It’s 7am in Chilenje, Lusaka and I’m waiting in the red-brown dust at the roadside ready to begin my commute. Like most roads in Zambia’s capital city the one before me is hurriedly tarmacked; uneven, potholed and rough-edged.
“Muzungu! Mukwela?!” (roughly translating as “White person! Coming aboard?!”)
A white mini-van sporting a hooped orange stripe is approaching; a man is hanging out of the back window shouting Nyanja at me. This battered, tattered and mud-splattered vehicle is a Zambian bus. Giving a slight nod I step back as the bus bounces off the tarmac and into the dust in front of me. The conductor (aka the shouting man) opens the sliding door with a screech and hops off to allow me to duck into the cramped space within.
As is typical of Lusakan buses this van has four rows of seats in the back. The middle two rows have a folding seat at the end closest to the door which allows passengers access to the rows behind. The back row is often one long bench whilst the front, in place of a folding seat, has a makeshift stool (so far I’ve seen an upturned packing box, bucket and shopping basket) where the bus conductor normally sits. The driver sits in the front alongside two more passengers.
Bent double I shuffle uncomfortably into the dark interior and squeeze myself in between two Zambians in one of the middle rows. These buses were not designed for people of my height; at 6ft3 I sit with shoulders hunched and head bowed while my knees press into the back of the seat in front of me. As the bus lurches awkwardly back onto the raised tarmac I rock back knocking my skull onto the ceiling and then forth again feeling my kneecaps squashed painfully.
My stop, if you can call it that, is quite early on in the route so the bus is only half full. Zambian bus conductors have a constant battle trying to keep their buses as full as possible in order to maximise their income, hollering at every pedestrian within sight as they trundle along. At the main stops you’ll often find the buses parked for 10-15 minutes as they wait to fill up (there can be as many as 18 passengers in one van); as a commuter all you can do is wait. Threading through Chilenje’s backroads, my bus fishes for customers through the conductor’s yells and the driver’s hoots of the horn.
In most cases it is only the driver who is the formal employee, chosen by the owner of the bus. The conductor is often a friend or family member that the driver invites along to help them run the service, giving them a cut of their wage at the end of the day. Typically a group of three or four buses is owned by an entrepreneur and run as a small business with the option given to the driver to buy the bus once a threshold of income has been received. Having said this, this policy is more common for taxis as buses are quite expensive.
The last passenger squashes into the bus on the last corner before we join the main road into town. Now full, the bus shows surprising speed as it zips along the duel carriageway weaving in and out of the early morning traffic. No longer shopping for commuters the conductor turns to face us and demands money row by row. The prices for the bus journeys reflect the cost of living in Lusaka – it’s only six kwacha (~37p) from my road to town; a forty minute trip.
As we near town the traffic begins to build up, slowing to a crawl a mile or so from the main CBD area. Although traffic in Lusaka can be awful during rush hours, relatively speaking it’s one of the best cities in Africa for traffic flow. Not that the bus drivers take any notice of the traffic; my bus lurches off the road onto the dirt track sidewalk and races up the side of the jam ignoring the protesting honks from frustrated commuters. Narrowly avoiding several pedestrians we successfully skirt round a few hundred metres of traffic to arrive at my halfway stop outside a petrol station. I signal the conductor who taps the outside of the bus to alert the driver to pull over. Several other passengers have to disembark and fold away the seat in front of me to allow me off.
Fortunately, today I’ve managed to successfully reach my destination without a problem, however more than once I have been en-route home when the bus has decided to change route and go a completely different way. There are actually no set bus routes or a centralised organisation that manages the bus system in Zambia. Like a lot of things in this country the bus routes have grown informally as the first buses chased the routes where they found they could make the most money.
Despite their unreliability, unpredictability and their downright disregard for any and all traffic laws, the Lusakan buses are the heartbeat of this city. It wouldn’t be quite the same without them. They are in no way as iconic as the big red London bus or the yellow cabbie of New York, but there is a certain charm to them. I’m certain that when I look back on this experience I’ll picture a ridiculous little white and orange van scrabbling through the boggy mud of the untarmacked roads, swimming through the vast lake-like puddles and summiting railway tracks just to find a two-minute shortcut. After all, the very first thing I hear every morning is: “Mukwela?!”