A Tanzanian Bus Ride

Author:  Carolyn P. Simoneaux, Ed.D. 

Early morning in Moshi, Tanzania is the most beautiful time of the day. The sun shines on Mount Kilimanjaro, and the glacier is turned into a strawberry ice cream cone. The air is cool as the wind blows off the glacier, down the mountainside, and into the African town. The birds sing the air smells fresh and sweet, and a cup of coffee on the veranda with the mountain in view makes the rest of the long equatorial summer day bearable. And so it was, on a summer morning as Tim and I set out for a trip from Moshi to Arusha, a distance of about 50 miles. We left our compound early, around 7:00 A.M., and started the three-mile walk down into town and to the bus station.

The walk took about an hour, and we arrived at the bus station hot and thirsty. The cool morning air had turned quickly into mid-morning heat. The station was crowded with people coming and going. The buses revved their engines, and the smell of diesel fumes hung heavy in the air. The buses’ conductors hung out the doors of the buses shouting their destination.

“Arusha, Arusha, tunaondoka, sasa! Haraka, haraka! (Arusha, we are leaving now. Hurry!),” the conductor of the Arusha bus shouted.

We quickly boarded the bus, paid our fare, and found a seat. I looked around at the relatively empty bus and thought, “This is wonderful. The bus is less than half-full.” Surely, this would be an easy trip, not as terrible as we had expected.

The bus driver raced his engine. Vroom, vroom. The conductor shouted out the door. Diesel fumes filled the bus. Suddenly, all was quiet. The bus driver had turned off the engine and, with the conductor, got off the bus and walked over to a nearby kiosk. There, they met a group of men and begin to have an exuberant conversation under the tree. To our amazement, they squatted down beneath the tree. It appeared as though they would be there for a while.

Thirty minutes or so passed before the driver and conductor returned. Meanwhile, Tim and I kept our seats in the hot bus rather than seek a cooler spot outside. A few more passengers had boarded the bus, and we didn’t want to lose our seats.

The driver started the engine, the conductor shouted, and it looked like we were really going to go this time. But, oh no! The driver turned off the engine, and he and the conductor returned to their friends under the tree. As before, they stayed, talking with their friends, for about thirty minutes before returning to the bus.

Soon, the bus was about three-quarters full. Engine revving, conductor shouting, unbelievably, the bus finally started moving. Out the station we went, down the street, and around the corner. All the while, the conductor leaned out the bus shouting, “Hurry, hurry, we going to Arusha!” I was quite pleased because we were on our way and the bus had lots of room; we weren’t as crowded as I had feared we would be.

Around the corner we went, around another corner, and then, to my utter dismay, we pulled back into the station. Not so surprising now, the driver and conductor got off the bus and joined their friends under the tree! Were we ever going to leave?

Finally, after another false start, circling the block trying to recruit more passengers, the bus was completely full, and we actually got started. Still optimistic, I was thankful the bus was only comfortably full, and we had only had to wait two hours.

As we neared the edge of town, the bus slowed down and stopped. The conductor jumped off the bus, and we watched as he grabbed the parcels that were lying on the ground by a group of people. As he began to throw the parcels on the roof of the bus, I got the general idea. These people were getting on the bus. Oh no!!! My most dreaded scenario was happening.

Again and again, for the fifty miles to Arusha, the bus stopped to pick up passengers, parcels, chickens, and even a goat. I was so very glad for my window!

With chickens cackling, goats bleating, and people talking at the top of their lungs to be heard, we made our overloaded way to Arusha. The bus groaned its way up hills and around curves, sometimes on its own side and sometimes blindly passing other vehicles.

Finally, we arrived in Arusha. I made my shaky way off the bus, thankful to still be alive and in one piece. As we walked out of the bus station, more than five hours after leaving home that morning, we decided that, in the future, we would hire a private taxi, and forgo the amazing experience of a Tanzanian bus ride.