Editors' Choice

Africa by Bus

by Mo Tejani

Small tyrants illustrate large problems.

Bouncing off the potholes on the dirt road in Tanzania, the rickety blue bus is packed with black bodies dripping sweat. Every inch of space is taken. Many windows are broken; the upholstery on most of the tiny seats is torn. The smell of animal urine and people’s vomit almost makes me retch. But this is the only bus heading west from Dodoma into the hinterland of central Tanzania.

Up front, perched on a large bale of cotton facing the passengers, my vantage point gives me a clear view of all within. Women cuddle their babies, some tied behind their backs with a cloth, tiny black feet sticking out; others scream in laps or sleep soundly; one sucks on a droopy breast. Three live chickens, one un-caged, add to the cacophony: the rattle of the bus, voices, and the yells of the fare collector, Juma, hanging out the back door.

Juma orchestrates the passengers like a self-appointed god. Short, with bulging biceps, he has bloodshot eyes and a vicious scar running down his left cheek. In his fifties, he is dressed in blue slacks, a short-sleeved beige shirt, and shiny black shoes. Armed with folded shilling notes in his left hand, and a short pointed stick in the right, he exudes arrogance and confidence. No one doubts that he is king of this bus. His demeanor scares me, reminding me of unsavory local characters, shelved deep in my subconscious for more than a quarter century since I last lived in East Africa.

Outside, unlike the lush northern region with its famed Kilimanjaro and the teeming wildlife of the Serengeti, these central plains are flat and dusty with the occasional sisal farm or village to break the monotony. As another village approaches, Juma pounds on the side of the bus to signal the driver to stop for more passengers. “Ingia, upesi!” Get in quickly, he bellows in Swahili to the four people waiting in the mid-morning heat. But there’s no room for them to enter, given the clutter of people standing by the back entrance. Juma barks orders, pushing the passengers farther inside the bus till there is just enough room for the four to squeeze in.

Once the bus lurches forward, Juma moves inside, his bloodshot eyes scouring for available space. His eyes light up as he finds a spot. He pushes his way through and cajoles passengers to make more room, oblivious to their present discomfort. Whenever anyone resists movement, he points with his stick to tiny spaces, raises his voice to a belligerent pitch, and barks in Swahili: “Sukuma mutoto Mama!” Push your child, mother! Or “Wewe, shenzi mzee, enda hapa!” You, stupid old man, move here. Eventually, everyone does his bidding, fear being their only motivator.

Three of the four new arrivals remain standing while the fourth is awarded six inches of space on a seat designed for three lean bodies. His right buttock sticks out in mid-air. Bwana Juma decides who sits and who stands. Money changes hands, with more being asked of the half-seated new passenger, who complies willingly. Despot Juma will make his profit one way or another. I wonder how long before I get a companion on my bale of cotton.

Local transport hasn’t changed much, even though a quarter century has gone by since East Africa was my home. Involuntarily, my mind wanders back to the time when, as a youth in Uganda, I visited Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro as a rite of passage into manhood.

Since 1972, after being forced into refugee exile from Idi Amin’s Uganda, I have lived in many Western countries and Asia, doing humanitarian work with the world’s poor. A master’s degree in International Studies has filled my head with the post-independence potential of Africa that we all once prayed for. I recall my term papers on Ujamaa – the state-owned, country-wide collectivized farming experiment in Tanzania initiated by the country’s first president, Julius Nyerere. To this day, he remains the only African politician ever to step down voluntarily from power; that was in 1985, the same year that the Soviet Union began disintegrating under Gorbachev’s glasnost. Did Nyerere, now a peacemaker for regional conflicts within Africa, succeed in his socialist dreams of Tanzanians communally sharing the wealth of the country where the Soviets didn’t? If this bus is any indicator, I have my doubts.

Juma’s shouts jolt me out of my reverie back to the present. He is about to shove a woman with a baby off the bus in the middle of the wilderness for refusing to move so he can get more money from three new passengers. The passengers murmur their disapproval despite the menacing stares from Juma. He continues berating the woman till she breaks down into tears. Eventually, a young man with thick-rimmed glasses gives up his seat for the woman to stop the tears trickling down her cheeks. A sign of compassion among the needy. Nevertheless, no-scruples-Juma warns everyone that they will suffer the same fate as the woman if they persist in their resistance. Calm returns to the bus but not for long. At the next village stop, to set an example, Juma makes the woman and baby get off anyway, despite her pleas for mercy. Intimidation works wonders on the poor. On me too. No one says a word, including me. Disgusted, I turn to happy thoughts to avoid a futile confrontation with Prime Minister Juma.

Today, I should be brimming with anticipation. Within a few hours, this middle-aged man with graying hair will be at his birthplace, Singida, the small town where he spent the first two years of his life. Stories of Singida, told by parents and siblings at Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts in America and England are replaying in my head: the school where my father was headmaster, the mosque where my sisters prayed, the night howl of hyenas and the horror of finding snakes in kitchen cupboards and drawers. Will those places still be there after some forty-odd years? Will I meet anyone who remembers my family and the house where I was born?

