LIFE! WHAT A JOURNEY with CHARLES CHISALA
I HAD been hearing stories about the condition of the mini buses that ply the Los Angeles route in Lusaka’s sprawling Kanyama township for quite a while.
So as a journalist, out of curiosity and sheer adventurism, I decided to investigate the veracity of the stories, which I suspected could have been exaggerated.
I found something close to what I had been hearing behind City Market.
It was difficult to imagine how the thing had managed to reach the station on its own.
The wreck was scrap metal yard material.
But there it was, parked in the queue waiting to load. There were no head lamps and tail lights (all broken).
The steering wheel was so worn-out that the metal ring could be seen while a piece of bent steel served as the gear lever.
Its roof did not have any lining; it was all metal.
I don’t know how to describe the seats. Just can’t find the right words, but they were called seats anyway.
A shabby young man in his mid-20s dressed in a pair of faded blue jeans and a red T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of some monstrous creature stood by the open door wooing customers to board the bus.
And they were coming, not minding the pathetic and scary state of the vehicle.
I chose the back seat so that I could have a full view of the entire interior. Call it spying, if you like.
Human beings shared seats with cargo, all kinds of cargo – chickens, plastic parcels, merchandise for re-sale wrapped in chitenge material, buckets, brooms, sugar cane name them.
When the bus was full the conductor marshalled the support of half a dozen calls boys to help him to push it. No starter.
After a couple of attempts it coughed painfully, jerked and came on, the engine sounding like a mini-hammer mill that had not seen service for a whole year.
I couldn’t see anything when I looked back through the rear windscreen.
There was a cloud of white smoke.
The floor of the bus was so rotten with rust that you could see the tarmac racing under your feet.
As we drove past Los Angeles police post one fat woman sank into the seat she was sitting on after it caved in causing her plumb bottom to be trapped in the steel frame.
Her frantic efforts to heave herself out of the ‘pot’ only made matters worse. She sank even deeper.
Two Good Samaritans seated behind volunteered to help the conductor pull the lady out of the ‘rat trap’. One of them held her beefy right arm and the other the left one.
They slowly pulled her up until her bottom was free.
There was a mixture of sympathy and laughter from other passengers.
The woman thanked her rescuers and complained bitterly to the crew.
“Muzicita menteni ma motoka yanu. Mukonda cabe ndalama osati comfort yama kastoma [you should maintain your bus, don’t just be interested in money at the expense of your customers’ comfort],” she grumbled amid murmurs in support.
The youthful driver was, meanwhile, apologising profusely.
“Sorry amai; very sorry. Tizagonza, mutikululukileko ba kastoma batu shuwa [sorry mother, please forgive us, our dear customer; we will surely work on the vehicle],” he said.
His conductor chipped in politely, “Zo ona ba anti [it’s true, aunt].”
After the police post we travelled for some 100 metres when we found a gang of topless urchins playing with a rag ball near the road.
They paused and took a look at the bus.
One of them shouted, “Iye cibasi, monga banacidoba pacishala [look, what a bus; as if it was just retrieved from a junk yard].
There was a cacophony of giggles from the other children.
But he conductor was not amused.
He stuck his head out and gave the mischievous boys a piece of his mind.
“Shut up! Ni basi yanyoko. Nanga basi batate bako banagula ili kuti ka imbwa iwe [is it your mother’s bus, where is the bus your father bought you little dog]?” he spat sparking laughter among the passengers.
But the boys were not to be easily intimidated. They fired back.
“Nanga imwe, kodi ni basi yanyoko [what about you, is it your mother’s bus]?”
As the bus drove out of earshot the children were still happily spewing abuse at the conductor, who promised to deal with them later.
Some onlookers were holding their hands over their heads in amazement, expecting the smoke-belching contraption’s wheels to come off any moment as it dangerously wobbled and coughed along.
At one of the stopovers, the conductor seemed to have forgotten the formula for closing the door.
As he tried to close it after a passenger had jumped off, it came off the rails and tilted, one of its corners resting on the ground.
The driver stopped and came out. He walked round and helped the conductor to put the damn thing back in its position, a task that cost us five minutes.
Miraculously, we managed to reach the last station and the driver nudged the battered bus onto the queue for City Market.
On my trip back to the city centre I boarded a slightly better bus, although the conductor had to open the battery cavity and manually start the engine by putting a loose cable on one of the terminals.
At the last stopover, before reaching City Market, the gear lever came off as the driver tried to manipulate the transmission.
With the help of his dutiful conductor he managed to put the steel stick back into place and the vehicle was back on the road.
As I drove back home later I was satisfied that it was a well spent off day.
The adventure had rewarded me with a topic for the next installment of this column, which you have just finished reading.