posted on December 02, 2013 22:37
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!