Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sunday at the Depot

“Bubble gum for five hundred kwacha! Biscuit, sugar biscuit one pin, one pin!” “Passport covers, passport covers!”

The sounds of innumerable horns honking, and hundreds of people shouting, laughing, and arguing resound through the open air.

Our mini-bus slowly comes to a halt upon entry into the bus depot – a red soil clearing cooking under the hot Zambian sun. Even on Sunday the depot is a whirl wind of activity. Immediately the bus depot seems chaotic; dozens of mini buses of different sizes are spread out in haphazard columns and groupings. Walk-around vendors encircle our bus peddling us nick-nacks through our open windows. Suckers, lollipops, passport covers, bubble gum, watches and sunglasses are just a few items shown at the open windows; glistening under the hot Zambian sun. Despite seeming chaotic there is some overwhelming system driving the depot –there are always buses ready to leave and I have yet to see an accident. It is time to switch buses and I descend into this ant-hill world of activity.

Immediately after stepping off the bus I am bombarded by offers for other buses and taxis “Hey boss where are you going? Want a taxi?” – “Awe Mukwai”* I reply. The conductor of the last mini bus gets into a scuffle with others over who gets to take the passengers to their next destination as well as who gets the lion’s share of the kwacha. I am with my friend Chris who promptly leads me from the scuffle and into our new bus – I can still see two men outside brawling in the depot; one of the men grabs the others jacket and throws him to the ground. Upon entering the new mini bus the vendors are already becoming vultures – circling, making their rounds.

Mini buses do not leave on a set time. They are far more efficient when it comes to people per quantity of gasoline consumed than our Calgary city buses that run on fixed circuits. Mini buses only leave when they are full – what full means is questionable. I have been on ‘full’ mini buses with sixteen or seventeen people; however, I have also been on mini buses with twenty five people plus conductor and driver. Just like the jumbo buses that ferry us across the Zambian highway, the mini bus does not leave till it is full. Even if a bus is deemed full upon departure from the depot it will almost invariably pick up new riders along the road as it heads to its destination.

As I wait for the bus to disembark over and over I see a man carrying a plastic tub of baked goods – fritters perhaps – walk around the depot. No one ever buys anything from him and he has become lackadaisical in his sales pitch. Perhaps the sun has got to him? Or perhaps it is his lack of sales.

The mini bus begins to fill up quicker and quicker as the conductor boisterously promotes his vessel. In the back a baby is wailing; its cries shatter the scene entirely. Even amongst the horns and shouting outside this baby’s shrill cry is indomitable. Its mother whispers gently in Bemba; however, I am still learning the language and cannot discern what the words are. The baby continues to cry until we are fifteen minutes away from the compound; mother softly comforting the entire time.

*awe mukwai essentially means ‘no thank you’ in Bemba.

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