I type this intrduction fromn the seat of my bus into the city. If thyis print was hand-wrtten, an element of the ride would be apparent by way of squggly lines. Here I did the electronic equivalent to indicte this bmpy road. I left in all the typis in this first paragraph.
I’m in a cramped little seat up against the window–grateful that I have a seat at all. My elbows are tight to my sides like two chicken wings as I try to type. And cocked wrists hover over the keyboard in a way I know would be painful after several minutes.
We travel along the rocky dirt road past fields and farms and grass and hills and trees in this morning’s drizzle.
Of course, the ride can also be smooth—and not just when we stop to pick up passengers, which we just did adding to our total of about 40 on this small bus.
In this piece, I’ll give you the rundown of the ride down into the city and share with you, largely via video, one particular interesting Saturday morning ride.
The bus arrives at our school around 6:30 every morning to head into the city, Iringa. On mornings I ride, my alarm wakes me when it’s yet dark, I then ready with the aid of a flashlight, and finally roll on out in time to see the sunrise.
I’m never alone.
Other villagers wait with me.
In minutes, we hear the distant rumble. Then we peer the bus coming down the hill.
After picking us up, the bus rattles as it continues to the next stop, because it’s old and because the roads are suffering the rainy season. Many other Magulilwans hop aboard–them and their cargo. No UPS and no personal automobile means the bus is one’s freight deliverer as well.
The conductors—always two young guys—help get everyone/everything situated on the bus: 50 kg bags of flour, oats, corn; cases of soda, water, and beer; boxes of produce; sometimes even chickens—a pecking companion for some owner, a clucking soundtrack for the riders’ commute.
These days the dirt roads are textured for a rhythmic rattling of cargo, rider, and the body of the “ambu-bus” itself. All the above being said, it’s still better than having to walk… Sometimes, the rain offers a bump in the road in the form of thick, slimy clay caking the road, offering a dish of an experience (and an interesting article for me to now share with you).
After a particularly rainy night, Mr. Mgongolwa, the school headmaster, greeted me on this Saturday morning as I readied for my ride into town. A friend of the driver and concerned about the well-being of his teachers, he had discovered and so let me know,
“Brandon, the bus got stuck.”
I wasn’t sure if he meant it got stuck the day before or this morning. Mainly, I wondered if I would be able to go to town today.
Then he added, “They’re bringing a truck to pick up the people in Magulilwa.”
Indeed, I could see the large truck coming up the road as he told me. He pointed it out and the large-wheeled, open bed truck approached and stopped.
Then, as is so common that I’m tempted to call it a custom, someone opened the passenger’s side door to have me sit in the cab with a couple other riders. Meanwhile, the locals had to hop on the bed of the truck and enjoy the wind going through their hair. Thankfully for them, the rain stopped.
Inside the cab—between the driver and I—was a middle-aged woman. Another younger woman sat in he space behind the seat breastfeeding her baby.
The truck moved along just fine atop the slick—for a while. These conditions deceived me. I was used to seeing 6-8 inch ruts to deal with on a troublesome wet, dirt road. Here though, the ruts were shallow. But an arched road and gunky clay—the kind that turns your shoes into weighty clay boots—made for risky route.
After a few kilometers, the the back end of the truck slid to the left. The driver slowed and let the back-end come back around. The struggle for him, I think, was in knowing what to do in these conditions. It seemed that either acceleration or deceleration could be either friend or foe in trying to get the rig right. Either way, straighter orientation would be attained if, by no other way, a push.
The truck’s back end started shifting once more on the brown/red surface. This time, the driver’s handling was overruled by the laws of physics, his protestations ignored. We went down the road crooked for a short ways until the rear of the truck was angled toward the ditch and the left back wheel was well into the sticky gunk below.
The vehicle intending to save us in light of the stuck bus was stuck itself.
And now is where video takes over as the main medium for this story.
After the truck was unloaded, everyone started walking. I wasn’t sure where; surely not to town as we were maybe a quarter of the way there.
Turns out we were going for the bus while the driver of the truck and a couple other employees stayed back to get it unstuck.
I walked with a group of ladies who amused at me taking pictures and video. I also helped a lady with a basket full of something heavy. So had to switch hands every 20 yards. If not for me there to share the load, it would have been a long walk for her. But women here are tough like that.
Thankfully, the truck had actually made it a ways before getting stuck, and the bus wasn’t too far up the road—maybe a mile. The bad news was that it, too, still appeared to be stuck. But to my pleasant surprise, the bus popped out and started driving toward us as we approached.
Their idea to take side roads held water—in more ways than one.
Following our successful escape, thought, “This is a nice little story that ends well.”
But my next thought was, “Well, life usually isn’t like a story; there’s no saying we won’t get stuck again.”
This time I got out and employees ran to neighbors’ homes for tools. They came back with a shovel and garden hoe. They proceeded to scrape the gunk from the front of the tires and find clumps of hard, dry earth to pack down in its place. Other workers found sticks and brush to throw under the wheels.
Many of the workers ran around in bare feet. Others saw their shoes dyed red. There were plenty of ants crawling around, annoying and even biting our legs when trying to get the vehicles out. Indeed, I got into the pushing this time.
I wanted to tell the driver to rock the vehicle, but I couldn’t communicate that. I tried to tell a worker to break the hard clumps of dirt with the hoe, but they preferred their method of hoisting the clump as high above their heads as possible and slamming it down onto the road.
Our bus gained about twenty feet, got stuck briefly again, and then got out for good using the same push and drive approach. The other bus, however, was a good 50% bigger. Their thick-treaded tires just slid in the ditch side and barely touched on the road side. I told a worker on that bus that all of us should get in the bus and sit on the side away from the ditch. Get some pressure off the ditch wheel and put some traction on the wheels on the hard road. I think I got through to one or two guys, but they didn’t go for it and when our bus was out, everyone piled in and away we went. Don’t ask me how the bus ever got out. It did though as it was gone on my way back two days later.
The usual ninety minute commute went for three and a half hours. And the lesson I learned was that I was in Tanzania. (Uh, yeah, Brandon. Way to figure that out!) I mean that I saw vividly how much of an outsider I was here. It wasn’t just the language that kept me from communicating with these guys, but ways of thinking. I think my ideas were as foreign to them as the words I spoke.