African business, politics and lifestyle
Sitting on top of the world
At 26, Annick Vangah is on top of the world. She’s in the driver’s seat of a 7.2-ton public bus in Abidjan, one of the biggest and busiest cities in West Africa and Ivory Coast’s commercial capital.
Until 2002, only men were allowed to drive the buses owned by Abidjan’s public transport company SOTRA. Today, Vangah is one of 19 women behind the wheel of the city’s public buses. The company’s nearly 1,900 other drivers are all men.
“Commuters were surprised at first to see a new woman driver on Route 18,” she remembers, as she steers her 32-seater Tata bus from the city’s port zone to the business district in the centre, a route which before was always driven by men. “There are clients who congratulate us, others who think it’s better for women to stay at home. We just have to deal with it.”
This wasn’t always Vangah’s dream. After failing her high school diploma she trained as an auto mechanic but couldn’t find work. So when SOTRA recruited new bus drivers in 2006, she jumped at the chance.
“They organised an entry exam for bus drivers and I passed,” she told Reuters Africa Journal. “If they’d have organised an entry exam for mechanics then I probably would have done it instead, but since I had a driving licence and they were testing for bus drivers, I went for it.”
Three years on, this job has become a real passion and she takes the challenges in her stride. She drives in a city with more than 3 million inhabitants, where roadside stalls often spill out onto the streets, potholes fill with mud and water during the rainy season and cars and buses jostle for space in the traffic jams.
“You often get really sore arms,” she says. “When you’re driving, it’s the arms and feet that do all the hard work and when you get a hard gearshift, your arms hurt at the end of the day. And when you sit for so long, you get back-ache as well.”
“I was pretty surprised that these women are able to keep up,” says Alfred N’doumi Bra, a commuter queueing at the Plateau South station in the city centre who used to drive a bus himself for 6 years. “In the rainy season, it’s difficult even for men to drive properly. But these women have managed to make it. In the rainy season I’ll get on a bus with a woman driver and give her some tips. They’ll listen to me and proceed safely.”
The starting salary for a junior driver like Vangah is 300 US dollars a month. The average income in Ivory Coast is far lower, but Abidjan is an expensive city and Vangah can only make ends meet by living with her mother.
“My mum supported me a lot,” she says. “They’re proud of me. They have a daughter in a man’s job and it makes them proud.”
Kodehi Gnahore is SOTRA’s Human Resources Manager and he hopes that soon, driving a bus won’t be perceived as a man’s job anymore. The goal is to increase the quota of female bus drivers from 1% to at least 30%.
“They drive very well,” he says. “And our customers like them because they are friendly.”
On Vangah’s bus, all the commuters we spoke to seemed to agree. “I think women deserve to be given a chance. The world is changing,” said one male commuter who didn’t want to be named. “Women who take the wheel should be congratulated,” added student Kouadio Atodjie.
Vangah herself says that this is a job that takes courage and brings its share of abuse from customers. “If they congratulate us we say thank you, and if they’re rough with us we just let it go,” she says.
But already, pioneers like Vangah are helping to pave the way for more women to break into jobs previously dominated by men. And you don’t have to give up your femininity to do it. Says Vangah: “I am still a feminist. I am not going to look like a boy by always wearing pants and behaving like a boy. After all, I am a woman.”
Picture: Bus passenger (Nigeria)