Africa relies on its unreliable minibuses

Africa's rich travel by plane, but for most Africans, the 16-person minibus, unpredictable but always there, is the de facto form of transportation. The quirks of traveling on one are part of the experience.

Munene Kilongi/Newscom
A minibus taxi, a popular means of transport in Kenya, displays Obama's image in Nairobi.

I’m at a bus stop in the Zambian copper belt. There are lots of people here, but no buses. They’re supposed to come every hour or so. The next bus seems to be leaning toward “or so.”

A young man in a dirty T-shirt approaches me. He asks if I’m going to Lusaka, the nation’s capital. I am. He points at a small blue-and-white minibus taxi, and says it will be leaving in a few minutes. I assess my options. OK, I have no options. I look in the taxi. There’s an old man with rheumy eyes and a crutch. The bench seat he’s sitting on has lost most of the cushion; the vinyl seat cover has frayed to strips. The young conductor points me to the front seat, which actually has a seat belt. I sit.

So begins the kind of journey that tens of millions of Africans take every day. The rich may crisscross the continent in jetliners, and arrive in time for afternoon tea, but most of Africa’s poor and middle class travel by the venerable 16-seat minibus. Passengers may complain about safety. Newspapers may carry regular horror stories of accidents. But without minibuses like the one I was boarding, Africa itself would likely grind to a halt.

Of course, to grind to a halt, one has to at least get started, and this taxi wasn’t moving until every seat was full. At 7:20 a.m., it was still just Mr. Rheumy Eyes and me. By 7:30 a.m., our conductor with the dirty T-shirt – whose name turned out to be “Mango” – had filled up half of the van. Five minutes later we were moving, but slowly, picking up passengers one by one from the roadside. I had a feeling this could be a very long ride.

Five minutes more, and the van is moving slow. The seat I am sitting on seems to be belching out steam. The floor in front of me is covered with water. We pull aside, and the driver shouts at his helper. “Mango, Mango, Mango!” What was Mango’s crime? He forgot to put the radiator cap back on before the start of our journey. Our van has overheated. Mango runs off to a shop, borrows a plastic bucket from a shopkeeper, and fills up the radiator again, as the driver looks on.

Through it all, the passengers are quiet. They are grateful to be moving, probably, instead of stuck back in Kapiri Mposhi. Once the radiator is full, the front seat dried off, we set off again, and within a half hour, we are in the next town, Kabwe. Here, passengers like myself heading to Lusaka are transferred to another van. I ask the new conductor, a well-dressed young man with a USB flash drive hanging from a string around his neck, when we might be heading off again. “We will be in Lusaka in one and a half hours, if there are no conditions,” he says.

Conditions – it’s such a vague word. It could mean almost anything, or nothing. I look outside and see the bus from Kapiri Mposhi passing by on the way to Lusaka.

There is something wonderfully entrepreneurial about a taxi honking at pedestrians, wooing them for a ride. Every taxi driver on the continent does it. He makes eye contact, asking with facial expressions or even just a finger pointing up the road to see if the pedestrian wants a ride. If the pedestrian is beautiful, he might slow down just for the conversation, until the passengers start grumbling. Unfortunately, all this stopping is technically against the law, and by 9:15 a.m., our driver soon gets stopped by police. And then arrested. And we are stuck, in a idling van, on the outskirts of town, with a cop in the front seat waiting for another driver to take us all back to the police station until the taxi owner shows up, and pays a fine. I suppose this qualifies as “conditions.”

It’s 10 a.m. We’re now parked back in the taxi stand where my bags were transferred from Mango’s van to Mr. USB’s van. The taxi owner has paid his fine and appears to have gone off in search of another driver. He returns alone, grumpy. My fellow passengers have had a vigorous conversation about police bribery, but now their frustration seems to be focused on the taxi owner. The owner drives out of the station, and stops, almost ostentatiously, in the very spot on the side of the highway where his driver had been arrested for stopping. He loads up five more passengers, as a lady behind me clicks her tongue in disgust.

For the next hour and a half, there are no conditions. There are only farm fields, most of them small plots growing maize, with traditional circular thatched roof huts. Out in the fields, women are bent at the waist, weeding, or hoeing, or shoveling. Young boys lead small herds of goats through fields. Behind us, a vast bank of dark clouds are carrying equatorial rainstorms further south as the rainy season begins.

If I were in a plane, I’d miss all of this. But then, if I were in that bus, I’d have seen all of this, and I’d probably be on my way to my first interview.

At 11:45 a.m., we reach Lubumbashi Bus Station in Lusaka. There are hundreds of vans already here, converging from all over the country into this large parking lot, surrounded by shops and tin-roofed cafes. No sooner are our bags are offloaded, than Mr. USB starts shouting for the next customers back to Kapiri Mposhi.

I wish them a safe trip, with no conditions.

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