02

Trotro, matatu, sotrama… It seems like every African country has its own name for their particular flavor of minibus. You see them everywhere on this continent—small battered vans and buses in various states of repair, crammed to the rafters with men, women, children, livestock, and market goods. A conductor will hang out the side door yelling the bus’s destination and managing the fares for the passengers. These buses are the puttering, crowded lifeblood of the public transport system and I love them fiercely. For my money, and based on my experience, minibuses are one of the safer, cheaper, and more authentic ways to get around.

Enjoying the minibuses does take a certain amount of philosophical realignment. As Americans, we uphold the notion of timeliness and the sanctity of personal space. We get upset or annoyed at things that do not happen when they are supposed to and are fiercely territorial about our personal bubbles.

If you hold hard to these principles without compromise, then a minibus will frankly feel like torture to you.

They typically do not leave until they are (very) full and can often be quite close; I have ridden multiple times with someone else’s baby in my lap and a trussed-up goat between my feet. On one famous occasion, a stranger decided to take a nap by stretching out across our row and laying her head in my lap. For six hours. For those of us accustomed to roomy, air-conditioned city buses in the USA, these buses are a world apart.

But if you can let go of the need to do absolutely everything at precisely the right time and accept that you and a stranger will share your personal spaces together, these buses provide an amazing window into the realities of life wherever you travel. After all, this is the method by which local people commute to work or travel to meet friends and family. Overhearing conversations, talking to neighbors, and seeing where the bus goes will show you so much more about a country than if you hit all the tourist highlights with a private driver. I have received invitations to weddings, marriage proposals, business deals, and language lessons on these buses—sometimes all in the same trip!

Typically, bus routes in a capital city like Kampala or Bamako will radiate out and back from a central hub, following specific routes. This means that buses are not always the most direct or timely method of getting where you need to go, unless your destination lies along a particular route. Going to the next neighborhood over, for example, may require heading all the way to the central bus park and transferring to a new bus. If you get lost—as it is all too easy to do in said bus parks—all you typically need to do is call out your destination and someone will point you to the right bus.

But while they may be less direct than, say, a motorcycle taxi, a minibus will almost always be a safer proposition than a moto ride. Additionally, when you consider that a taxi (the car version) will often be ten times the cost of a bus fare, you begin to see why the minibus is my preferred option for getting around town. Ultimately, half the beauty of the minibus is in the journey itself, rather than the destination.

Of course there are risks, as with any transport option anywhere. Crashes are always possible, as is theft, and the safety of after-dark transportation is entirely contextual. Benefitting from local knowledge to educate yourself on safe times to travel and being willing to speak up or get off when you see a problem will go a long way towards mitigating these risks.

If you are coming all the way to places like Rwanda or Ghana, I would hope that you would not let the potential difficulties of travel keep you frozen in your hotel room. The minibus may be crowded and it may never depart on time, but for a curious and budget-conscious traveler like myself the minibus is the way to go. Just remember to prepare yourself!

About Colin Gerber

Colin hails from Boulder, Colorado where he received his bachelor’s degree in International Affairs at the University of Colorado. He recently completed an MPH in Community Health Promotion with a Global Health Concentration at the University of Minnesota. International work has included field research on rural empowerment through land management in Mali, rural water and sanitation improvement in Uganda, and leading American students on a cultural exchange and service-learning trip through Ghana. Colin currently serves in the Global Health Corps as a Monitoring and Evaluation Officer with Partners in Health in Rwanda. He is passionate about all forms of music, exploring new places, and making new connections wherever he goes! 

Comments

Walter r ruiz
# Walter r ruiz
Tuesday, September 22, 2015 6:58 AM
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cathy silberman
Tuesday, September 22, 2015 9:07 AM
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About the Authors

Bobby Gondola
Debra Bokur

Globe Tripper
At Grand Central Station when she was 9 years old, Debra Bokur decided that a different train from the one her parents were boarding looked as though it might be going someplace more interesting, so she took that one instead. She still loves trains, and has since traveled the world as an award-winning journalist, magazine editor and filmmaker. A member of the Society of American Travel Writers, Debra contributes regularly to Global Traveler Magazine, and serves as the magazine website’s daily feature writer.

Debra is a contributing author to Spreading the Word: Editors on Poetry (The Bench Press, 2001). She holds degrees in both Theater and English Literature, and has been the poetry editor of the nationally acclaimed literary journal Many Mountains Moving since 2002. She has also been the travel editor at national publications including Healing Lifestyles & Spas Magazine, American Cowboy Magazine, and Fit Yoga Magazine, and has been a frequent guest on Wine Country Network’s national radio program discussing the topic of international travel.

Debra once lived a double life training horses professionally in the disciplines of dressage and three-day eventing while serving as an editor and writer at several equestrian-themed publications. Her current favorite places to wander are Iceland, Switzerland, the U.K., Israel and Italy. In her new blog, Globe Tripper, Debra will bring us along on her adventures.

Bobby Gondola
Bobby Gondola

World Wanderings
Bobby Gondola serves as Director of Operations & Development at Year Up, a nationally recognized workforce development and higher education program for urban young adults. He leads both the internal operations and external relations. Previously, he was Director of External Relations at Opus 118 Harlem School of Music in New York City, the Harlem-based violin program made famous by Meryl Streep in Music of the Heart. He also worked as a community development consultant in the townships of Cape Town, South Africa.  

Bobby earned a B.A. in painting and politics from Salve Regina University and studied abroad in Rome, Italy. He also holds an M.P.P. in Political Advocacy and Leadership from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, where he was a Public Service Fellow. Bobby lives in Providence, Rhode Island and serves on theWaterFire Providence Board, College Leadership Rhode Island Program Committee, and the Providence Public School Board. He has traveled to all continents, except Antarctica and Australia, which he’ll get to. Eventually.

Aaron Shapiro
Aaron Shapiro

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Aaron Shapiro is a 2011 alumnus of University of Maryland, College Park, where he received a B.S. in Global Health and completed a minor in International Development and Conflict Management. After graduating, he joined the Global Health Corps as a program manager for Gardens for Health International in Kigali, Rwanda. Aaron has interned for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Bureau for Food Security, the Social Justice Coalition in Cape Town, South Africa, and volunteered at St. Lucia Hospice and Orphanage in Arusha, Tanzania. Aaron has also traveled in Congo, Burundi, Uganda, and Zambia. He is currently working in Washington, D.C. and applying to medical school.

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Natalia Jaffee

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Natalia Jaffee is a 10th grade student at the United Nations International School of Hanoi. She grew up in Potomac, MD and attended Cold Spring Elementary School and Cabin John Middle School. While visiting Maryland in the summer of 2011, she interned at ASIRT and published a personal account of the road situations in Vietnam. Natalia enjoys traveling and has traveled throughout East Asia. In her free time, she enjoys running, playing soccer, cooking, and reading.

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Laura Blanar

From A to B Safely: A Transportation Travel Blog
Laura Blanar traveled through Asia, Africa and Oceania with her husband, Adam, for 14 months. Prior to her travels, she worked at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety as a research scientist, and in injury and violence at PAHO/WHO as a contractor. Laura holds a Masters of Health Science from the Department of International Health at the Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health, with a specialization in health systems, and also obtained the B.A. in public health from the Johns Hopkins University. She has been published in several professional journals relating to injury and public health. In September 2011, Laura entered a PhD program at the University of Washington in public health, with a focus on injury. When not traveling, Laura enjoys running, wood carving and reading non-fiction and mystery books.