On The (deadly) Road To Mwanza, Tanzania

“Here is it,” said the guy standing next to me at the busy Arusha bus station.

Finally.

It was the morning of September 18, and after the joy of waiting for two hours watching hoards of other Tanzanian travelers getting on their on-time buses, I was relieved with the tardy arrival of mine.

I needed to remind myself right away this day that this was an adventure, not a vacation.

The guy who said this to me had a table set up outside selling bus tickets. He had been in contact with my bus, which was a mild relief. At least I knew I didn’t miss it and that it was on its way. It was simply delayed, he said—by police.

“What for?” I asked the guy.

“I don’t know,” he said.

Hmmmm. Sounds fishy.

Boarding the bus, I asked the young man conductor (the guy who hollers while hanging out the door when passing through towns along the way to find new riders) why they had been stopped. Angry at the delay, perhaps I wanted to know who to blame. Curious about life here, I was certainly interested in knowing if this was a shakedown for cash or a legitimate stop from the men and women in bright white uniforms, who stand alongside  the road at checkpoints to make sure you’re obeying the laws.

“Going too fast,” he said to me.

Well, shakedown or not. I could see the silver lining of enforcing a reasonable speed. At this point in my time in Tanzania, I had surmised that bus drivers must have strong legs–’cause they have to walk around with their lead feet. (Badum, ching!)

I walked to my seat about ten rows back to see a heavy set young woman in mine. I showed her my ticket. She shook her head. She wanted the window, she was saying by pointing out it and speaking Swahili with a smile. I understood. I wanted the window, too. I just pointed at my seat again. She shuffled over to her aisle seat. I squeezed by her and snuggled into my own.

Tanzanian buses are cozy, I’ll give them that. But on my previous ride to Arusha things were so tight, I’d get a scab on my knee. And in all the buses the windows were low, requiring me to hunch over to see out of them.

On this particular ride, I got to share this experience with my seat neighbor, Rachel.

Off we went to Mwanza

It wasn’t the most direct route, but the one the bus takes to hit other stops along the way.

***

We were pushing mid-morning by the time we finally got out of town. Pouring by out the window were the dry, open flatlands punctuated with the occasional hill. It reminded me of the American West.

Only an hour into the ride, we stopped.

Bathroom break.

No bathroom, though.

No problem.

Recall your rural roots, Brandon, and find a couple of trees to shade your relief.

Hmmm. Not many around.

No problem to these folks. Pee out in the open then.

Well, the guys did anyway. The ladies were lady-like and found some bushes.

When in Rome.

I had to go, too. And who knew when our next stop would be?

Setting back out, the remainder of the ride mimicked the one I had taken to start this trek three days earlier.

We slowed for other towns.

Schoolchildren returning home for the day

We stopped for gas.

We stopped at bus stations, where salespeople ran up alongside the buses to sell their items.

But mainly, it was the open road.

Baobab trees

If only the driver heeded the speed limits…

As much as I wanted to get to Mwanza lickety-split (I kept having to text my host, pushing back my arrival), the speed bumps along the way were killing me.

I’ve read that speed bumps in neighborhoods back in the U.S. actually cause more harm than good. The lives they are estimated to save by slowing down cars are exceeded dramatically by the lives they end because ambulances and fire trucks are forced to almost stop for them when responding to an emergency. My argument against speed bumps in Tanzania came from erratic driving on account of them. They weren’t installed in residential areas. They were installed on highways. In the middle of no where, while I was watching the terrain glide by, the driver would break hard, we passengers would all lunge forward; the bus would barrel over a speed bump, we’d all get slammed into our seats; and then the driver would accelerate like he was in a race (or as I figured, trying to make up for lost time for having to slow down), and we’d all lean back.

The commonality of these disruptions got to my head, and I began anticipating them. They seemed to occur every few miles in an attempt to keep these driver’s driving sane. But if the speed bumps helped, the help was undermined by the speed drivers went between them and by the potential for injury falling out of our seats. After several of these, and me forgetting this was an adventure and not a vacation, I yelled out, “Please slow down!”

They may not have understood the words, but I figured they’d know I was upset. A few miles later, another violent bump. “Slow down!” I repeated from my seat ten rows back. The conductor asked me to sit closer to the front as by now some other passengers had disembarked in stops along the way. I wasn’t happy about this suggestion, as I assumed it implied the bus wasn’t going to stop hitting the bumps like this. But I did what they suggested, and I think the driver did cool it. So in a weird way, I guess the speed bumps did slow the driver down, but only with the addition of a complaining passenger.

