In Dar es Salaam there are buses, minibuses, taxis, motorbikes and three-wheelers (bajaj) – all available to transport the public. But for moving large number of people there are basically just the large buses. Always painted in the colors of where they come from and where they go with the terminal stations stenciled onto the colors: “Posta”, “K/Koo”, “M/Mbusho” or “M/Rangi” (find a map with some Dar bus stands). And they have curly writing on the side: “City Bus” it says.
For a fare of TZS 400 (USD 0.20) you get to see a lot of the city. Yet the passengers complain about the high prices. Transport costs have been estimated at between 7% and 18% of monthly expenditure for most regular users. Which is not unlike other developing countries, says World Bank.
The buses are a mirror of the street life of Dar – a world apart from the wealthy people in their air-conditioned cars. Simple people spend far too much time in them, often more than 4 hours per day.
I’ve grown fond of the bus system and would sometimes just sit in a bus and let it take me to whatever end station on weekends. There I would review my situation and pick another bus. Seated next to the window it offers a great view across the streets.
Passengers are generally friendly and caring, pointing out empty seats, offering a child a seat corner or a lap to sit on or striking a conversation with a stranger. Some people are smiling, offering to hold someone’s heavy bag. Some are checking WhatsApp (which is very popular), talk to their friends, check their balances or listen to music – all done on ubiquitous mobile phones.
Sometimes there is a heated argument between two people and the whole bus participates, bringing up the tension level. To my ear it sounds like a riot is about to start. I overrule my flight reflex and listen in. The topic? These days it’s always the upcoming election. If the radio is playing people may listen and comment to the speaker. Or they see a minor motorcycle crash right in front of a policeman, where both drivers scramble to separate their bikes and make a fast getaway before being fined for whatever. Then the whole bus roars with laughter.
Some buses are so old there is hardly a piece of instrument left. Switches, lights, radio, gauges, part of the floor – all gone. The dashboard resembles a Swiss cheese and there are signs of multiple repairs to hold everything together. They break down often and become obstacles in an already congested traffic. If the starter doesn’t work, a couple of passengers might go out and help push the bus back into action. There are no government subsidies for public transport so the vehicles are often used until the very end.
Full buses can be preying areas for pickpockets but even finding a safer seat is not a guarantor if placed next to an open window. Yours truly recently fell victim to a snatch and run attack in the unspeakable place of Mwananyamala (see commment section of this post).
The conductors are constantly on the lookout for more passengers, making sure space is used efficiently (speak: tight packing) and checking that everyone pays up. They are advising the drivers with knocking signs against the metal door that say “hold on, there are more passengers”, “stop” or “let’s go”. Sometimes outsiders advertise the bus at the stop while the conductor is standing by idly. For this they are compensated with a coin. Other entrepreneurs are offering piles of coins to the conductors who sometimes run out of change.
There are times when I get the feeling that I might be faster on foot. It’s usually when I get out and walk – if I’m not totally wedged in. I’m leaving the bus to its day’s work which might end up compensating the conductor with TZS 10,000 as a colleague has explained (World Bank mentions TZS 5000). All for being active between early morning and midnight and in a harsh working environment.
Such is life in Dar es Salaam for the average person: it’s hard to make a living and even harder to support a family. Yet people are positive and poised, like the woman selling cassava between the cars, balancing her merchandise on the head and cutting off a piece for TZS 200 all while smiling at the customer.
(drawings: Sarah Markes, Street Style)