July 15, 2024

Confessions of a Kombi addict

I am always beguiled by the beleaguered people of Zimbabwe, for whom in some cases just getting through each and every day is a triumph. Blighted by a lack of regular employment and affected by a fragile economic, shortages and very often without any mains water supply and intermittent electricity. I witnessed first-hand the trials and tribulations of their daily survival, as I was privileged to have spent some time staying in Chi town – Chitungwiza; to be more precise, in Zengeza 3. Yes, I was that Murungu (white man); the only one in town, as far as I could see.

Generally, people certainly didn’t appear to be expecting to see me walking around the district or further afield in Makoni. “Murungu, Murungu,” children shouted, many of them running over to me. Some wanted to hold my hand and occasionally one of them would stroke the unfamiliar light coloured hair on my arms. Adults were mostly pleased to see me and smiled or nodded my acquaintance. Broader smiles appeared when I attempted my limited Shona vocabulary.

Joseph, my genial host and future father in law, was gracious with his hospitality and time. He insisted upon ferrying me everywhere. No matter how near or far, to the places I had decided I wanted to visit around the capital Harare, its environs and beyond. Being chauffeured around in the relative comfort of sitting up front in his Nissan Pick-up, I benefited from Joseph’s imparted vast local knowledge and wisdom. Despite my protestations, I was not allowed to swap and sit in the back and let Blessing my newly adopted Mother, sit on a proper seat, rather than the uncomfortable hard floor at the back. I was their guest and must be treated as such, which meant being spoilt to death. However, my protestations were mild compared to Joseph’s when I suggested that instead of having to rely upon him and take his time up yet again, when I wanted to travel into Harare, that I would use a Kombi bus.

Joseph was adamant that I reconsider and struggled to understand why I would want to risk life and limb and put myself in such unnecessary and avoidable danger. Why be uncomfortable and be crushed together in an overloaded metal coffin on wheels? He reiterated the possible carnage of a probable accident. However, I was also just as adamant and argued that if this mode of transport was used by the general populace, then it was okay for me. I was no different, other than being an English Murungu, of course.

I appreciated that he felt responsible for my safety and I listened as he explained his legitimate reasoning as he tried to convince me otherwise. On the road, we discussed the preponderance of commuter omnibuses, known as Kombis. Joseph explained that they were virtually the last form of cheap public transport available and that competition was fierce. There were many licensed operators out there; some individual owners and some owning a fleet of vehicles. But, the market had been flooded by illegal unlicensed drivers.

No one knows how many Kombis there are on the roads, but at one point it was estimated that it could be between five and ten thousand, of which only approximately 30-40% are registered with the city. The official licensees had been granted specific routes to ply their trade, but because of the intense competition, many drivers have to go off track searching for passengers, using undesignated pick-up points (mushikashika). It is often the unlicensed drivers who have to do this, if they cannot get into the official ranks.

When out in the pick up, I was conscious of Kombis buzzing all around us: overtaking, undertaking, cutting in and out and tailgating; all but ramming into the back of us. Horns blaring, lights flashing; bullying us to move over to let them by, as they raced through the traffic to get to the next passenger, ahead of their rivals; chasing the dollar. Accidents are common because of the speed, the erratic, irresponsible, dangerous driving and the unworthiness of some of the vehicles. Joseph pointed out a spot on the road into Harare where eleven people had been killed in one such tragedy.

Many of them flout every traffic regulation and often appear to get away with it, despite the strategically placed Police road blocks all around the city. Unfortunate Commuters travelling on the 25km stretch of road leading into the city from Chitungwiza get frustrated with using Kombis, often the only public transport available to them, because they could possibly encounter one or two road blocks on their journey. The licensed operators are often penalised, appearing to be fined for insignificant petty and trumped up offences. Therefore, passengers often choose to go with unlicensed drivers who often get waved through the roadblocks, having allegedly paid bribes. The City authorities do not appear to have binding agreements with the operators to provide scheduled time-tables. Therefore, the passengers are at the mercy and the whim of the drivers. Passengers have to leave extra early to ensure arrival at any planned appointment, but it is never guaranteed.

