Our Taqwa Bus African Adventure by Irene Butler
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THAT’S THE WAY IT IS
“You must take Taqwa bus; it is the only international bus, come with me to office,” conveyed the reptilian skinned tout, Mr. Knight. My husband, Rick, and I were at the Mbeya City Terminal looking for a bus line going to Lilongwe.
“What is the quality of Taqwa buses?”
“Good, good. Executive class”, said clerk Pearson, with Knight’s confirming nod as he pointed to a glossy wall poster of a shiny green bus with the very word “Executive” emblazoned in gold atop the Taqwa insignia. We purchased tickets for 29,000 Tsh each ($30.50 Canadian) three days prior to our travel date.
On departure day we were unexpectedly informed that Mr. Knight must transport us 8 km by mini-van to catch the bus at a farmer’s market. “The junction”, as it is known to locals, was swarming with activity. Ten-ton trucks were unloading heaps of green bananas alongside bushels of tomatoes, onions, cabbage, and hundred pound sacks of maize.
A sign inside the junction office revealed this was also the office for a second international line – Tacbal. Hmmm; we humorously realized why no previous mention was made of the junction. Tacbal did not have a representative at the city terminal; therefore, only Taqwa ticket purchases would generate a commission for our new friends.
My jaw dropped and rebounded like a bungee as we boarded the technicolour “anything-but-executive-class” bus. Mr. Knight had vanished into the crowd. The seats we plunked into were falling apart and there were no bathroom facilities. As the bus pulled away, I knocked a bug off my daypack, then another; cockroaches. Oh well, they are not carnivorous was our approach to making the best of it as the bus pulled onto the highway.
Over the engine in the cab the change-off driver lay snoring on a lumpy, soiled mattress. The gears ground agonizingly on the slightest incline. The floorboards yawned and sagged with no suspension to come to their aid. People dozed, slumped in every position imaginable.
In four hours we reached the Malawi border. After passports were stamped, passengers started hauling their carry-on luggage outside, while workers appeared to unload bales, tubs, boxes, and canvas duffels from the baggage compartment.
Jane, a Malawian shop-owner filled us in, “This bus for people importing goods for re-sale. Customs checks excise tax declarations, then all goods are opened and searched..it sometimes takes six hours.” I moaned when she added, “Why didn’t you take Tacbal, it goes straight through?”
The weary passengers settled on pieces of luggage or on the ground for the long wait, many breaking out a lunch they had packed. Rick and I followed suit as the last pink rays of day faded from the horizon. The hours drifted by as we enjoyed exchanges with Jane and her friend Ruth about our respective countries.
At one point, two small ragged boys (about 6 and 9) appeared out of nowhere. I gave them each 4 slices of fresh baked bread. The younger one started munching immediately; the older boy waited until they had cleared the customs barricade. They disappeared into the night. When glancing up about a half an hour later, my heart melted as I saw them peering above the barricade smiling and waving at me; then they were gone again.
Rick was occupied watching two fellows in their early 20’s toss boxes in relay fashion onto a 5-ton truck under the watchful eye of a churlish boss. After the doors were squeezed shut, the foreman called our bus driver over pointing to 200 boxes remaining against the wall.
“They are negotiating a price to put the rest on the bus,” Jane translated the Chichewa chatter.
“You have got to be kidding!” said my flabbergasted husband.
It appeared not; crews started pushing and shoving them into the undercarriage, until 50 boxes could not possibly fit. They began loading these, plus other random items, into the passenger area filling the back seats to the ceiling. I cringed as 5-gallon pails were hoisted up the steps. I gasped as a double mattress folded in half was tugged and pushed in. Feet never touched the floor as passengers scrambled over the stuffed aisles back to their seats.
Between snippets of sleep and gazing out over fields drenched by a munificent moon, I thought of the unique experience and the richness of new friends we would have missed had we gone “straight through on Tacbal”. I also felt these wonderful people deserved more, that these conditions would never be tolerated anywhere except in a 3rd world country; the powerlessness of abject poverty.
A total of 19 hours had passed since leaving Mbeya and our arrival in Lilongwe. Crawling over the sorry-looking mattress for the last time, I recalled Jane’s succinct response when asked how she continued to suffer through these grueling trips, “That’s the way it is.”