver will never forget the image of the man blindly crossing the road in his diminutive motorcycle.

A foreign friend a long time ago said to me – as we were following a semi truck using both lanes down another of Ouagadougou’s boulevards – that road safety is a product of development. Burkina Faso will never become a developed nation, he huffed, until people can learn to respect the basic rules of the road. I shrugged it off as road rage after a long day. By hogging both lanes, the semi driver was clearly being a jerk.

But my foreign friend was right. Driving is a responsibility, and Ouagadougou’s winner-take-all system of road rules only keeps people in the hospital and families visiting cemeteries. I’ll be harsh here: For such a naturally mellow people, too many Burkinabé drive with a ferocious aggressiveness and a complete disregard for others once they get behind the wheel of a motorized vehicle.

One complaint many foreigners of all stripes – development people, missionaries, travelers – share about West Africans is that few of them ever accept responsibility for their actions. I often tell these complainers they don’t know the right people or point out the fact that many foreigners don’t accept responsibility either. You know what: They are right in this case. Until Ouagadougou’s drivers of underdeveloped decision making skills can accept personal responsibility – and understand their choices affect other people – this country isn’t going anywhere.

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