Ever had one of those bus trips where nothing goes right? SIMON MWALE was on a private bus to a small town, Katete, in Eastern Province that made him decide never to get on a private bus again!
UNTIL March 12, 1992, I didn't know much about Zambia's private bus operators... but my family and I were soon to learn about their strange antics--and what a lesson it was!
After a long illness, my immediate younger brother, Davie, passed on, and we unexpectedly had to travel a long distance to Katete in the Eastern Province to attend his funeral.
Since death doesn't often show itself until it has already claimed its victim, my brother's death could not be predicted. For this reason, it was impossible to book seats in advance on the then efficient state-run United Bus Company of Zambia or on the Post bus, and we ended up traveling by private bus.
We didn't know before setting off that the source of many of the troubles that lay ahead of us would be the stocky young man dressed in black who could easily have passed for a middleweight boxer, and who beckoned passengers to board his bus.
Before long, a large number of passengers with a wide variety of luggage had descended on the ticket seller, and those travelling to Chipata--and anywhere else--parted with a sum of K830 each. Those not traveling all the way to Chipata, provincial headquarters of the Eastern Province and our last destination, argued for some concession, but the pleas to reduce the flat fare drew nothing but scorn from the bus crew.
We boarded the bus around 12 noon and, before long, in our estimation as passengers, it was full.
The bus crew thought otherwise, and they seemed to believe it was an offense to leave without 20 standing passengers.
After the screaming match between the passengers and the crew had ended, we'd lost four hours travelling time and gained five standing passengers. Our strange journey finally got under way at 17:00 hours.
Three hours later we reached Luangwa bridge, the link between the eastern and then central provinces of Zambia, now Lusaka province.
We slept the night there, because according to the crew, night driving was banned to prevent road accidents--an excuse we were later to discover was far from the truth.
The driver promised that we would resume our trip at 04:00 hours the following morning, so all of us who had slept in the open staggered into the bus at 03:00 hours and settled in for our departure.
We immediately realised that the driver was not with us and demanded to know when we were leaving. The conductor insisted that we would only leave at 04:00 hours, and told us firmly that we would have to wait until then. But 04:00 hours came and went, and we were still seating waiting at 04:30 hours with the driver nowhere to be seen.
Then a passenger, clearly angry by the crew's attitude, started an argument with the conductor. It began as a joke, really. The passenger said he couldn't fight with the conductor because he thought he looked as weak as a rat.
The conductor took umbrage at the comment, and remained calm and the matter seemed closed. Around 04:45 hours, I approached the conductor to find out where the driver was so that I could go and persuade him to come to the bus.
The conductor said the driver could be found at a nearby rest house where he was sleeping with a girlfriend, so together with a few other passengers, I set off up the steep, rocky hill where the rest house was perched.
As we approached the rest house, I saw two dark figures whispering sweet nothings to each other. Suddenly, the driver noticed us and shouted: "What do you people want here? I have heard a lot of noise from the bus."
I reminded him about the promise he had made about our departure time, but he insisted that we had no right to follow him. Soon, we got back on the bus--but the fun was just beginning.
Just as we thought we'd be on our way, the conductor announced: "Before we leave this place, I want to sort out the person who said he can't fight a rat." We all thought he was joking, but his tone of voice suggested otherwise.
For a long time there was a deathly silence on the bus--you could have heard a pin drop. Taking off his shirt and putting on hard police boots, the conductor rushed towards the man who had uttered the fateful words and unleashed his anger.
The driver, fearing that the fight may turn into a free-for-all on the bus, managed to pull the two enemies to the door and push them out. Soon the conductor was satisfied with the damage he had done and hustled the poor passenger, who now had a swollen face and a badly cut lip, back on to the bus. He was clearly a beaten man.
The driver then promptly promised his own violence upon those who climbed the hill to fetch him. The passengers immediately pleaded for mercy, and the appeal seemed to have been heeded by the crazy man.
After what had proven an eventful morning, the bus lurched and moved off. A couple of kilometres down the road, however, the conductor reminded his colleague that the people who had gone to the rest house hadn't received their share of the promised beating.
Almost unbelievably, the bus slowed down and pulled to the side of the road.
The driver came out of his compartment and ordered all those who had followed him to step outside.
"We are going to teach you a lesson today," he declared.
There was a stunned silence, so the driver repeated his call three times.
Finally, he said : "I know all of you. One was wearing glasses." That person was me! A chill run down my spine and I seriously considered parting with my sight aid forever. I was sitting between my wife and my cousin, and when I tried to stand up, and face my fate, my cousin's arm on my shoulder held me down.
Soon, the two thugs identified both the man in front of me and myself as part of the 'gang' of crusaders who had disturbed the driver's love nest. The rest could not be identified. Outside the bus I was the first to be asked why I had been so vocal about leaving Luangwa Bridge early. I gave it my best shot and explained the urgency of arriving at the funeral, as I was a key person in the arrangements.
I noticed a distinct change in the attitude of both the driver and conductor. The stocky youth saved me by telling the driver that there was nothing wrong with me.
I was ordered back on the bus, leaving the other man to be grilled.
Soon after I got back on, the other passenger accused entered the bus unharmed--he had also been able to talk his way out of the 'lesson.'
We drove on in silence, stopping to pick up any passenger on the side of the road, which frustrated us all. After all, the bus wasn't getting any bigger.
We reached Katete 20 hours later (the trip normally takes seven hours) and were promptly stopped at a road block. When a plain-clothes policeman entered the bus, the first thing he noticed was the beaten passenger.
Our hopes were raised when the policeman asked the passenger who had beaten him. The man named the conductor and explained that his only crime had been asking why there had been a delay leaving Luangwa bridge.
When the policeman asked the conductor if this was true, the conductor--with the cunning that only a chronic liar would have--answered that he had been involved in a fight with the passenger who had stolen ticket sales money from him.
As if the two men had travelled alone, the policeman never even bothered to verify the story with the rest of the passengers! Instead he warned the passenger that stern action may be taken against him if the story were true, then promptly climbed off the bus!
As you can see, travelling by private bus in Zambia can turn into a terrible nightmare. From that day on I vowed never to travel by private bus again unless the situation was urgent!
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