Harry Leech is currently in Tanzania producing a project for the Simon Cumbers Media Fund on the support Ireland gives to Tanzania farmers. This is the third of his many posts.
21st September 2010
AT 5.30am Dar es Salaam’s Ubongo bus station can be an intimidating place for a traveller unaccustomed to the hustle and bustle that surrounds travelling by public transport in Africa. The station is the hub for all bus journeys from the Dar to Tanzania’s major cities and innumerable minor towns.
Almost a hundred buses from a dozen companies fill the station, all competing on similar routes and all vie to get customers arriving at the station onto their buses and not the competitors. As well as the pushy ticket sellers, add in the hustlers, hawkers and porters trying to sell you their goods or services, and you have loosely-ordered pandemonium at its best.
The buses mostly leave at 6am, at least in theory, with boarding time at 5.30am. The result is that dozens of buses all rush to get out the gate at once, with an ensuing cacophony of horns that could raise the dead. The reason for the early start is two-fold; first to beat the rush hour traffic that clogs up all of the routes into and to a lesser extent out of Dar es Salaam each morning.
The second and more important reason is the sheer distance to be covered on these journeys and this is the first hint of a major development challenge that faces Tanzania. By our standards Tanzania is a colossus of a country, 945,000 sq km in size, making it thirteen times the size of Ireland.
In the 84 years since Ireland’s independence it’s only this year have we been able to claim a world class road infrastructure, much of it with built as the result of EU aid. Tanzania is comparatively both far larger and far poorer, so maintenance and development of its road and rail systems is a nightmare. This lack of infrastructure is a major barrier to trade, especially as Tanzania acts as a port for many of its land-locked neighbours.
My journey from Dar to Kyela in the south-west of the country is about 700km as the crow flies and just over 1,000km by road, with the landscape changing from the flat plains in the centre of the country traversed by straight roads, to the winding mountain roads of the southern highlands.
The journey was scheduled to take about fifteen hours and would start and finish in darkness. During that time we would have a 10 minute lunch break and two toilet breaks and would stop to pick up and drop off passenger twenty to thirty times along the way.
Thankfully my taxi-driver was a conscientious sort and parked up his car to help me get to the bus, through the dozens of people vying to carry my rucksack for me. It’s a scene that is replicated around bus stations in Africa and the vast majority of the porters are just trying to make a buck or two, but it takes some getting used to.
Once we found the right bus I jammed my rucksack in an overhead bay and brought my backpack, which contained my laptop, camera, wallet and phone onto my lap; so far, so good. My companions in the seat beside mine were a mother in her early 20’s and her two year old daughter, Missy. Missy’s mother had no English and I had no Kiswahili, but despite being jammed on top of one another due to the extraordinary narrow seats, we got along fine.
While I usually dread being in the vicinity of a small child for an extended journey, it was clear that I wasn’t the only one unhappy about the situation. Missy clearly felt the same about being stuck beside me for the duration of the journey and didn’t spare my feelings on the matter. At first she alternated between cowering with her head in her mother’s neck, refusing to look in my direction, followed by loud vocal objections to my presence and no small amount of finger pointing. This was followed by her staring wide-eyed and silent at me for extended periods.
After a while she voluntarily suspended most of her protests about my presence and we settled down to a quiet understanding; after all, if you’re going to spend 15 hours in someone’s armpit they usually become less interesting. Every now and then she remembered that I was a novelty and would reach out to touch my arm and stare at me intently through her braids, but for the most part I was ignored.
The Tanzanian country-side is truly breath-taking and even that most over-used of phrase cannot do it justice. About four hours outside Dar es Salaam, the bus to Kyela travels along the Tan-Zam highway through 80km of Mikuni national park, which at this time of year has a seemingly endless amount of wildlife within viewing distance of the road. Even allowing for the high speeds at which the driver insisted on travelling despite the parks 50kph limit, we spotted elephants, zebras and gazelle.
At the various towns along the way where we dropped off and picked up passengers, the bus was surrounded by large groups of small traders, selling everything from bottled water, to bags of cashew nuts, to grilled corn on the cob. A few hopped on the bus and spent the time between there and the next stop, sometimes as much as 50km away selling their wares to a captive, sweaty, thirsty audience.
The buses in Tanzania are an excellent way to traverse the country for an independent traveller but it’s still unusual to see another European on them and I didn’t see another westerner the entire day. Most western visitors travel to Serengeti National Park in the North, or parks such as Mikumi or Selous in the middle of the country via private coach or plane organised by their travel company. Another significant reason for the lack of Westerners is that the buses are extremely cramped, sweaty affairs (which of course are a large part of their charm.) And of course, there’s the driving.
Ah yes, the driving. Almost all of the Tanzanian bus companies have appalling safety records and according to my Rough Guide to Tanzania, the Hood bus company that I was travelling on has “a reputation for recklessness.” I was assured by an expat whom I knew that their reputation had improved of late, but when I asked had he ever travelled by bus in Tanzania, he admitted that he hadn’t. I was less than reassured.
Even allowing for this improvement, our driver didn’t seem above speeding, overtaking articulated trucks on winding mountain roads in poor light and racing the drivers from other the other coach services on the route. To be fair to him though while we seemed to come extremely close on a few occasions, we didn’t crash. By the time we arrived in Kyela at 9.40, it was pitch dark and I was grateful to be met by Iddi, the local manager of the Technoserve project, who took me to my lodgings for the next few days.
After almost sixteen hours of sitting on the bus, I’m tired, stiff and more than a little sweaty. Tomorrow I’ll meet with Iddi and some of his colleagues to discuss the work that they’re doing with the local cocoa farmers but for now I just want to shower and sleep. I don’t think I’ll have any problems on that front.
Please Note: The views and opinions expressed in blogs under the Simon Cumbers Media Fund are those of the journalist and / or their interviewees. They do not necessarily reflect the views of Irish Aid, the Department of Foreign Affairs or the Irish Government.