But it’s going to take more than speed bumps to quell these crazy drivers. They simply use speed bumps as an obstacle to their regular ways. One just wishes they change these ways. Upon me sharing about my ride to Mwanza, my hosts there would tell me of a recently-reported highway tragedy. On one of the main roads in the region, a bus tried to pass a car but met an oncoming bus head-on. Each were filled with passengers. Each were driving high speeds. 60 people died.

A story like this in the U.S. would make national headlines. Here in Tanzania, it merely came up in a conversation. The regularity and extreme nature of highway accidents was something I’d note whenever I was on the road. Coming from Tukuyu in the southwest part of the country, I saw three accident aftermaths. One was startling. The semi-truck cab in the ditch looked like it had been through one of those car compactors at a junkyard. Then in Iringa, my home base in central Tanzania, I heard from the foreign medical students about the bodies coming in from an accident involving a truck going off the highway and into a crowd.

In Tanzania, one could worry about the reports of malaria, lion attacks, and armed robberies. But I’m betting I was most at-risk when away from all that in the comforts of a bus.

This is an adventure; not a vacation.

But even given all this, the chances of accidental death is low. And many, many foreigners I met in all parts of country happily make Tanzania their home. This went for English teachers in Iringa, for businesspeople in Dar es Salaam, and for my host in Mwanza, who I met the night I arrived.

***

Sun setting on my bus ride to Mwanza

After about ten hours on the road, combined with that two-hour delay to start, the sky had darkened by the time we saw the first signs of Mwanza. More traffic, constant lit-up buildings along the road, and the buildings’ increase in size and modernity. I called Andrea, my host whom I had met online via that same web community of travelers/hosts called CouchSurfing. It’s how I had met and stayed with Manu back in Arusha. Andrea was a 25-year-old Dutch physician who came to Mwanza to work. Tanzania is a nation with no shortage of opportunities for medical professionals to come and offer a hand.

Andrea said to me on the phone that her boyfriend would come pick me up from the bus station. But which one? She had her boyfriend speak to the conductor, who then knew where to drop me off.

“He’s Rasta,” Andrea said to me right before we hung up so I’d recognize her boyfriend. Interesting. Leah, my Coloradan colleague back at my village school also had a Tanzanian Rasta boyfriend. You may think it’s weird that I’d meet two Rasta guys in East Africa. Actually, I met a few others, and I’d see dozens of them during my year. Rastafarians and Bob Marley were popular here.

I disembarked and waited for a few minutes alongside the Mwanza city street with nearby gas station and businesses that were closed. They were old, plain, concrete two-story buildings. Underneath me was a sidewalk uneven with slabs of concrete tilted.

Soon a small SUV pulled up.

“Hello Brandon?” said the young man from his rolled-down window.

“Yeah.” I responded and started to lug my luggage toward the vehicle. He parked, got out, and the thin, 5′ 8″ Tanzanian with dreadlocks, scraggly beard, and dressed in jeans and a saggy t-shirt helped me with my things.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Joseph,” he said in a way that resembled a Jamaican accent, but maybe that was my Rasta stereotype implanting itself in this situation. And did he say Joseph?! That was the same of Leah’s Rasta boyfriend. Weird.

I hopped into the SUV, and Rasta Joseph and I drove off to meet with Andrea for dinner. My time in Mwanza–Tanzania’s second-largest city on the gorgeous rocky coast of Lake Victoria–had begun.

***

And here’s a look at some footage from the day:

2 Responses

  1. Linda Becker

    Ever talked to a cab driver at MSP Airport? Chris engages in conversation every time in hopes that someone can have a little Swahili chat with him… Anyway, I have empirical evidence that they are all named Mohamed. When I laughed out loud on our last cab trip, the driver said, “Oh, my name isn’t actually Mohamed, it’s Mostafus, but people can’t understand so I just say Mohamed.” Your Joseph story reminded me…

    Thanks for the blog, but scary picture of the TZ transportation system. Tumaini Iringa University lost a guest teacher from Finland in November as the result of a terrible road accident.

    1. Oh, that’s terrible. So sorry to hear that, Linda. I wouldn’t say going to Tanzania is walking out on thin ice, but it’s not as thick as it is in Minnesota… (Figuratively or literally)

      You gotta still travel. You also need to take precautions and then believe things will be alright.

      Switching roles, I don’t see too many Tanzanians coming to America. Besides Evaristo and his friends, I’ve met only one other–a Tanzanian student studying in Minnesota.

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