Zola Ndlovu takes us inside Harare's pirate taxis.
"When elephants fight, it's the grass that suffers."
The evening commotion at the corner of Angwa Street and Robert Mugabe Avenue was different. It was not the excited rush of people returning home after a day of work, expending every last bit of energy left to shuffle along what is now a very narrow pavement because of the vending stalls lined with Valentine's Day gifts and cards. The hwindi who was touting the kombi to Mabvuku held the door slightly open, enough for you to see that "Two vasara vabereki!" actually means five. There are no laws against misrepresenting the number of passengers in your bus if it means that you'll attract more.
Convenience of pirate taxis
There are laws that govern where a kombi can and can't pick passengers up and this particular pick up point is illegal. But there are hundreds of them across the country. Kombis are convenient, that's why we catch them. The whole point is that you don't want to have to walk all the way to the rank to board one. You want to be able to stand on any street and hitch a ride to where you're going - no drama, no fuss.
Two months into using this particular kombi route to go home, I've learned to choose my seat wisely - always sit on the second or third row, never the first. Unless you want to endure having your knees crushed and your fundamental right to dignity violated by passengers who occupy "paKadoma". Even the dreaded backseat is better than paKadoma.
PaKadoma - no relation to the city - is the gap between the driver's seat and the first row of passenger seats. A kombi trip from town will cost you US$1, but if you're willing to sit on Kadoma you pay half price. If you're not smart and you rush to the first row, you'll spend the better part of your trip either sitting with a stranger's leg nestled threateningly close to your groin or with your knees painfully pressed against each other.
Evading the police
So I chose the second row and just as I sat down I saw a policeman with a baton in hand rushing towards my window. He tapped on it and tried the door which had just been locked by the hwindi. The driver shouted for the people in the backseat to close their window and they managed to close it shut just before the policeman tried to stick his baton in. He hit every side of the kombi hard before trying the back door, all the while the driver and hwindi shouted, "Heeeh! Iwe! Unopenga here?" It was terrifyingly exciting. I felt like I was caught in a scene in one of those Nigerian movies that we were once so obsessed about.
While all of this was happening a bizarre scene was unfolding just in front of us. A policeman had managed to open the door by jumping in through the kombi window. He swung his baton wildly as the driver tried and failed to get into gear and drive off. "Dzikayi vabereki!" he ordered and the passengers streamed out, looking bewildered. Our kombi had been spared so we drove off, picking passengers up along the way. By the time we drove past the Fourth Street rank we were full.
Role of the police
This scene has been repeated over and over again for several weeks now. One of those times I was amongst the passengers who had to disembark and make another plan. The whole thing raises many questions, the most important one being: What are the police trying to achieve and are they succeeding in achieving it? The law exists to bring order and the police exist to enforce the law. They have been empowered to do this. A second issue: How should this power be exercised?
There are no simple answers. But the hundreds of weary faces lining the streets after hours tell a story. One thing is for sure, the added inconvenience of the kombi wars are making what is already a difficult existence even tougher for the poor and powerless.