Mogadishu’s first female rickshaw taxi operator beats all odds

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Saynab Abdikarin turns heads everywhere she goes in Mogadishu. The 28-year-old is the first woman to drive a rickshaw taxi through the streets of Somalia’s conservative capital, where tricycles commonly known as “bajaaj” have long been used only by men.

“I believe that whatever work men can do, women can do it too,” Saynab says.

A mother of five, Saynab took the job out of necessity 10 months ago after her husband left her and their children.

“I have no one to support me,” she said. “If one of my children is not feeling well, I have no one to help me. I work to support my children.

But driving a rickshaw in Mogadishu “presents many challenges,” says Saynab. Besides the occasional social disapproval – “some men support you, but others say women should be home and not work,” she says – Saynab is also exposed to the many dangers associated with work.

In April 2019, three people died when security forces opened fire during a protest that saw hundreds of drivers take to city streets for killing a rickshaw operator by a security guard.

Rickshaw drivers have also been trapped in attacks by the armed group al-Shabab, whose fighters frequently target security checkpoints in Mogadishu.

On February 13, at least seven tricycle drivers were injured at a checkpoint in a suicide bombing.

In response to the attacks or as a preventive measure, the government closed several roads in Mogadishu – a move that financially harms Saynab and his colleagues.

“When the roads are closed, that’s a problem,” Saynab says, calling on authorities to reverse the policy.

Meanwhile, city residents, who have long wished there were female rickshaw drivers they could call on, welcomed Saynab.

“I choose her because she is a woman; I choose her because I want to encourage her,” says Safiya Ali, who has been taking Saynab’s tricycle to work and back for six months.

A shop owner in the Hodan district of Mogadishu, Safiya says she has never been happier in a taxi.

“I would like other women to take her cab as well and encourage her even more,” she told Al Jazeera.

But Safiya says she worries “a lot” for Saynab’s safety, especially when she works after sunset.

“Mogadishu’s security can be bad,” she said.

Insecurity is a major concern for all rickshaw drivers in Mogadishu, and like her male colleagues, Saynab says there are certain neighborhoods she avoids going to, especially at night.

“You can be robbed or killed,” she said, listing Kaaraan, Shiirkoole, and Dayniile as areas she will not go to. “I prefer to work in the city center.”

Police officers often give rickshaw drivers a hard time at the many checkpoints that dot the seaside town, but Saynab says being female has worked to her advantage when it comes to dealing with police officers. security.

“Because I’m a woman, most soldiers don’t stop me. They don’t bother me. They understand that I am a working mother to support my family. They treat me with respect,” she said with a smile.

Male drivers have also welcomed her and say they are happy that a woman has finally joined their industry.

“It’s really good to see a woman working as a rickshaw driver,” says Noor Aden Isse, a colleague from Saynab, urging more women to follow her example.

“I would like to tell all the girls to work and not depend on anyone,” he told Al Jazeera. “I also want to tell all the young men that there is work, that they can find work like Saynab.”

 

Somalia has one of the youngest populations in Africa, with more than 70 percent under the age of 30. But three in four young Somalis are without formal employment, according to the World Bank, as conflict and insecurity drag on.

More than 60% of the country’s youth plan to move to seek better livelihood opportunities abroad, according to the United Nations.

But Saynab says young people should not abandon Somalia.

“There are jobs in our country if someone wants to work,” she said. “I want to tell women, especially divorcees, that you can drive a rickshaw and support your family. It’s better than asking someone else for a document.