Africa's rich travel by plane, but for most Africans, the 16-person minibus, unpredictable but always there, is the de facto form of transportation. The quirks of traveling on one are part of the experience.
Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia
I’m at a bus stop in the Zambian copper belt. There are lots of people here, but no buses. They’re supposed to come every hour or so. The next bus seems to be leaning toward “or so.”
A young man in a dirty T-shirt approaches me. He asks if I’m going to Lusaka, the nation’s capital. I am. He points at a small blue-and-white minibus taxi, and says it will be leaving in a few minutes. I assess my options. OK, I have no options. I look in the taxi. There’s an old man with rheumy eyes and a crutch. The bench seat he’s sitting on has lost most of the cushion; the vinyl seat cover has frayed to strips. The young conductor points me to the front seat, which actually has a seat belt. I sit.
So begins the kind of journey that tens of millions of Africans take every day. The rich may crisscross the continent in jetliners, and arrive in time for afternoon tea, but most of Africa’s poor and middle class travel by the venerable 16-seat minibus. Passengers may complain about safety. Newspapers may carry regular horror stories of accidents. But without minibuses like the one I was boarding, Africa itself would likely grind to a halt.
Of course, to grind to a halt, one has to at least get started, and this taxi wasn’t moving until every seat was full. At 7:20 a.m., it was still just Mr. Rheumy Eyes and me. By 7:30 a.m., our conductor with the dirty T-shirt – whose name turned out to be “Mango” – had filled up half of the van. Five minutes later we were moving, but slowly, picking up passengers one by one from the roadside. I had a feeling this could be a very long ride.