Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How I got my Malian driver’s license

My New York State driver’s license was due to expire on my birthday in January. Renewing it by mail presented with some logistical difficulties, and I got it into my head that I would get a Malian license. True, many bureaucratic procedures here are so convoluted that they make your brain swell up, but sometimes things are surprisingly easy (for example getting a visa). Getting a Malian license while having a current American one seemed simple enough, and Malé was going to set it all up for me. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, as I was letting my license expire, “it will not be problem”.

Soon it was somewhat of a problem: my birthday came, my license expired, and I did not have a new one yet. True, Malé had identified some Big Cheese from the Ministry of Roads and Transportation, and I had an audience coming up where “everything will be taken care of”, but it was still a week away. I had to get to and from work every day. (When in Rome do as the Romans, I know, but I refuse to join the ranks and drive around without a valid license. The traffic here is so precarious, and one is always just a millisecond away from running over a goat / child / donkey / pedestrian / chicken / moped / dog, and if that happens I would rather have a valid license on me, thank you very much.)

In preparation for my meeting with the BC I had to prepare my “dossier”. I had to submit four photos, a copy of my birth certificate, and also a Certificate of Residence from the police station in my neighborhood. No problem: those items were easy enough to supply. Once submitted though, I was told that since I was a foreigner I would have to get my birth certificate officially translated, and also go to my Embassy and get a ‘Residence Card’ from them. (The photos were fine.) I had my birth certificate translated, and then I went to the fort-like US Embassy. I was told that there is no such thing as a ‘Residence Card’. When told, the BC said that in that case they would take a ‘work certificate’, which turned out to be a letter signed by Malé, stating that I worked with him. Ok, so far no problem.

Meeting the BC kept being delayed for different reasons, and for two weeks I had to rely on Malé or my sister (who had just arrived from Berlin) or somebody else to drive me to work. Finally: the Big Day for my meeting with the BC! I had no idea what to expect, and neither did Malé, but I was really looking forward to getting my license.

We had to be at the MINISTRY OF ROADS AND TRANSPORTATION OFFICE OF LICENSES AND REGISTRATION FOR TRUCKS, CARS, MOTORCYCLES AND MOPEDS, INSPECTIONS AND TECHNICAL VISITS, AND MANHOLE COVERS at 7am. Apparently approximately 300 men and women also had the same instructions: the place was teeming. I still was not sure about what actually would take place, so I just followed Malé as he went around the building to the back door. The BC had just arrived with his entourage, and after a quick meet & greet I was ushered through some offices, and into a large room. The room had several metal benches and some random chairs, all facing the front of the room. Funny, I thought, what am I going to be doing here?

I waited for about 1 ½ hours. Nothing much to do expect stare at the bare, cracked, turquoise-colored walls, the stacks of papers and files on the floor, the dust that had settled on everything, and watch the wobbly ceiling fan … A good opportunity to contemplate the absence of 45 degree angles in Mali! When I was sure that the metal bars of the bench had left a permanent imprint on my behind, a second door was opened. People were called up, and one by one they piled into the room. Soon the room was filled up, all the seats were taken. I realized that I would have to share my little desk with one other person, and I scooted over for a young woman.

I soon realized that according to Malian standards the room was only half full, and more and more people joined us. Soon we were packed shoulder to shoulder. Matter of fact, we (me and the other three people sharing my little desk) had to turn our shoulders a little sideways, one arm on the desk in front of us, the other behind our back, in order to fit onto the bench and be able to write! By now I realized that I was about to participate in a full-fledged Malian written driver’s examination. In French, of course, and in Bambara for those of us not fluent in French!

The BC was the examiner that day, and he proceeded to explain the test taking procedure to us. There would be 30 questions based on photos of traffic scenarios projected onto the cracked, dusty, turquoise wall. We would have to get 20 correct answers in order to be able to take the road test. (Road test???) He would read the question and the possible answers (for those who speak French but cannot read and write), and then he would translate them into Bambara (for those who can neither speak French nor read and write). He did not specifically say what he would do for those who can read and write, but do not speak a word of Bambara, and only marginally speak French, and certainly not enough to pass a drivers examination - like me!

The BC began to project the images onto the wall. Nothing could have been further removed from what the street scenes look like here in Mali. There were photos of working traffic lights, pedestrian crossings clean streets, legible road signs, and cars with functioning head lights. I wasn’t sure how anybody was even going to relate to the images…?! When the slide showed a French pastoral countryside in dense fog, and the question was about using the fog lights, my mouth just dropped open. Fog??? Fog lights??? People here are barely using headlights, and there has never been any fog here. The smoke of burning garbage, maybe, or the dust of a passing herd of cows, but fog? The young lady next to me noticed my open mouth, and she nudged me and showed me her answer for that slide. Clearly she thought that I needed all the help that I can get. I tried to stay focused on the rest of the questions, but my mind was racing with ideas for a REAL Malian driver’s test, one with culturally relevant images and questions: What do you do when stopped by a flock of sheep? Which hand signal do you use to when your indicator signal is not working? How often should you honk your horn when a car stalls in front of you? What do you do when the ram tied to your car’s roof suddenly breaks lose …?

My behind was numb when finally I was able to step out into the court yard after sitting in that room for 4 hours. On my way out the BC approached me and told me to come back at 16:00 for the road test. I smiled tensely and told him that I would be there. But I had doubts: was I really ready for a Malian road test? Was I supposed to drive like I was taught, you know, like follow the rules and obey the signals? Or was I supposed to drive like everybody else here? What about parking? Should I show him how I learned parallel parking in Germany, or should I just ram my car headfirst into a space like the drivers do here? I just felt confused about the whole thing …

After lunch I felt much better. Yes! I was definitely up for the challenge. I would show the BC some awesome parallel parking, and my driving style would be eclectic: a little Bamako-cows and sheep on the street-death wish and a dash of New York-Dominican-cab driver-attitude, but firmly anchored in place by German-driver’s lessons-anno 1983!

We arrived before 16:00, and soon the BC emerged from the building. He settled into my car. I was eager and determined to impress him. My request to fasten the seatbelt was dismissed by the BC with a wave of his left hand. With his right hand he signaled me forward, pointing between the two trees that were in front of us. Aha, he clearly wanted to see if I get to the other side of the compound without running into the trees. (No problem, just wait until I show you my parallel parking!) Once past the trees we were heading towards the wall that surrounds the compound, so I decided to be proactive and ask him if he wanted me to turn left or right. A lazy wave towards his right told me all I needed to know. I decided to signal, but I had my doubts: was I overdoing it? (We were, after all, the only car here, the only moving object, except for some grazing sheep.) Well, I could always attribute it to my German obsessive-compulsive driving lessons… Now he signaled me towards where Malé was standing next to his car. I thought, oh good, now we will pick up Malé and head into town for some parallel parking and all that good stuff. But to my surprise (and disappointment) the BC got out the car, exchanged some words with Malé, and went into the building ...

And this is how I became the proud (?) owner of a Malian driver’s license, valid for life, all classes and categories: trucks, mopeds, bikes, etc. And when you come and visit me in Bamako we will take a spin, I will make sure to show off my parallel parking skills!