Cape Verdean Society on wheels!


In 2005, I travelled in private collective taxis that departed from Praia, the capital of Cape Verde, to reach villages where I was conducting anthropological fieldwork on the island of Santiago. These journeys were so rich in terms of the politics of everyday life that I began to take notes and, whenever possible, to chat with passengers, drivers and their assistants.

What struck me most about these journeys was the way in which the relational distance between passengers who were absolute strangers to each other was physically removed, by individuals having to occupy the same space. Four passengers sat on seats made for three people and two passengers shared seats made for one. Most passengers tolerated this shrinking of physical distance, with bodies rubbed up against each other, as one of the inevitable consequences of travelling in a collective taxi. Bodies shuffled to make the extra space, although some men still tended to sit with their legs wide open and I soon learnt, through personal experience, that it was up to the woman to re-adjust the position of her legs if she wanted to minimise physical contact. Although a male passenger once commented to me how he sometimes had to ask fellow men to close their legs in order to create more space, I never heard such a request made by a woman. The authoritarian seating arrangements in these taxis appeared to reproduce male performances of masculinity. In one journey, the assistant told me I would have to pay double if I did not move up to share my seat. In another journey, a woman was so squeezed in her seat that she stood up, bowing her head so as not to touch the ceiling, ignoring the assistant’s orders for her to sit down. The taxi eventually stopped and the assistant exchanged places with her.

The local term for these collective taxis – hiace – derives from the Toyota Hiace long wheelbase commuter vehicles, the different models of which are made to seat between twelve to eighteen people. More recent models have now been equipped with air conditioning, useful for the hot climate of Cape Verde; however, the consequent closing of windows coupled with the characteristic loud local music that reverberated inside, rendered drivers oblivious to sound signals from outside, posing a risk to road safety. Lack of regulation, the labour instability and precarity of the drivers who worked long hours with no paid holidays, in steep competition for passengers with other hiaces, also constituted one of the causes of dangerous driving.

“You never know when an accident is going to happen”, a young female passenger commented to me.

“It’s not very safe, I don’t like it very much but there is no other transport”, an older male passenger exclaimed. The limited services of public interurban collective transport rendered travelling by hiace a necessity for those who did not have the means to travel in private vehicles or individual taxis. Cape Verdean collective taxis constituted a complex interconnected network, characterized by flexibility, by differing degrees of solidarity between the drivers and by the collective self-management of time and of request stops. The driver will stop whenever and wherever the passenger calls out “leave me here” (dexam-li) even if this means making unexpected, sudden stops in unsafe positions on the road.

The interior of a hiace is a public space: the space in which social relations develop in public as people meet physically by chance. Relevant here is the sociological depiction of the figure of the stranger in public space as socially distant yet spatially and physically proximate. The social sciences have tended to associate the category of the stranger with that of the immigrant. These collective taxis provide an alternative approach towards conceptualising the figure of the stranger, by shifting the focus away from the individual characteristics that distinguish the stranger to the nature of the relations between people who are relationally distant. The way in which strangers are expected to relate to each other in public space is conditioned by social norms; I would like to suggest that the hiace constitutes a singular public space where the breaching of social norms, such as guarding physical distance, is more likely to be tolerated due to the shared need for mobility. Consider the following examples. 

  1. A woman boarded the hiace clutching a bottle of icy water. A man in one of the back seats called out to her “This journey would be much more enjoyable (sabi) if I could drink some of your water”. The woman did not react. Other passengers in the middle rows called out to her, ordering her to give some water to the man. Without saying a word, she turned round and passed the bottle to the person behind her.
  2. Another woman boarded the hiace with a wide shallow bucket full of bananas. With a gesture as quick as lightening, a female passenger sitting next to me, helped herself to a banana, peeled it and began to eat. “Tell me how much it is and I will pay”, she said loudly, laughing. The woman did not even turn around to look at her. My neighbour finished the banana, and threw the skin out of the window.
  3. A passenger lent another passenger a mobile phone to ring the person we were all waiting for, so that we could depart – the driver had agreed to wait because he had already loaded the hiace with her luggage. However it was eventually off loaded and we departed without her.

Drivers filled the hiaces with as many passengers as spatially possible, making numerous rounds in Praia to recruit them. They competed fiercely with each other, making sharp sudden u-turns whilst assistants jumped out to harass bystanders, pulling on their arms and running off with their luggage. Assistants tried to persuade suspicious clients that if they got on board, the hiace would leave immediately for its destination.

“Look me in the eyes,” one assistant said, “I am not lying”. False passengers were recruited to fill up the taxis and the hiace would keep going round and round looking for more passengers. When the false passengers finally got out as the hiace turned back for yet another round, some of the real passengers followed them, in boisterous exasperation. A hiace driver told me that they called these passengers “malagueta” – hot chilli pepper, perhaps because one spits hot chilli out of the mouth.

