Almost the first thing you will see when you arrive in Mekelle is a bajaj. A bajaj is a motorcycle rickshaw, painted blue—the predominant form of transportation throughout the city.
They are sometimes referred to locally as tuk-tuks, probably an onomatopoetic name that mimics the sound of their little engines straining to propel the vehicle up a hill.
Helen and I hired a tuk-tuk for the afternoon to take a guided tour of Mekelle. Our driver was Asmarom, whose story itself is quite interesting.
Asmarom used to be in the hotel business. In fact, he worked at the Axum Hotel for 14 years as a manager. Eventually he was made responsible for, among other things, collecting “bad debt” from deadbeat businessmen and others who had run up large tabs at the hotel but were reluctant to pay. He hated the job. He decided to launch his own career as an independent bajaj driver. He bought his bajaj three months ago and there has been no looking back. He appears to love his new career.
The Mekelle bajaj is typically a Bajaj RE, a three-wheeled tricycle made by the Bjajaj Auto company in India.
Bajaj Auto is one of India’s largest companies, making motorcycles, scooters, three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, and most recently, automobiles. Bajaj is the largest manufacturer of three-wheelers in the world, turning out about 500,000 per year, half of which stay in the Indian market and half of which are exported overseas. Bajajs are sold in at least 36 countries. The bajajs in Ethiopia are exported through a dealer in Dubai.
The motor and chassis are exported into Ethiopia, but the final vehicle itself is assembled in Mekelle. The purchaser typically contracts the final completion of the vehicle with a local company that mounts the side-panels and doors and does the final finishing. Asmarom actually took us to a local shop on the side of the road that is engaged in the final assembly and finishing of the bajaj. When completed, the final cost is roughly 100,000 Ethiopian birr, or $5,000—a not inconsiderable sum in the local economy.
The bajaj has three wheels, a four-stroke, 200 cc motorcycle engine, and a 4 liter fuel tank (a litre of gasoline sells for about one $US dollar, making petrol slightly more expensive in Mekelle than at home). The suspension on a bajaj is not nearly as good as that on my brother’s Jeep Cherokee, and they are not very fast. We were neck and neck with a scrawny horse pulling a cart going down the road for a good portion of our travels this afternoon.
The bajaj is affordable, reliable, much easier to hail than a taxicab in New York City, and a great way to get around Mekelle on a Friday afternoon.