Simama! Pesa, mara moja.” Wait! Money first, says the relentless Juma to yet two more passengers climbing on. The bus crowd groans at the prospect of yet more orders to move. To generate more standing room for the latest arrivals, this time Juma makes people move their luggage in the aisles. He grabs the uncaged chicken and wedges it between two suitcases on the luggage rack above. The chicken’s owner protests this move, fearful that his chicken might get suffocated. Juma whacks him on the back with his stick, screaming in Swahili, “Take your precious chicken and get off this bus! I should charge you more for space used by the chicken.” The chicken’s owner apologies and begs to be allowed to stay put. End of incident, but not dissent. The passengers debate the safety of the chicken and the passengers below it. Juma hangs on to every word, watching for who says what. Some take sides with the chicken owner. Juma makes a mental note of each one. Most, however, agree with Juma, keen to get on his good side for the long hours ahead. At the next village, when more passengers get on, two of the most vocal ones siding with the chicken’s owner are made to give up their seats and stand the rest of the way or get off the bus. Juma has learned all about divide and rule from the Germans when they occupied his country during the Second World War. End of dissent.

Even though I am trying hard to concentrate on my anticipated elation at seeing my birthplace as an adult for the very first time, Juma’s behavior keeps steering me back to reality. Within the hour, he has kicked off one more male passenger from the bus and slapped another. I now have not one but two companions on my bale of cotton. His divine power now reigns supreme over this nightmare journey. My physical discomfort prods me to think of why people like Juma still exist and why Africa is forced to put up with his kind. Mental escape is my only recourse from the physical misery.

That’s when a eureka moment dawns on me. Power-hungry Juma, though only dictator of this pathetic bus, may well be a partial mirror of how power corrupts in many parts of Africa. In my head, I review all his actions so far. Invocation of fear through belligerent barking. Isn’t that how Idi Amin started off his eight-year rule of terror back in 1971? Intimidation and setting an example with the woman and baby. Didn’t Amin use both tactics through his soldiers, expelling 80,000 Ugandan Asians and murdering some 300,000 black Ugandans who opposed his tyranny?

My thoughts keep turning back to African history. Juma’s use of violence with his pointed stick and the slapping of a passenger. Though different in scale, are these actions reflective of those used by Bokassa in the Central African Republic to declare himself emperor of his country? And Juma’s divide and rule tactic with the chicken? Who taught him to be so cruel? Was it really the European colonialists that ruled Africa for over a century and turned that Machiavellian device into an art form by capitalizing on the historical animosity between one African tribe and another? Or was it President Mobuto’s killing of his own people in neighboring Congo? The most recent genocide, in1994, between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes in Rwanda comes to my mind. Africans killing each other: one more tragic example of the same syndrome, repeating itself over and over again? When will it finally stop?

As the bus plods along, the scorching afternoon sun parches my throat while hunger growls emit from my belly. I finished the full water bottle and juicy mangoes hours ago. Fortunately, after an hour or so, at another village stop, a swarm of women and children selling sodas and snacks appear at the bus windows on both sides. Something miraculous happens. The passengers, cowed and subdued by Juma, suddenly mobilize as if in unison. With shouts, they help each other order food and drinks. Those in the window seats pass money, food, and drinks back and forth. Like a conveyor belt, all items pass though a sea of black hands until they reach their destination. All the transactions take place without fuss, irritation, dispute, or anger in the space of fifteen precious minutes. I’m amazed, given the thoughts running through my head. Maybe Nyerere’s dream of Tanzanians sharing the country’s resources has not disappeared after all. Maybe it’s just suppressed under the watchful eyes of the Jumas of this world. In fact, I am quite surprised that Juma and the bus driver actually waited long enough for everyone to get their refreshments. Could it be that Juma has some redeeming qualities after all? Or is that he knows a well-fed passenger will be easier to be deal with for the rest of the trip? Only Juma and the divine powers that motivate him know the answer to that question.

As the bus moves again, aware now that we will reach Singida in a couple of hours, I continue my mental escape to finish the journey. Africa, oh beloved Africa! Why is it that ever since 1957, when Ghana, followed by most other African countries, attained independence, there have been a slew of ruthless dictators ruling over many parts of the continent, razing their countries into chaos and conflict? When and how do we get rid of the Jumas of our continent?

Has the arbitrary drawing of the map of Africa by the colonial masters, oblivious to tribal loyalties, been one of the historical causes of Africa’s suffering? But during this trip, Juma has picked on people with different facial features from him, calling them “Masai” with sarcasm. Yes, the continent’s meager economic resources, ravaged by the economic masters – be they black or foreign – have caused famine after famine in so many regions, resulting in the death of millions of Africa’s poor. But is Juma’s power over the poor – bleeding out more profits for himself and his bus company – any different?

Four decades have gone by since Ghana’s pioneering independence. When do we say, “Enough! Please, no more using the colonialists, African despots, and economic exploitation by foreign powers as scapegoats for Africa’s failures.” Enough, I say. One by one we will get rid of the power brokers who eat from the people – they are beyond contempt. Now, let us focus on how best we can create attitudes in the minds of our children that prevent them from acting like omniscient Juma on his chicken bus.

The bus pulls in at another stop. A passenger near me, who I befriended earlier, taps me on the shoulder. “Singida wanainchi.” This is Singida, countryman. We both get off, shaking the dust from our bodies and the pins and needles in our legs. From a luggage rack below, Juma throws my backpack onto the red dusty soil without a word or a look. Putting on my backpack, I turn my back to him and aim a huge gob of spit – one that I have been gathering in my mouth the whole journey – onto the ground near his feet. Splat! The fellow passenger next to me sees this, smiles, and disappears into the bush.


Mo Tejani is a writer and aid worker who lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand. This story was excerpted from Global Crossroads, the second volume of his travel memoirs. The first volume, A Chameleon’s Tale, was a finalist for PEN Beyond Margins Book Award in 2007.


About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.


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