“We have to fill the car, but Cape Verdeans don’t understand this. White people are great because they get in and go on the rounds without complaining, but Cape Verdeans aren’t like that. Imagine you are in Assomada and you want to be in Praia for 9.00am. You go and catch the hiace at 8.15am. It’s too late!” The assistant added that it was like catching a plane; you needed to give more time.

Who were these “white people” who caught hiaces and did not complain about the rounds? In most cases, they would be tourists, American Peace Corps volunteers and a few researchers like me whose interests went beyond the need to reach their destination within a reasonable time span and were open to savouring the journey as a social experience in itself. Although some of my middle class Cape Verdean interlocutors expressed their horror at the idea of travelling by hiace, there were exceptions. A young woman, responsible for human resource management in the local council in Praia told me she was not afraid.

“It liberates energy” she exclaimed, “like a carousel”. As the hiace gathered more speed it bounced up and down and she turned to me smiling “See, isn’t it just like a carousel? If you travel more often, you lose your fear”.

Once the hiaces finally left Praia, drivers tried to avoid the police waiting further out on the roadsides, to fine them for any extra passengers they carried. Drivers used codes to warn each other of police check points: a wave signified the all clear and a finger pointing to the floor warned that the police were nearby. I shall now describe an incident in more detail in order to illustrate how the tensions inside a hiace between conflicts over mobility, immobility, time and space resulted in the constant shifting of values and allegiances from cooperation to rivalry from individual concern to group solidarity.

The last passenger to get on before we finally left Praia was a woman who made three passengers squeeze up together to accommodate her. A hiace driver coming in the opposite direction pointed his finger downwards and after a few minutes the hiace stopped on the road. The driver and assistant came round, opened the sliding door and asked this woman and two other passengers to get out and they stood waiting. After a few minutes, the woman complained about having to stand on the roadside and so the driver ordered another male passenger to get out and the woman got back inside, and began to criticize drivers for taking on extra passengers, hiding from the police and making them lose time.

“It’s not fair!” she exclaimed.

“But it is our fault too,” murmured a woman next to me “because we still get on when the hiace is full”. The irony of the last passenger’s complaint had not been lost on anybody, but nobody challenged her directly. A few minutes later, a lorry pulled up behind and the three men climbed into the lorry and our hiace set off again. Further up the road, it was flagged down by the police, who took a look inside, smiled and waved us on. Further up the road, the hiace stopped to wait for the lorry which took a long time in coming.

“The police must have realized”, commented another passenger. I was busily taking notes, another passenger seeing that I was interested, told me that if the police suspect the lorry driver has taken on passengers, they will fine him.

“The driver will not pay the fine for them either, it is a risk and they learn not to do it again”. The last passenger to get on was complaining again about extra passengers and another passenger called out.

“Yes, but passengers chose to get on”. Again she was not challenged directly. The driver was standing next to the hiace, looking worried.

“Our vans aren’t worth very much”, he complained “we lose a lot of money with them”.

“Our lives aren’t worth very much”, replied the last passenger.

“The vans deteriorate quickly”, retorted the driver angrily, “we need the money for maintenance”.

“You need to drive them more carefully” she replied. The lorry arrived and the three men came running to the hiace. The lorry drove past us and its driver called out through the window “I am never doing that again!”

“He was given a fine”, the passenger commented to me smugly. We set off again, with excited discussions sprouting from every seat.

“It was him, it was him!” I heard a woman exclaim and I asked another passenger what had happened. Another hiace driver had tipped off the police, she said disapprovingly. The police had told the passengers in the lorry.

“He is a blabbermouth” called out another woman.

The man next to me commented “You know, hiace drivers are each other’s enemies: they are in competition for passengers”. A wave of indignation swept through the hiace.

“But you don’t want extra passengers, do you?” I asked a woman

“No,” she replied “it is not good for us because of our safety; but he was another hiace driver and they all carry extra passengers”.

As these examples show, the shared need for local mobility produces a special kind of social relations between strangers in the public space of the hiace. Different conceptions of time and space are disputed as individual needs are simultaneously asserted, voluntarily and forcibly suppressed, gender norms are reproduced and social norms regarding physical distance and mutual indifference temporarily suspended. To board a hiace is to become a transient member of a fleeting community that shares the same awareness of the fragile interdependencies between mobility and immobility.

Further reading

Horgan, M., 2012 ‘Strangers and Strangership.’ Journal of Intercultural Studies, 33, 6: 607-622.

Horta, Gerard; Calvo, Daniel Malet (2018) Mobility, Social Status, and Cooperative Practices in the Sucupira Hiace Central Station, Santiago Island, Cape Verde. Africa Today, supl. Special Issue: Bus Stations in Africa; Bloomington Vol. 65, Ediç. 2 34-49.

Horta, G., 2013. ‘Interurban collective transport and road crashes in Santiago, Cape Verde’. Etnográfica, 17, 1: 77-95.

Schiller, N. G. and Salazar, N.B., (2013). ‘Regimes of mobility across the globe.’ Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 39, 2: 183-200.