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Sudan's hot-rod rickshaw men splurge to win fares

world Updated: Jul 09, 2015 17:27 IST
three-wheeled motor rickshaw

A picture taken on April 16, 2015 shows rickshaws also known as "Tuk-tuk" decorated with trinkets driving in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. With thousands of the Indian-built, tin tuk-tuks on Khartoum's streets, as well as a fleet of ageing yellow taxis and battered minibuses, competition for fares is fierce. (AFP Photo)

With more a splutter than a roar, Baha al-Din Yassin -- alias "The Tiger" -- tears off down Khartoum's streets in his three-wheeled motor rickshaw on the prowl for fares.

With his tiger-stripe seats, a tiger's head painted on his windscreen, "TIGER" spelled in Arabic across the back of his rickshaw and a stereo blasting out Bob Marley, Baha has spent more than a month's wages on his wheels -- and he doesn't even own them.

"I just rent it for 50 Sudanese pounds ($8.40, 7.50 euros) a day," the Tiger said, scanning the streets for prospective customers from behind a pair of wraparound shades.

With thousands of the Indian-built, tin tuk-tuks on Khartoum's streets, as well as a fleet of ageing yellow taxis and battered minibuses, the competition is fierce.

But the Tiger belongs to a select group of rickshaw drivers prepared to fork out weeks worth of pay on their vehicles, despite being among the lowest paid in a country where the average GDP per capita is just $4 (3.6 euros) per day.

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A picture taken on April 16, 2015 shows Lilo, a Sudanese rickshaw driver sitting in his vehicle also known as "Tuk-tuk", decorated with toys and different Disney characters in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. With thousands of the Indian-built, tin tuk-tuks on Khartoum's streets, as well as a fleet of ageing yellow taxis and battered minibuses, competition for fares is fierce. AFP Photo

"The work depends on how nice the rickshaw looks," the Tiger said, smiling from behind his sunglasses.

On average, he makes between 80 and 150 Sudanese pounds per week, but thought nothing of spending 1,000 Sudanese pounds decorating his hot-rod tiger tuk-tuk.

"If the rickshaw is good, the work is good," he grinned.

An investment in safety?

He is convinced that his tiger motif, taken from the name of the rickshaw's lawn-mower strength, would bring in more fares.

The Tiger's unique style has won him loyal customers.

Aklilu Ghebre Michael, a slight teacher of Eritrean origin, regularly uses the Tiger's rickshaw.

"I like the design and the safety of it," he said as the Tiger bumped around Khartoum's pot-holed streets.

Although their small size means they can nip through the jams clogging Khartoum's main roads, the tuk-tuks are also accident prone.

But a driver who has spent more money on his rickshaw is likely to take better care of it and drive safely -- or so the thinking goes.

"I feel safer than in the other rickshaws that I use," Michael said.

And the drivers' insistence on spending their hard-earned cash has generated big money for the men who make a living modifying the rickshaws.

On a sun-baked road running through the Sahafa neighbourhood, a handful of workshops that customise the motor rickshaws has sprung up.

Mohammed al-Zubayr has built a thriving business refitting rickshaws, and now employs seven men.

Outside his workshop, Zubayr -- nicknamed Tamody -- says souping up their vehicles is a wise investment for the drivers.

Rickshaw 'like your house'

"The customers stop the nice rickshaws. People prefer rickshaws which have cassettes and accessories, nice lights," he said, as more rickshaws spluttered off the main road and on to the forecourt behind him.

Many just want new covers for their seats, while others want wheel spikes attached, or stereo systems fitted behind the seats.

Tamody is happy to oblige, but some requests have proved too much for him.

"Some of them want to put air conditioning inside their rickshaw, or close it completely to protect from the rain," he said.

Darting from rickshaw to rickshaw lined up outside, the stockily built Tamody recalled some drivers had even asked him to fix satellite dishes to the canvas roofs so they can watch television as they drive.

There is another reason, Tamody said, that some drivers plough their hard-won earnings into their rickshaws -- despite many not owning them.

"They have to make it look nice for them to drive in a good mood, even if it costs money," he said, before turning his attentions to another tuk-tuk.

The drivers work long hours in the dusty air and searing heat of Khartoum, without any guarantee of a set wage.

Still buzzing around the city's streets, reggae playing from a speaker in the back, the Tiger said he has managed to make his work bearable.

"Your rickshaw is like your house," he said. "If you treat your rickshaw like your house, then you can work in comfort".