As well as having to contend with the roadblocks there are other challenges for the Kombi drivers. There are fuel shortages, insufficient ranks and charges made for illegal parking, not always deliberate, as there is no room at the ranks. For this and a variety of other reasons, Kombis can be impounded and an operator can end up having to pay a fine, a retrieval fee and storage charges to get their vehicle back.

Then there is the culture of the touts and rank marshals who are vying for protection fees at particular ranks in the city. A tout or whindi can indeed protect a business, or could also be a risk and threat to it. A whindi is an independent operator, a powerful person who will lure customers to a Kombi for that particular trip; for a fee. A term used in context of their role is Mandimbandimba, which refers to their power and invincibility.

A Kombi driver’s day can begin as early as 5:00am and may not end until later than 9:00pm. An owner–driver can at least chose and accept his heavy workload, as he will benefit and be rewarded for the hours he puts in. However, the poor put-upon employed drivers are under pressure to meet tight targets and consequently take chances and break the law.

To make Kombi’s memorable, to attract passengers and recognizable to encourage them to become regular users, they are often “pimped”; embellished with all manner of names and slogans. The coachwork is mostly white, but emblazoned with colourful lettering of various size and font. They may be an individual’s epithet, company names, sponsorship / advertisements, biblical verses or quotes and totems (cultural markers to identify a person and to show their origin). The Falcon, Xenophobia, Mr Perfect, Big Phil, King of the Road and God’s Samaritan are all examples. There is also plenty of reference to football (mostly English Premiership teams), which are huge in Zimbabwe. I spotted Kombis showing allegiance to Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal (but not any for my beloved Leicester City). I saw as many be-shirted people showing their loyalty to the above than I probably would have see in the club’s home cities. Some also fix various objects onto the body of their vehicle.  I saw footballs, dolls, tennis racquets, fishing rods and hockey sticks; everything and anything to be unique and memorable.

Of course, the idea is that if passengers have a good journey they will not only use that Kombi again, but will recommend it to others. Conversely though, the easily identified Kombi will also be avoided and friends and family warned off using it, if there has been a negative experience. Although, the truth is that people have to use what is available, good or bad, to get where they are going and back again. And even if they do try to use the same Kombi, this may not always be possible, as it may have been withdrawn without them knowing, to be used elsewhere or for a wedding or a funeral.

Kombi people have developed their own coded language, so a driver can converse with his crew without the passengers being aware of what they are saying. For example: if there are too many prospective passengers at a bus stop, any oversized person will be discussed beforehand and restricted from boarding, as they would take up too much room.

There is also another concerning risk attached to boarding an unfamiliar Kombi. It is not unusual for criminals to take advantage of desperate, unsuspecting commuters at undesignated pick-up areas. Vehicles with false number plates will pick them up and take them to an out of the way place and rob them of their valuables. And where are the police when you may need them? Mostly operating their road blocks which has become an easy way to raise much needed funds.

Some local police stations are even in competition with others by placing their roadblocks in strategic positions on the unsubstantiated borders of their catchment areas, to maximise their income stream. Some police officers are often distracted by their own involvement in the business. Some even own Kombis and supposedly grant their own drivers special treatment, waving them through, giving them an unfair advantage by then holding up both the legitimate and otherwise. There appears to be no problem with the obvious conflict of interest in these circumstances.

The local authorities have tried to clean up the problem and change the system, but there have been violent disputes. Things carry on in much the same way. Recently, some new licensed public buses were in evidence. But the Kombi still rules the roads.

