Last weekend, Ruth and her CFCM colleagues, Joseph and Elevate, went off to Monkey Bay to run a Sunday School teacher’s training seminar. That wasn’t the only education going on over the weekend – Ruth had a lot to learn about Malawian public transport! Forget about timetables, set fares, pre-booking, luggage regulations, seat-belts, air-conditioning, road-safety…..
We were at the bus depot next to Limbe market for 7.30am, and were immediately surrounded by about 10 young men, all very keen to carry our bags and get us to go on their bus, assuring us of a “good price”. We were taking a bus, rather than one of the many minibuses, so that helped narrow the choice. Elevate had told me the bus would leave when it was full – so it made sense to get on the bus that was already starting to fill up. There were 50 seats on the bus – so I realized we wouldn’t be leaving any time soon!
Having packed our boxes of Bibles and teaching materials under our seats, and our back-packs on the luggage rack, we made ourselves comfortable (I use the term loosely) on the barely padded seats, and surveyed the scene.
I wondered if the black plastic tape in various places around the bus was to create extra luggage space or to hold the bus together – a bit of both, as it turned out. I discovered later that we had chosen our seats well – they were attached to the floor – which couldn’t be said for them all! A man got on the bus selling 500g of salt for K100 (why would anyone want salt if they were going on a journey, I wondered).
Out of the window, I watched the “lynch mob” continue to surround every potential passenger as they arrived at the depot, grabbing their luggage (and even their small children if they weren’t firmly attached!) and trying to steer them onto their bus. I have to say, I witnessed more agro among those bus drivers than I’ve seen at any time since I arrived in Malawi – filling their bus was all that mattered.
Suddenly it dawned on me that I needn’t have worried about our boxes being too heavy, or not meeting size regulations – the shape or size of your luggage did not matter, in fact, the bigger and heavier, the better, because once it was stowed on the bus, you were less likely to “jump bus” if you saw another one filling up faster!
Back inside our bus, to my amazement, the market came to us. “Salt man” was just the start of it – torches, phones, radios, memory cards, sun-glasses, head-sets, footballs, professional hair-clipping sets, flu medicine, plastic cups and plates, batteries, knives…
Why had I bothered packing? I could have bought everything I needed on the bus – facecloths, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, T-shirts, chitenjes, socks, footwear – and soap-powder to wash anything that wasn’t on offer! And I need not have worried about fixing a packed lunch – traders brought rolls, fruit, doughnuts, peanuts, bags of water. I lost count of the number of times salt man came back to our bus to tempt us with his wares.
Accepting that there was going to be a long wait, I tried to read my Kindle, but gave up because of the cacophony of noise – horns beeping as triumphant full minibuses left the depot, radios blaring from different directions around the market, and on the bus itself. I looked around the bus again, wondering if Elevate was serious about the bus not leaving until it was full, or was she just managing my expectations by presenting the worst case scenario? I realized that the row of ladies who had been on the bus before us had disappeared. Weren’t they worried about missing the bus? Had they spotted another bus for Monkey Bay leaving first? Elevate enlightened me – they had been paid to sit there from 7.30am to fool early arrivals like us into thinking the bus was starting to fill! Wow! They think of everything!
At 10.30am, the bus was nearly full, and starting to get very hot. Every space for luggage was taken, including bags of maize lying all the way down the aisle, so that the latest passengers and all the traders were walking on them instead of the floor. Out of my window, I saw a few men with a length of hose, a funnel, a tea strainer(!), and a jerry-can, put some diesel into the tank. This looked promising. They then turned on the engine, and stood around anxiously listening to the engine-noise. Seriously? Was there really some doubt about whether the bus would start? Not so promising. They left the engine running – and still the passengers came, and the traders came. Salt was now 1kg for K100 (14p) – so tempting, but still I had no need for salt.
At 11am there was finally a bottom on every seat (an adult bottom, children had to sit on laps) and they finally removed the stones from behind the tyres that had been stopping the bus from rolling, and we left Limbe market bus depot on our way to Monkey Bay. My bottom was already numb from three and a half hours sitting! I considered how, if I had left my home in Suffolk at 7.30am by car, I would have been comfortably in Leeds by now!
Would it be full speed ahead now? Not a chance. The bus now served much the same as any local minibus, screeching to a halt and picking up anyone at the side of the road who didn’t mind standing, balancing on a bag of maize, to go a few miles up the road. 245km later – at 6.30pm (11 hours after we had got on the bus), in the dark, we arrived at Monkey Bay. Little did I realize what a comfortable journey it had actually been. The return journey on Sunday involved 21passengers in a 14-seater minibus – but that’s another story….