Wednesday, December 2, 2009

No Sleeping Allowed!

One of my Burkinabè friends is a toll-gate operator on the main road that runs south of Ouaga. All of Burkina’s main roads have toll-gates where fees are collected from any vehicle with more than two wheels (motos, bicycles, and pedestrians are exempt), depending on the size of vehicle and the distance one plans to travel on the road. It’s not expensive. To go to the Kusassi region, I’ve got to use the road running south of Ouaga for 80 kms before turning off on a side road, and it costs me about 50 cents to do so.

Some of the toll stops have booths placed similar to those on toll ways in the United States. You drive up to one, roll down your window, pay the toll, and receive a ticket, all without getting out of your car. But not the one on the road south of Ouaga. Here you have to stop somewhere along the side of the road, get out, and conduct your business with a booth operator set back from the road on the passenger side of the car. Or you can get any one of the dozens of young men crowding around your vehicle to do it for you. For a small fee, of course. At the same time, a horde of vendors will descend on you, selling everything from bread, tissues, gum, matches, and phone cards to fruit, snacks, eggs, and locally baked goods. It can be quite intimidating for the uninitiated!

Once you have your ticket, you get back in your car, drive up to the gate, and give it to the toll-gate operator who then tears off part of it and hands it back to you before opening the gate and letting you pass through. It’s good to hang on to that stub, though, because at any given point down the road, you may be stopped for verification by the police who set up a checkpoint somewhere. If you’re caught without a ticket, you’ll receive a fine of about $4.00 plus the price of a ticket. No, I’m not talking from experience here :) My friend told me.

Toll-gate operators are required to do a 24 shift every three days. And they’re not supposed to sleep during this entire time. Unannounced checks are periodically conducted to make sure this doesn’t happen. Unfortunately, it happened to my friend last month. He was caught sleeping at 2 o’clock in the morning. The penalty? He lost his entire month’s salary! Ouch! That’s a pretty stiff penalty if you ask me, particularly in a country where so many people live virtually from hand to mouth. I suspect he won’t be doing that again for a while! Maybe I should have brought him back a pound of Starbucks bold as a present.

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