When Joseph had gone out one morning, I, accompanied by Mercy, my wife to be and her brother (my new brother) Hope, walked along the dusty roadside on the back roads to one of the main drags, which led to the city road. Sure enough, after a short time, a Kombi approached from behind, horn sounding and the conductor hanging out the side window, banging on the roof and shouting to get our attention. We signalled our intention to board, and the battered old Toyota swung in just beyond us.

As I climbed in, I acknowledged the conductor and then the driver, whose eyes were hidden behind wrap-around shades, and was met with a nod. I made my way through to the second row from the back of the bus. Having to raise two improvised, makeshift seats across the gang way, which were merely hinged wooden planks. As I looked around I counted that there were already eleven people on board, all of whom looked surprised to see me join them. Mercy and Hope found seats nearer the front; we now made a total of fourteen. All of us were perspiring and adding to the already evident aroma of unavoidable and inevitable sweat. I noticed a little sign above the windshield stating a maximum of fifteen passengers.

I settled in between a large man, improbably wearing a three piece dark blue striped, but crumpled and sweat stained suit on a very hot day, and an even larger middle aged woman virtually hidden behind two large shopping bags. I was quite literally squashed in and any slight swerve or change in direction caused me to be crushed. I was so close to the woman it was tantamount to being intimate. I half expected that I may have to do the honourable thing and offer to marry her. My nose twitched involuntarily as I breathed in the powerful smell of fish, emanating from the woman’s shopping bag, just inches from my face. I was not certain if it was fresh or dried, but whatever it was, with the temperature inside the Kombi, it would probably be cooked by the time the woman got it home. I was concerned that my fellow passengers may suspect the smell was me.

My senses were assaulted from all sides. Loud dancehall music pumped out of the speakers; I was informed afterwards by Hope that it was Killer T. I loved it, but had no room to show off my moves and impress with what Mercy called my “White man shuffle.” My eyes tried to take in the flourish of colour and shapes of the sights of the high density areas we passed through. The range of goods sold at the side of the road was huge.

Every imaginable type of fruit (piled up in pyramids), blankets on the ground displayed clothes, shoes and hundreds of other items; too many to list. Everything from homemade bricks to car parts to coffins to sofas could be purchased. And an oversubscribed army of mobile phone top-up vendors were selling credit in dollar multiples.

The Kombi pulled up opposite an alfresco barbers shop, and to my relief two school children disembarked. Unfortunately they were replaced by four new passengers, all of whom gave me a second look, as if they couldn’t believe their eyes the first time. If I thought I was already squashed, I had to sit sideways to allow a tall, slim youth in a string vest and long combat shorts to perch on the end of the seat, his face was forced up against the window. There were now sixteen of us, as well as the driver and the shouter / conductor. I’m certain I could hear the suspension complaining above Killer T, as we hit unavoidable potholes in the road.

Another feature of Kombi transportation is the passing to and fro of filthy dollar notes from passenger to conductor. They are barely recognisable as bank notes, as they are so badly worn and black with the stains of hundreds of transactions. In perpetual circulation, they are quite literally still worth the paper they are printed on. My own DNA is probably on some of the notes still being passed around, as on occasion I had been a conduit for the fares of those sitting behind me.

We arrived safely at our destination at Coca Cola Corner – a busy junction on the edge of the city, and disembarked.  We then made our way to catch another Kombi, to take us out to Kensington. Only a short journey, but another adventure nevertheless. The return journeys were memorable for the traffic lights at Coca Cola Corner being out of action (a regular occurrence), and the whole area being gridlocked. The driver wrestled his way through, as if driving a battering ram. He was brutal, unapologetic and cursed and threatened other drivers and made it clear that he was no gentleman of the road. As it got dark it was evident that the vehicle had no functioning headlights, but despite this the driver decided to make up for lost time. Once on the dual carriage way sections of Seke Road, he reached improbable speeds, and was oblivious to potholes and speed humps.

I’m already looking forward to the inevitable drama of my next trip, when Joseph’s back is turned and I can sneak out again.

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