Into Africa I fly on a one-way ticket. Journey through fourteen countries in twenty-two months on local transportation. A woman without advantage of youth or money. Learning. Resting. Changing. The journey has many pieces. This is one.

The Bus Ride


Susan Gene McCartney

September 2009

Kigoma is tucked in the northern corner of vast empty Western Tanzania. I got here yesterday. This small town is the northern port on Great African Lake Tanganyika for the regal British ferry M.V. Liemba. Tomorrow I will ferry three hundred miles to Zambia at the southern tip of the Lake.
At Port Office the Tanzanian official in tailored khaki speaks perfect British English. “Unfortunately, Madame, the ferry is unexpectedly dry docked for repair in Zambia.”
Broad smile. “When does it return to Kigoma?”
He looks sad. “No one knows.” Taps ballpoint on highly varnished desk. “There is one other way to go south on the Lake.”
He escorts me down the shore to a fly-filled stretch deep in mud. Swaying hollow wooden skiffs have no lights or cover. Barefoot locals spatter through mud shouting Swahili.
The Official explains. “They buy and sell tickets for the night journey. They overload on these skiffs. Go south every night, stop at each village.”
The thought of being stacked onto a hard-boiled skiff sliding through midnight black bottomless water gives me the willies.
Half-way back to Port Office is an empty pebble beach. I thank the gracious Official for his time and stay on the beach. A swimsuit is under my kanga today.
I swim into the green shimmer of Tanganyika—longest lake in the world—second deepest—estimated nine to twelve million years old. Water soft and light as spider silk.
Drying on flat stones, I think on how to get south to Zambia.
No planes fly south—not that I would take a plane. I relish seeing magical surprises of unknown land and people—hard to do from the air. A second reason is the laughing young ginger-haired English lady I met yesterday. We had tea. She held aloft a ten-inch Bowie knife. “I have passed through four airport security areas with this knife,” she told me.
Trains don’t travel south through remote Western Tanzania.
Buses probably do—they go everywhere in Africa.
I roll on my back, prop on elbows. Breathe in Tanganyika. It’s late afternoon. My mind luxuriously rolls back nine to twelve million years. Ancient sunshine runs warm yellow sheets across the Lake. It smells like butter.
At my hotel—cheap white box on a treeless hill—I ask about the bus. The bus goes tomorrow for sure. No one knows exactly what time it leaves. Everyone agrees it will be ‘morning’.
Early morning. I scurry in what the hotel tells me is the direction to the bus. On silent British paved streets, I pass square brick buildings, clipped green lawns, carefully pruned bushes. Paved streets narrow, turn to dirt. Square brick replaced by wooden shacks.
A few men loll on a shabby porch. I approach. Polite, enunciated English. “Bus? South?”
A mile-high ebony man with arms to his knees looks me over—mature white woman in orange and brown kanga rolling a battered black canvas suitcase. Dyed red hair straggles from yellow head wrap
He grins. A gap between strong white front teeth. I follow his loping grace down pinched snaky streets. He stops in front of a row of bare-board stalls. Gestures, nods and is gone.
The stalls look empty. I yell at them. “Bus? South?”
A dark head bobs. “Where you go?”
“South. Zambia?”
A dot of a man. His bandy body squats on the dirt floor of the stall. Studies scraps of scribbles tacked on a hand-drawn map. Points sooty finger. “First to Tabora.” He shows me the map.
Broad smile. “Isn’t Tabora in the opposite direction?”
He laughs. “No hurry.” Points again. “Tabora south to Mbeya. Only way. Many buses from Mbeya to Zambia.”
The bus is short, round, yellow with a black stripe. Inside is clean, grey and empty. Half-way down the narrow aisle I take a seat on hard cracked vinyl. Sun eclipses early morning freshness. Head climbs into the bus.
Riders board now and then. Barefoot old men, pants tied with rope. High-cheeked women in splashy blues, reds, oranges, intricate head wraps. Babes back slung in colored cotton quiz me with button eyes. Bare polished shoulders of children. Men in tees, vibrant capes, crisp white shirts.
The aisle crowds. Every seat is taken except one—next to me—the only white person on the bus.
“Good morning!” Young man in white shirt. “Everyone but me is too shy to sit with you. My name is Iman. I am a student at the University of Dodoma.” I see his pride” He smiles all over himself. “Buses here do not leave until every seat and standing space is taken.”
Iman sits down. Immediately the bus rumbles off.
All riders have open windows. Breeze blows heat away. Green nourished by Lake Tanganyika gives way to parched lips of land.
“I’m going to Mbeya.” I say to Iman
He nods. “I am also going to Mbeya. This bus to Tabora takes eight hours. The bus to Mbeya will leave tomorrow morning.”
Why didn’t the bus guy in Kigoma tell me I’d be staying in Tabora overnight.
I doze to slow revs of rhythm. Awake to a tiny storm of outside noise. The bus has stopped at a village. Stripling arms sent by mothers stretch up on both sides of the bus to sell from baskets of homegrown food.
I buy sweet brown bread and sticks of barbequed goat through my window. Hours later—the second village—last one Iman tells me—bush meat jerky, fried dough packed with cabbage and carrots, lots more bread.
