I spent a couple of weeks away from Nairobi to explore some of the more remote areas of africa and the transport that goes through them. I travelled to the coast on a train. Then by buses and minibuses to Malawi. I actually met people along the way who said ‘what about rural transport’ when I told them of my interest in urban transport. And to some extent, I guess I have tried to focus on the complex, dense systems of transport that are part of city life, but at the expense of the challenges , beauty and community that are part of traveling around rural areas.
While in Australia, individual motorised transport is seen as a necessary part of rural life (and I guess one use of cars that I consider warranted), in Africa this is not an option for most of the rural population. Therefore they rely on public transport (mainly minibuses) and active transport such as walking and cycling. In rural environments where distances are long and populations are spread out, this can make transport a challenge for many. Hours of people’s days will be consumed to wait for minibuses to fill up (because in africa they are all about maximises the profit per trip made, no matter how much waiting this means), and other people will expend energy walking and cycling far to work or the shops, maybe carrying loads as well. I was also informed that the costs are higher than minibuses in the cities for the same distances.
But amongst all this hardship and expense, there was a definite sense of community and fun – more than I had seen in any city I have visited. In the middle of the night, two hours north of the border crossing from tanzania to malawi, I felt like I was in a rowdy crowded pub as I entered the minibus and managed to grab one of the last remained ‘seats’. Seats is in brackets because you are given a proportion of the space that was designed for one persons backside – if you are lucky you are sharing four seats between five people, but this is not considered economical by the driver. Headed for a place I thought I knew how to pronounce, this bus kept filling up until there were about fifty people on a bus designed for about twenty or so. I was the only white person amongst them and the only one that didn’t understand the kiswahilli banter that took place between the tout and one of the passengers. There was cheering and jeering, and sometimes I would start laughing just to fit in. The jist of the conversation was the passenger complaining about the number of people on the bus and demanding a ticket. The tout asked what name he should write and he was told to write ‘my husband’. This was considered very funny. East africa is the most homophobic place I’ve been to, so this joke would have been considered funnier with this in mind I guess. Anyway, apart from being homophobic, these rural folk were very welcoming to my straight little self, and while I found out the bus wasn’t going to where I wanted to go to, everyone was out to help. I ended up sleeping the night in a guest house with another girl who was also heading to kyela (in the same bed :P), before continuing my journey the next day.
People didn’t just talk amongst themselves, they also talked to me. Taking the opportunity to exercise their english and inflict their views of religion, family values and economy issues on me, I partook in a range of conversations. Of course there were marriage proposals too but there were also some interesting ideas and concerns that were raised. I enjoyed the company and the opportunity to feel a part of the community as people would tell me to come and visit them the next time I was in the area.
Personal space is not given much consideration in rural transport. I was thigh to thigh with many different bodies, sometimes with a slight overlap where necessary. This was not considered sensual or particularly uncomfortable, just part of life. On more than one occasion I also found myself with another ladies child on my lap. It was nice to know that people trusted a funny looking white girl with their progeny and I enjoyed the company (it may even have made me think more about having children myself – but don’t tell my mum this). While I did lose feeling in limbs form time to time, and performed interesting yoga moves to get in and out, overall I felt at peace in these minibuses. I did feel sorry for the guys who were constantly bent over, and I can imagine a certain hunch could develop in the genes of these africans.
I saw some beautiful country and witnessed which regions grow what crops. My traveling companions would tell me about the agriculture in the region, I would see it being grown and then as we pulled in to a bus stop, the windows would be ambushed by people with trays trying to sell you the produce from the area. It was nice to see all stages of the process from the bus. I would end up with kilos of bananas rather than the couple I wanted but it cost less than one banana in Australia so I wasn’t too worried and I could offer them around. On my long distance bus rides I also got to witness giraffes, impala, baboons and monkeys. It was kind of nice to not have to go on a safari and look for the animals but just get to see them by chance – like seeing cool street art rather than having to spend money and time to go to an art gallery.
Well now I’m back in the city – one more day til I leave kenya. I think my experience in rural africa has given me fresh eyes and attitude to the streets of nairobi. Yesterday I went and talked to matatu drivers, filmed along streets I’m usually scared to walk down and I even had a go at touting – ‘harumi, harumi – 60 shillings … bang bang on the minibus’ and I managed to fill up the bus fast :).