16 10 2009

I instinctively swat at the fly buzzing around my head without taking my eyes off the swarm of men in front of me. They descend on a moving car with force – bargaining, yelling, pushing. We are sitting at Lusaka’s intercity bus terminal. We were supposed to be on a bus three hours ago.

The scene around me should be shocking, but I can’t say as though I’m surprised by any of it. TIA. This is Africa.

It’s hot. Stephanie comments that even her eyes are sweating. Normally I would laugh, but it’s too true to be funny right now.

I continue to focus on the clouds of men scattered around the station as they cast formidable shadows on every potential customer. They work in pairs or groups, and Catherine explains that the bus companies pay them a small commission for every traveler they can coax onto a bus. They reach inside cars and unlock doors before the drivers stop. They grab suitcases and packages and start to carry them off without the consent of the owner. And they shout – a lot.

A fight breaks out around a car. Someone has obviously broken a rule in the unwritten (but well understood) code of conduct. Someone gets shoved, someone else throws a fist. The skirmish is quelled pretty quickly, but there is an intensity in the air as these men scrap for business. It’s quite clear that no one really wants their help. But, that doesn’t stop them from chasing every car, stalking every passerby, and doing whatever they can to persuade people to follow them.

Once a target is spotted, 15 or 20 of them flock to the area and the shouting begins. Usually a few frontrunners quickly emerge and some of the men drop out of the race and start looking for other potential customers. Then more yelling, shoving, and pushing as they vie for the attention of the traveler. I don’t really know what they are saying, but I imagine they are all claiming that their bus is the best, their price is the lowest, and their departures are the timeliest. Most people try to ignore then, but they grab at you and your things without regard for what you want. More yelling – usually at each other. More grabbing, and, eventually either the customer gets away or one seller wins out. It’s all fascinating to watch.

One lady’s box of butter is stolen. She’s furious. One of these men had grabbed it out of her hand to “carry” it for her and now he is gone. She’s yelling back. I decide I like her. They continue to pull at her belongings and assure her it was no one from their company that took her things. She refuses to put up with the assault and finally get’s the police involved.

Our bus finally pulls up. Catherine is determined to get us on first. She makes her way through the crowd. More pushing, but this time I’m in the midst of it. People are crushing into my back trying to get closer to the door. Losing your balance is not an option in this mass of bodies. We wait while the bus is swept and cleaned. People continue to shove and maneuver to get closer to the front of the “line”. When the door is finally opened I’m elbowed by a man who then swings his suitcase around and hits me in the knee. As he climbs on before me, I wince in pain. Oh, chivalry, it’s nice to see you!

We hear yelling behind us and turn to look. The butter was found. A group of men have the accused by the shirt collar and he endures countless smacks upside the head as they drag him away. If there is any sense of justice, I’m assuming this is it.

Finally on the bus Steph and I open our window, come to terms with the smell, and settle in for our eight hour journey to Livingston. We are set to arrive around one AM. We are in the first row, so the crack that takes up the whole windshield is slightly disconcerting. The bus stops several times along the way. The driver blares unsettling music all through the ride – we try to drown it out with our iPods will little success. At one point I open my eyes and look up to see the lights of a semi barreling at us. The driver honks and swerves – narrowly missing a head-on collision. I decided to keep my eyes closed for the remainder of the ride.

Things are different here. The rules and social norms are vastly unlike what I’m used to. But, what can you do? TIA. This is Africa.




One response

18 10 2009
Jenny Groen

Amy ~ Your descriptions hit home with me. I often here myself saying, “Well, we live in Haiti.” I wonder sometimes if the men crowded around me pushed and grabbed a little less, if they’d stop yelling, “Blan! Blan!” at me if I would be a little more inclined to enlist their help and pay them for it. I am always wishing someone would just be polite. But, then I suppose the polite ones just get shoved to the back and go unnoticed. It breaks my heart when the crowd consists of 7 to 10 year old boys. That is when it is hardest to walk away.

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