Nearly dark. Tabora. Iman asks the driver to drop him on the dusty main road where his brother Jasper waits. Iman invites me along. The gallant brothers guide me to a tiny inn—hot room with featherbed. Fetch me in the morning for pots of chai and stacks of chapati at a local café.
We walk to the Mbeya bus. The bus has no place for me. All seats and standing room are reserved. Why didn’t the bus guy in Kigoma tell me about reservations.
Iman and Jasper talk to the bus conductor in Swahili. I understand nothing. The brothers tell me the conductor agrees to sell me his seat for Two Tanzanian Shillings—Twenty-Five American Cents. Sold. The conductor seat is a single window across from the driver in the small sparse cab.
The bus fills. The conductor takes a standing position on the entry steps.
Last to board is the driver. A sparkplug of young wide muscle. Stretched white tee. He pulls in through his offside door. Takes the high seat without a sideways glance. Flat fingers grip the steering wheel. Engine revs under the rubber bonnet at his side. Grey smoke blows out back. He throws the clutch.
Top speed is forty miles per hour. Bus fare from Tabora to Mbeya is Twenty-Four Tanzanian Shillings—Six American Dollars. We ride all day, all night till past sunrise.
Unsettled flat land expands. Horizons back away. Dimension disappears. Riders descend bus steps—walk off to invisible destinations. Riders appear from nowhere to ascend.
Some seats empty. I sit for a while with Iman on his lopsided seat in the back. Only he and I speak English. The bus threads dry plains. The road changes to wagon tracks of sand.
I’m high on the desolate freedom of this back road. Iman and I duck swollen thorn buds big as baseballs that swipe at us through open windows. Thorn thickets disappear. Sun-punished earth is white powder.
I hardly hear the shout, pitched so high. The red-ridged mouth is open. Thin black shoulders glisten with sweat and alarm. A small barefoot boy runs hard at us from a lone straw hut about three hundred yards off our sand track.
Dark heads don’t turn toward the high-pitched shouts. Looks are straight ahead. Ramrod stiff like cardboard cutouts. Iman—next to me—turns to cardboard. Another mile—second little boy—runs, shouts. Riders and driver deaf and blind. A third—the last little boy with an old mouth.
“Iman! What did those little boys shout?”
Iman shifts. Embarrassed. Weary. “They ask for water.”
Predatory thorn bushes reappear. Road crusts brown. We pile out for the first of three daylight breaks. Men turn their backs to pee where they stand. Women hustle in groups down a worn thorny path. Squat. Giggle.
Together again near the bus everyone pulls out food and drink brought with them. I didn’t know to bring anything. The women share with me—bread, oranges, and water.
Ascenders from nowhere fill the bus. I’m back in the conductor’s seat. Three lanky flat-muscled young men culled from the plain hang on handrails above my seat. They lean close. Curious. Silent. Thrust chests forward. Look over the top of my head out the window. I don’t look at them either—sit still—white animal under inspection.
The conductor rages from his position on the entry steps. The young men straighten. Mystery bends them close again. Twice more the conductor yells. Young men slant backward—forward.
Women who stand in the aisle sally forth. Float glances. Puff soft laughter. Ease in. Circle me with brilliant kangas. Young men lounge away.
Dusk. Overload. Headlights reflect blue rays on riders wedged against the windshield and on the steps. My circle of women tightens. Those with babes tied to their backs think nothing of standing all night. They allow me to hold their young. Some babes readily come into my arms. Others refuse with effortless screeches.
We take only one night-break. Black plains sigh and groan. A baby arm reaches up to grab the muted silver slice of moon. Everyone stays near the bus to pee. Women pee standing up. I already know how to do this. The secret is no underwear. All women are in fine African cotton but don’t wear underwear.
Back on the road. The driver smirks sideways—his first look my way. He flips a switch under the dash. Rock and Roll pulses down the aisle—Beatles, Dylan, Presley—blue rayed riders lean back-to-back, weave to the beat—Charles, Doors, Stones—rows of seated riders sway in the dark—Zeppelin, Hendrix. The miles dance by.
The driver stops the music. Whips the clutch. Backs up. Headlights spot overturned wheels and glints of metal. A flipped motorcycle gleams at the edge of the road. Bus doors whish. The conductor steps down. Two men follow. Voices stir the dark.
The cyclist is carried up the stairs. Jammed riders move back. His broken body lies at my feet in shades of blue—deeper where blood seeps.
Silent hours. Engine thrums. Standing riders press together. The driver clutches down and stops. Opens the door. Silhouettes murmur. The cyclist is lifted down.
Door closes. Bus starts. Music blasts. Riders dance. Sun rises.

Susan Gene McCartney was born in Montana. A world traveler, she follows her heart to enrich her life. In New York City, she studied acting and playwriting at Ensemble Studio Theatre. Her play ‘The Freak Show’ was produced in the City. In Belize she founded Placencia Children’s Theatre Company. At 64 she traveled to fourteen African countries in two years via local transportation. She taught English to Swahili boys in Tanzania. She is now writing stories about her two years in Africa and hopes to publish a collection in the future.