I was sitting at the airport in Detroit when I realized that I’ve been doing quite a bit of traveling in the past 12 months. Not a heavy amount to some globetrotter friends I know, but most certainly heavier than the once a year trips I’d been doing in the past 5 years or so. In that time I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing a variety of modes and manners of transportation. From train rides in Amsterdam, Oslo and London to transcontinental business-class, to a dusty, bumpy trek across the East African savannah on my way to Nairobi, Kenya. I’ve even had the pleasure of burning untold amounts of expensive gas in rush-hour grid-lock in Dallas and Houston.
After settling down in my roomy Exit aisle seat, I got to thinking; how many Africans in the Diaspora actually contemplate the disparity between the relatively modern comforts of transportation in the West and the archaic, almost “Road Warrior“-esque, travel adventures in Africa? Having personally witnessed both systems of transport I have to say, we as Africans, either (a) have a long way to go in efforts to improve transportation infrastructure or (b) elevating the barbaric means of transport on the continent to a unique almost Disneyland attraction that visitors to the continent simply “must experience”.
I for one would vote for A. Here is why:
I don’t know about you, but when I travel, I prefer to feel like a human being, rather than cargo or a hastily packed sardine. Before I got on that bus for the 16-hour trek to Nairobi from Kampala, I had experienced what could only be termed in the West as a perfect script for a Woody Allen misadventure movie, if Woody Allen was ever to shoot a movie in Uganda, that is.
It started innocently. I followed Uganda’s de rigueur method of acquiring “transport” if you are looking to get out of Kampala during the day:
- Proceed to Matatu park serving the region of the country you are going to. Check.
- Proceed to wait hours for the available Matatu/Bus to fill up before departure. Check. (It’s not unheard of for major repairs to be underway while passengers are boarding and waiting, sometimes for hours!)
- Proceed to spend another hour in gridlock trying to escape the city’s grip. Check again.
I was determined to get to Masindi from Kampala via Hoima, as the direct route was under heavy construction, and in African terms, that means that the roads are torn up without regard to how existing traffic is to be re-routed. It’s akin to throwing a lit book of matches in the middle of a well-organized, headless marching fire ants. Remorseless chaos. It’s as if someone decrees, let’s “upgrade” (read: spitshine that road with a thin layer of asphalt that will wear away in less than a month, oh and pour some dirt in that cavernous potholes, we’ve lost enough buses in it already) this road but don’t tell anybody about it, just surprise them Monday morning!
We got to Hoima in record time and had to switch to a Masindi-bound Matatu. To my relief and dismay there was only one, and by the sight of things, this vehicle had no business being on the road. Now to a Westerner, it might seem like a stretch of the imagination to say that 17 people can be comfortably stuffed into a Matatu minibus meant to carry only 14. However, new limits of insanity and human nature’s capacity to withstand ill-treatment (given an overriding objective), are reached when you can stuff a goat, 3 kids, a nursing mum, rolled up mattresses, luggage, a drunken elderly gentleman, a skinny, greedy conductor, a clueless driver, 4 annoyed chickens and a cock, and 21 other dumbfounded passengers into the same size minibus. Count them, that’s 29 human beings, 1 animal, 5 fowl, and various assortments of luggage.
Now you might be asking: “How in the world did they fit that many people in that matchbox of a van?” That’s where things get interesting. When I boarded, I took what I thought was the last seat available so I was more than a little impatient when we didn’t start moving for about another 30 minutes. That’s another major difference in transportation management in Africa vs the West. In Africa, you are on their time, they are not on your time.
Our first stop was the gas station, where my mouth suddenly dropped when a guy with a entire muffler assembly muscled his way into the van. Yes, that’s a muffler, for a vehicle. He snuggled into the crawl space that separated the first row of passengers with the driver’s cabin. This is a favorite store-away area for excess baggage, children, and hogtied fowl.
A few miles down the road, one of the passengers signaled to get off. At first I was thinking, finally, relief, but to my amazement, two more passengers got on board. A nursing mum saddled right up next to muffler boy and a Mr Drunken Graybeard, fresh off of his afternoon “refreshment” did the unthinkable. Lacking anywhere to put his bottom, and to my amazement, climbed OVER me into the middle row of passengers. Since he couldn’t sit down unless he squatted in someone’s lap. He bent forward so his body was at a 90-degree angle, with his butt between two passenger’s cheeks on the backside, and his 90%-proof breath was steaming up my ear. I silently hoped there wasn’t a spark in the van as this guy was a ticking roman candle. 5 miles down the road he was replaced by a trader with chickens and a sack of goods, and a very unhappy school-bound student (who literally had to be thrown into the van after a mild temper tantrum. She got the stashed in stowage on top of the muffler. Trader man replaced Mr. Drunken Graybeard, and the chickens held a protest concert under my seat, complete with a fresh round of droppings. Between the smell of feathers and the hot man-breath in my ear, my nostrils were on fire.
The passenger carousel kept on for the next 20 miles, turning an hour-long journey into a 3-hour nightmare.
I think about that torturous trip and smile as I stretch out in the Exit aisle on my flight to Amsterdam. This kind of leg room is almost criminal. I am wondering how long it will take for African travel to truly be on par with their Western counterparts, where passenger comfort and price are the main differentiators. We have a long way to go in many areas, but progress can be accelerated if those of us in the Diaspora can serve as a knowledge base on how things can be done better. I seriously doubt anyone would term my experience as Disneyland moment, and I doubt many people would willingly pay to relive the experience.
Many of us [African Diaspora] are professionals in the very same economic and social sectors where Africa is lagging behind the rest of the world. We are in positions of influence and should take it upon ourselves to share that knowledge. Because if we don’t engage in Africa’s transportation transformation, we may very well end up with vengeful chickens under our seats, Mr. Drunken Graybeard, and Muffler Man on our trans-African flights. Now who wants that?