October 24, 2005

Miles and miles of bloody Africa

Lusaka, Zambia

Dar es Salaam - Kapiri Mposhi - Lusaka is a 2000-kilometre journey that took 48 hours; 44 by train (which arrived either four hours late or two hours early, depending on who you talked to) 4 by minibus.

The train was quite civilized. Slowly falling apart at the seams, like all African infrastructure, but it didn't actually break down. The first-class compartments ($50) were four-person bunks with comfortable bedding. There was a comfy bar car that served beer, wine, water and soft drinks, and showed movies (mostly Hollywood, a little Bollywood, and one truly bizarre black-and-white African money-porn thing called "Billionaires Club 2"). There was a dining car that served cheap greasy food. There were basic but serviceable toilets. And there were glorious views all through the daylight hours.

Well. Mostly glorious. We departed at 4PM Friday and spent that afternoon chugging through Tanzania's lush green coastal lowlands, all palm trees and forest and thickly green farmland. I was a little feverish and flu-y for the first half of the journey, and between that and finally inhaling Order of the Phoenix, it was midafternoon on the second day before I really looked out the window again, and double-taked. I wasn't quite sure what I was seeing.

At first I thought it was desert highland; the same stark, minimal palette, stretching across rocky hills and ridges. But there were trees, bushes, grasses. It's just that all of them were dead. Occasional patches of burnt black testified to grassfires, but those were only occasional. We roared past geometrically patterned farming plots, all of it empty, covered with a tawny carpet of sun-killed, shredded, windblown grass. This was farmland, obvious - but it looked like nothing would ever grow here again. I saw a few cattle, here and there, but even to me, they looked dangerously skinny.

Then I realized: drought. This was why Malawi, just a couple hundred K south, recently declared a food emergency. The rains did not come this year, and the land is dry and dead. I was looking out at disaster. Tazania is relatively rich and stable, for Africa, and its coastal lands are still fertile; its people, even here, are unlikely to starve; but disaster all the same. The people the train rolled past, looking up at us, dressed in colours that seemed shockingly bright against the parched brown and gold behind them - they had already lost almost everything. It was sobering. As were the rusted, mangled remains of a derailed train we passed later, after the Zambian border.

The border, incidentally, was perfectly straightforward and painless. Instincts 1, Lonely Planet (which claimed I had to get my visa in advance if coming by train) 0.

On the third day, I finished OotP, devoured The Men Who Stare At Goats (which is hilariously terrifying - everyone the slightest bit interested in the US Army, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, Heaven's Gate, hippie militaries, and how these things are connected, should read it immediately), arrived at Kapiri Mposhi, and hopped a minibus to Lusaka. The minibus waited until full, departed, failed to get gas at the next station, and disgorged most its passengers into another minibus, which again waited until full before departing, a sequence of events that annoyed me into the following contemplations:

what were they thinking?

Public transit in Africa, in large part, consists of minibuses that hold sixteen or more persons (in twelve seats) and shuttle from town to town. Large, scheduled buses do exist, but generally only between scheduled cities; but minibuses - called tro-tros, shared-taxis, matatus, dalla-dallas, etc - go everywhere. They follow regular routes, usually between towns two to three hours apart. They'll pick you up or drop you off anywhere in between, if there is space. And they leave only - only - when full. The lone exception is late in the afternoon, when they want to get home before dark. Even then, the driver and conductor will leave with empty spaces only with the greatest reluctance.

In town, similarly, minibuses run back and forth between widely spaced points, leaving when full, picking up and dropping off anywhere in between. They're not supposed to stop long en route, but just now, about half a kilometre from the shopping mall where I sit, my minibus disgorged almost all of its passengers, and its driver-conductor team didn't want to go any further, not mostly empty. So they stayed where they were, trying to fill the minibus at least halfway up.

Thing is, this takes time; and meanwhile, other minibuses on the same route are whizzing by; and passengers don't want to sit and wait for this minibus to fill halfway, so this comic Laurel-and-Hardy routine developed where a passenger would come in, sit down, realize that this bus was a) hot b) not going anywhere until it was fuller, get out, and, ignoring the conductor's protests, get on one of the many other passing buses that had the advantage of being actually, you know, in the process of going somewhere. All the driver and conductor had to do was accept that they weren't going to get more than a couple passengers here, drive up to this shopping mall - a mere half-kilometre - and refill. But the thought of going anywhere with an mostly empty minibus seemed to cause them physical pain. It seemed, I think, like pouring money away. And so they stayed, and continued their futile attempt to recruit passengers. Eventually I got up and walked here. The minibus did not pass me en route.

It was funny. It was also exactly the same mindset that dictates that inter-city minibuses only leave when full, even though the roads are full of people wanting to get on, even though you may wait half an hour for the last few passengers who may only be going a kilometre, even though it clearly, in some cases, makes more economic sense to do three runs starting out three-quarters-full (and filling up en route!) rather than two runs starting when full, given the same amount of time. I realize that one instinctively thinks everyone across the whole freakin' continent does this, therefore it must make the most economic sense. Rational-actor economic theory and all that. But you know what? I don't think it applies. I don't think it makes any real sense at all.

Just as pervasive and inexplicable a mindset is the one that expats and old Africa hands will lament most loudly about, if you give them half a chance. "No one does any maintenance here", they will say. "No one. Ever." And they're not far wrong. Remember that bit about Dar es Salaam being plunged into darkness for two weeks, because its two main power transformers blew? Well, here in Zambia, they're just coming out of a three-week fuel crisis, during which people had to queue all night for fuel to get any at all, because the country's major fuel refinery stopped working for awhile. I'll bet you large sums of money that both disasters were caused by lack of maintenance. You see it everywhere. Paint peeling off? Don't bother throwing on a new coat; let it moulder. Tap leaking? Leaking a little more every day, in fact? Never mind. Wait for disaster. Don't do anything until then. When disaster does come, people here are fantastically good at both fixing what's wrong and coping while it's not working. But maintain things to prevent disaster in the first place? Almost never. It's very mysterious.

I have, I think, a partial rationale for both, but that'll have to wait, 'cause I'm about to go see my first movie in a theatre in some three weeks.


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