The blue minibuses of the Lusaka cityscape capture the essence of the words “bustle” and “intensity”. At first observation, they are just a chaotic transit system. However, there is enough captured in their dynamic operation that they are an easy fascination, despite their uninspiring outward image.
First, I would like to share a small anecdote about a memorable ride on a minibus last week. So Tabo, the brother of my work colleague Luyando, and myself are heading back from a trip in town to get my work permit and stop by his college for a few questions. We get to the main road and see a few minibuses pulled over in an unorganized clump on the red dirt shoulder – business as usual. After asking for “Woodlands Extension” (home), we hop on the bus we are pointed towards. I had brought along my camera with the hope of capturing the view from the inside so we chose the back row and awaited more passengers to fill the bus. When I say fill, I mean full. And by full I mean 22 heads, including driver and conductor inside the minibus. It gave a new meaning to the phrase “packed like sardines”.
Hard to say where the sea of heads ends… If I were ever a Frosh leader again, I would say my team is a favourite to win the van stuffing.
And so, with our large load settled in, off we went. Bumping up and over the curb into the Lusaka congestion of the midday rush hour. Slowly, as we continued the route home, fewer and fewer of the original crew remained. At long last Tabo and I had the whole rear bench to ourselves again.
A view of the now near empty bus to help your imagination of how everyone fit inside. Note the fold down seats for the aisle, which are essential. The typical day fits four to a row.
However hyperbolic this story may be (and it was a record for my time here), the minibuses are really an important and appreciable part of daily life in Lusaka. The trip for us into town from near the end of the line is 4000 ZMK (or about $0.80 CAD), which is about the highest fare. Every corner of the city are connected in an “all roads lead to town” set up. Two main terminals in the central hub make up the epicenter of the minibus chaos, which I hope to soon capture for everyone as well. As I have begun to get to know the station and feel the certainty of having the bus-boarding crews readily answering questions of which bus to board, it is rather an organized chaos that comes through.
The driver and the conductor (the latter of which collects fare and loads people on and off at stops) are the unsung heroes of the day. They make a meager wage despite the high stress and long hours they work. Rising for the morning commuters that begin around 5:30hrs and ending their day as late as 21:00hrs, it is a feat they keep it up. However, they often get flack from the public for their poor customer service and some level of lawlessness. But considering their environment, it becomes clear that for the average bus crew, they run a pretty respectable service.
The drivers must navigate a sea of congestion in Lusaka, whose roads are governed more by your tenacity to fill space than laws (or in some cases, create some by just driving the shoulder a while), and deal with the challenge of being a police target. The buses, not held to a high standard of repair and often overloaded (see above) make them a common sore point for law enforcement. This is sort of balanced by minibuses bending the rules back to quicken their travel and increase their revenue for each trip. Luyando once remarked that if the policy makers were to track the minibuses for the routes they create on shoulders and intersections they avoid, they could easily learn a lot about their own transportation infrastructure. A good point indeed.
The conductors hang by the door, yelling to pedestrians their end destination, and collecting fares. They amaze me on a daily basis with their ability to deliver everyone their correct change while still recruiting new passengers and remembering where others had asked to get off, especially if they paid a reduced fair for a shorter trip. The fares are set for the minibuses but the conductors operate with some empathy for passengers who are only on for a shorter fare or may not have the ability to afford the full cost. After many rides I have only encountered a couple situations where my skin colour has brought some argument on whether I should be treated to the same cost reductions. Even with the low income they give way to respecting their passenger’s wallets and humanity.
Despite the low revenues and competition for passengers the bus crews generally work together – letting each other through in congestion, warning of police checks, combining passenger loads when not full, and finding a way to work with the informal station crews. The latter are groups of the unemployed who create their own work at the bus drop offs by calling together passengers for busses in return for some expected commission. Though illegal and a reduction to the buses’ total fare revenue, the bus crews have just learned to utilize them and find the positive value they can bring to their business.
So there you have it – would you have thought a bus system could be so dynamic? Certainly put’s our transit systems back home into a new frame of reference. What can you infer about our lifestyle and society from they way our buses and trains operate? I’d like to hear your thoughts!