The first time I saw Rosaline Kombo Kamara, she zipped past me on a main road in Freetown. It was the middle of the afternoon and she was on her busiest run of the day. A few heads turned as she stopped for passengers but Rosaline remained unfazed. Keeping her eye on the road, she sped off into the traffic. Rosaline is Freetown’s only woman cabbie and for better or worse, that gets a lot of attention.
It was four months ago that Rosaline, 34 years old and unemployed at the time, convinced her brother to buy her a car. And she knows that she’s ruffled more than a few feathers. ‘The other male taxi drivers try to bully me and many of them say that I should go home and let my husband do the driving,’ she laughs, pressing down on the accelerator as the road ahead clears. Passengers suck their teeth every time the car screeches. One told her she wouldn’t be able to go to heaven, while another young boy went as far as to curse her mother.
In Sierra Leone, most men don’t look kindly on women who try to play around with gender roles. I am often told by male colleagues here – many of them journalists – that women should take care of the home and children while men make the important decisions and bring in the money. Even in capital city Freetown, which is the liberal centre of the country, these ideas find many yaysayers.
Rosaline scoffs at this. She knows she’s as good or bad a cabbie as any of the men in the city. To be honest, she didn’t set out trying to make a statement, but now it seems like that’s unavoidable and she embraces it. ‘There are men who cook and style hair. If they can do our jobs, why can’t I do theirs?’ she contests.
Her daily earnings of about $20 amount to a pretty decent living wage. As a high school drop-out, she knows that her options are limited. Unemployment rates among the youth in Freetown are devastatingly high and are one of the reasons for the recent surge in petty thefts and armed robberies. She’s tried her hand at catering and hairstyling in the past but thinks that taxi driving is a good fit. ‘There’s no way I would go back to sitting at home,’ she vows.
Some neighbours whisper that it’s all a publicity stunt and a ruse to meet men because she’s single. Rosaline argues that she’s on the streets to ‘make money, not meet men’. As a young, attractive woman, she’s always fighting off overtures from the backseat. ‘I tell them that this taxi is my husband,’ she giggles, tapping at the wheel.
I’ve been reading about female cabbies in Nigeria and Senegal and am told that before Rosaline there used to be another young woman doing the rounds in Freetown. No-one can tell me what happened to her. Rosaline knows that she’s an inspiration to women in a male-dominated country and wants to encourage them to follow in her footsteps. ‘I tell my female passengers that anyone can drive a taxi, and even offer to rent them my car,’ she says. So far no-one has taken her up on the offer. People don’t hesitate to sting with words of discouragement, but her 13-year-old son is proud of her, and that’s enough drive for her.