The Blue Demons: Matatus of Addis

Addis Matatus

Getting around Addis Abeba can get a bit tricky. Being a moderately crowded city and seemingly ever expanding in all directions; reaching your destination at the right time and place is not an easy chore. Depending on the amount one is willing to spend and comfort to trade off or not to, there are few options to get around the city. Delivering prayer to the guy upstairs and saddling up inside the belly of the infamous blue demon is one common alternative.

The yellow cabs of New York give contrast to the tarmac road to the streets of the world capital. On the streets of Addis, the capital of Africa, one color in particular stands out as well. Any direction one looks on the streets of Addis it is virtually impossible not to see at least one, if not more, vehicles painted blue with a white roof top. Either parked or moving, vacant or packed beyond limit the blue minibuses are seen everywhere. If there is none in plain sight then perhaps one might have not arrived in Addis yet.

The blue demons, so called because of their crazy driving habit and all the hustle they create to the rest of the road commuters, are a two-men traveling circus-like taxi service. The driver, besides maneuvering the vehicle, is responsible for music selection, recurrent moving violations and creating constant discomfort to the passengers and other drivers. The master of ceremony who is the assistant or commonly called “weyalla” besides collecting taxi fair from the passengers, is responsible for calling out the route of the travel from the top of his lungs. Since he has to mention a number of places in the shortest possible time he has to came up with poetic phrases to attract attention and arrange it to a melody to sweeten up his words to the ears of the preoccupied audience.

As if his job is not already complex enough, in most cases, the weyalla has to do this while the taxi is in motion. Every time he sees a potential client on the side of the road he picks out his neck through the side window, tune up to the right tone, bring volume all the way to the top, maximize tempo and let his melody do the rest; hopping the person is impressed and gives him a sign to stop. If that happens the Weyalla pounds the body of the car to signal the driver to restrain the galloping demon. Conditioned to this sound the weyalla makes, this sweet drum line of their two piece orchestra, the driver, with complete disregard to the rest of the traffic on the road, instantly pulls the rein of the demon.

Consequently, The drivers behind the mini-bus taxi and the travelers inside the belly of the beast come to experience first hand the essential nature of the blue demon and why it is called so. The abrupt breaking followed by extreme shifting to the right with the least possible angle, The improvisation in this chaotic symphony, makes the heart skip a beat of everyone witnessing the interlude in this act from hell.

Once a passenger finds a blue demon that is destined in the direction as one wishes to go a seat is provided by the weyalla. If all the seats are occupied the weyalla always manages to find a space for the latest comer. No one is left behind is the moto all the blue demons give their allegiance to. There is no such thing as full capacity with Addis Abeba’s minibus taxi service. The term ” full” does not seem to be in their dictionary. In extreme cases, “Almost full” is the term the weyallas prefer to use. A Toyota, Haici van with a design capacity of 12 passengers squeezes together upto 20 passengers in a manner that makes canned sardines feel good about their situation.

The atmosphere inside the taxi is one of a kind. People that has never met each other before are dictated by their shared destiny to seat tightly together without being greedy over their personal space. Some chitchat with one another. While others ponder their own thoughts. Some listen to the live entertainment hand picked by the driver/ DJ while others yell their personal business over their mobile phone. It is not rare to find one passenger that argues with the weyalla over the amount of fair asked to pay. Despite the minibus taxi fair being the second cheapest means of transport, about one Ethiopian Birr per one kilometer traveled, the cheapest being the lion city bus service, provided courtesy of the government, the blue demon is not always free from argument over how much to pay. When this happens every one else in the wagon involves and pass their verdict to settled the matter at the spot.

An individual to use the service of the blue demon effectively it is most important to know the names of places of Addis Abeba. If a passenger has to take one at a terminal, where large number of them get together to feast over their victims, it gets even trickier. All the weyallas shouting at ones calling on their travel routes with no harmony whatsoever even confuses the recurrent user. Even worse to that, the city lacking street number system to help uniquely identify each road puts a maiden voyager in such a predicament.

The other factor for effective usage of the service of the blue demon is to understand few lingoes spoken in the business of denying comfort. One essential lingo is “YEMOLA YEMOLA…” used by the weyallas in between calling out names of places. It simply means the taxi is almost full and they are looking for one passenger to depart. These demons are the most desired ones by those who are in a hurry to reach their destination. In reality the calling “yemola yemola…” is a trick because as soon as the latest passenger is seated the weyalla continues calling out ones again “almost full…almost full” looking for the next victim on his perpetual scam. This is where one is introduced with the oldest trick in the blue demons’ multi-volume book of tricks. This powerful revelation, a foreshadow to the ill journey, adds a funny look to the faces’ of the passengers to mach their discomfort.

Yet again, one Amharic phrase stands to be the most important lingo for a passenger inside the belly of the beast. The password that needs to be entered to disengage oneself from the jaws of the blue demon. Inability to use this lingo leads to permanent suspension in a limbo. It has to be said loud and clear with no room for ambiguity. When one has enough of the crazy circus or simply upon reaching destination just cry “WERAGE ALLE!”… “get me out of here!”

Written by Yonas Michael
Born and raised in Addis, i like to think i know my city like the back of my hands. However, i am amazed how Addis Ababa keeps growing and changing revealing its latest facet. I am constantly learning new staff. It is like i am a tourist in my own city, almost. As a person whose bread and butter is in the publishing industry i exploit every opportunity i get to communicate what i have learned. i consider it my prerogative.