They are an emblematic figure in Cotonou, these men dressed in yellow shirts. Commonly known as zémidjan, which in the local Fon language means “take me away quickly”, these motorbike taxis are the most popular means of transport in Benin. It is thus a mode of transport that has taken on an important dimension to the point of becoming indispensable in the daily life of the locals but also of foreigners who stay there.
Who are these motorbike taxi drivers?
Craftsmen, mechanics, farmers, unemployed graduates, students… the profession welcomes all profiles. All you need is a motorbike and some knowledge of the area and then the adventure begins. Even some teachers, such as Blaise Noumado, whom we met in traffic with his yellow uniform, occasionally do the job after school and during holidays.
Moreover, it must be recognised that unemployment and rural exodus are the main causes of this phenomenon in Cotonou. Indeed, the malnutrition of the labour market is a significant aspect of the problem, while the university industry produces thousands of young graduates every year. In addition to these unemployed people, there are a worrying number of young people moving from the villages to the urban areas in search of a better future. Declining agricultural yields and prevailing poverty frequently push these young people into rural exodus. Most of them come from the southern departments of Benin. This is the case of Donatien Adokouè, who, for lack of means, gave up learning masonry in favour of zemidjan seven years ago.
The exponential growth in the number of Zemidjan
In Cotonou alone, between 200,000 and 250,000 people drive a motorbike taxi in this city of about one million inhabitants, i.e. one motorbike taxi for every ten inhabitants. This means that the sector is welcoming new members every year, and the demographics and the poverty line have continued to rise. Besides, the procedure for becoming a zemidjan is not at all complicated. “Currently, with 1500, you can get the yellow shirt which is the uniform here in Cotonou and start little by little. And with time, you will be able to pay for a taxi, which costs 5,100 CFA francs,” says Donatien Adokouè.
This state of affairs gives rise to new vocations, and the number has become quite high, making the sector the least profitable according to the majority of those interviewed. Indeed, “seven years ago, when I started, the zem was profitable. I earned up to five thousand CFA francs a day. But today, no one can say that he still makes that kind of money,” says Donatien Adokouè, a thirty-year-old from Bohicon. With difficulty, he continues, “you can find yourself in the evening with three thousand FCFA”.
Respecting commitments to the owner of the motorbike
Most zemidjan do not own the motorbike they ride. This means that some wealthy people buy the machines and lease them out. Sometimes the tenant pays CFAF 40,000 per month for fifteen months in order to become the owner of the motorbike, or CFAF 600,000. But it is not easy for these men in yellow uniforms to respect this commitment. Blaise Noumado, the teacher, confides that his stress is quite high these days. “How will I get the money from the landlord before school starts? He asked himself? This situation has led some of the yellow shirts to initiate a special subscriptipon to buy motorbikes, their essential work tool, in turn.
Zémidjan, the most difficult profession in the world?
The Zémidjan is then seen as the last resort and several respondents wish to give up the yellow uniform in Cotonou, should they find another opportunity. “There is no more difficult profession than zémidjan,” said Donatien Adokouè.
Their daily lives are not easy at all. They are often the first to get up and also the last to go to bed. And sometimes when they come out, they can go back and forth without finding a client, which has a big impact on their income. These meagre daily wages do not allow them to enjoy a modest class life.
As a result, many people congregate in a living room in Cotonou, each paying a share of the rent. The worst is when you see them at night, at the Place of l’Etoile Rouge or on the esplanade of the Stade Général Mathieu Kérékou, sleeping. Their bodies are bent, with both hands clasped between their legs, they are still dressed in several shirts topped with the yellow uniform and seem to be fixed on the motorbike placed on the crutches: here we go for a few hours of sleep.
In addition, the health problems they face on a daily basis are considerable. There is a very high risk of cardiovascular disease, lung problems and strokes. In addition to these already frequent health problems, there are risks of accidents and insecurity. Because in Cotonou, the zemidjan have a reputation for not following any road safety rules. They are therefore perceived as walking hazards.
Zemidjan and advertisement in Benin
Private companies are very interested in the visibility that motorbike taxis can give them. Indeed, they are often referred to as information peddlers. During election campaigns, they become fervent campaigners whom candidates want to win over at all costs. Their backs are often used as advertising boards for companies. En outre, pour s’assurer de leur soutien, les politiques n’hésitent pas à débloquer des francs CFA. Many wear the names of presidents such as Thomas Boni Yayi, Lionel Zinsou, Patrice Talon… on their yellow shirts.
The men dressed in yellow shirts are tens of thousands of Beninese who hope for a better life every day. Their contribution to road transport in Benin is not negligible, as thousands of people travel every day thanks to them.