Minibus drivers. They’re a different kind of breed. Aggressive, hot-headed and unapologetic, they have all the characteristics of an obnoxious, testosterone-exuding preteen trying to prove his worth. Yet somehow, they’re even more irritating. As you approach any bus depot (or in fact any place where there is a bus), they will swarm you like vultures to roadkill.
“Madame! Madame! Yes you are coming to Lilongwe! Come! Come!”
Oh… Am I? I thought I was just walking to the market to buy some flour…
These vultures flock to any body they detect. They yank your bags off your back and begin to pack them away before you can even process what’s happening. They slap down the metal chairs inside their buses, often hitting other passengers’ limbs and tell you to squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. They sloppily sling children off their mothers’ backs and toss them into the bus like a sack of potatoes. They rev their engines and tell you they are leaving “fast-fast” but then you spend an hour sitting still.
Minibuses are the only mode of accessible transport to the average Malawian. While there are scheduled “big buses,” these can be quite expensive and only travel between the major cities. Minibuses, on the other hand, will stop any point on the road– wherever there is an arm reaching out to flag them down. And often, they’ll stop when no one at all is flagging them down. “Hey look, there are two people facing the opposite way in deep conversation 100 meters from the road. Maybe they are looking for a ride!”
If you do in fact require a lift, the first step is to negotiate a price with the conductor. Without fail, he will name an astronomical price (especially if you are an azungu). Hopefully, you know the fare and can barter down to what’s fair. To miss this step is a rookie mistake. I’ve seen an agogo (elderly woman), who didn’t pre-negotiate, get dumped on the side of the road mid-route after refusing to pay the greatly inflated price of which she was just informed.
Your next duty is making sure your bags are safe. If you have a large pack, it will be shoved somewhere in the back amongst buckets of fish, sacks of maize, chitenje-wrapped luggage, a box of tomatoes, and a screaming goat. It’s important to keep an eye on the bag for you never know who might be violating your zippers and stealing your IntoCircuit 15000mAh Battery Bank that your parents just gave you for Christmas…
After settling in, your only task is to endure. Minibuses are overcrowded 99.9% of the time (according to my research) and you will never have enough room. Instead of sitting three to a row, conductors cram in at least four regular-sized humans with their respective children and bags sitting on their laps. (Picture the last row of that ol’ minivan you used ride in to soccer practice. Now, picture it stuffed with four large adults, two children and a rustling plastic bag with a live chicken head poking out of it). Due to the intense squishiness of the situation, your arms are trapped at your side, suctioned into the undulating shape of the voluptuous woman sitting next to you. Those trapped human arms have now been demoted to T-Rex arms. You can barely reach your forehead to wipe off the beads of sweat that have formed and instead, let them drip down your face. Did I mention that it’s hot season and 100 degrees out? The air you breathe is thick and filled with many interesting smells, including but not limited to: fish, baby poop, baby spit up, adult throw up, chickens, rotting tomatoes, goat, and of course, body odor. The stench is unbearable as no one, including yourself, is wearing deodorant. (In fact, you realize that you didn’t actually shower yesterday and feel a creeping guilt that maybe you’re the one who’s primarily responsible for the B.O.)
Further compounding your discomfort of is the fact that the distance between each row of seats is astonishingly minimal. Most of the time, your long American thighs cause your knees to be rammed into the back of the seat in front of you, offering another lucky passenger a bony, blundering massage. Unfortunately, there’s no way of adjusting your legs because directly under your feet is another sack of maize.
As aforementioned, minibuses are the only budget-friendly transport in Malawi. This means that even if a person is traveling from Nsanje to Chitipa (over 600 miles), they will be on a minibus. Aside from the lack of comfort, minibuses are notoriously and painfully slow. Some buses are delayed by heartless drivers who pull over in the middle of nowhere for a random 30 minute break. Others are slowed down by policemen, who saunter around the bus, “inspecting” it’s stickers while subtly looking for a bribe. And yet others delay themselves, purposefully driving slowly to maximize the number of passengers they can squeeze on. A five hour journey by car turns into a twelve hour journey by minibus.
Yet, despite all of these hardships, I have come to love and appreciate the sense of camaraderie and quirky smel—- just kidding. Minibuses are awful and I cannot wait for American transportation once again.