Saturday, July 24, 2010

Let Me Off the Bus!

Zambians tend to be easy-going, soft-spoken, respectful, and friendly. They raise their voices in song and sometimes in worship, but not often in argument. People greet you as you walk. They frequently will stop to chat if they know you. Drivers may speed, but I have seen no evidence of road rage. It's a pretty mellow place. So this experience was exceptional.

I was going to town on an errand and got on a minibus. It had a spiderweb crack in the front windshield, indicating that at some time something or someone had bounced against it, but I didn't notice that detail until later. We started off, and I saw that we were going to go by the back road route, passing by the entrances to several compounds before reaching the heart of town. That was fine with me, as I was in no particular hurry.

After several stops to pick up passengers along the road, the driver made a stop which must have been improper in some way--not far enough from the traffic lane, or in the wrong area--and the police pulled up. They asked the driver to come out. He locked his door, opened his window just a crack, and instructed his "conductor" (the young man who collects fares) to keep his door locked. He then tried to placate the police officer. "Sorry, Boss, Sorry, Sorry, Sorry" he kept saying. Then when the insistent officer walked a slight distance to consult with his partner, the bus driver took off. The police got in their car and followed us.

The other passengers were commenting, but it was in Bemba, so I couldn't understand what they were saying. From the tone, I thought they were on the driver's side in this confrontation. (Sometimes police here are interested in getting a quick payment of a fine on the spot, or possibly a bribe.) So we drove on, at a fairly fast speed. When we stopped to add more passengers, however, the police again stopped. They positioned their police car right in front of the minibus and spoke to the driver again. After a heated discussion, I believe they instructed the driver to turn the bus around and come to the police station.

He did turn the bus around, but then he took off like a shot and sped along the road. As soon as there was a dirt road into the nearest compound, we went barrelling down that road, scattering chickens and people right and left. The bus rocked and jolted and skidded around curves. (These roads were full of people--school children with their backpacks, mothers with babies on their backs, people carrying sacks to the little market stands.) All the passengers were holding on for dear life as we drove through these crowded roads, barely a lane wide, full of ruts and holes and rocks, as well as the pedestrians. We kept turning sharply over and over again at corner after corner, leaving huge clouds of dust behind us. Now the bus passengers appeared to be telling the driver to please slow down, take it easy, as we bounced and shook and were scared that we would crash into something or run down someone. I think we all genuinely feared for our lives.

Finally we saw the main road ahead again and the driver pulled up to it. He looked both ways for signs of the police and didn't see them. He pulled out cautiously and stopped someone to ask if they had seen any police. When the answer was no, he proceeded to continue on quickly into town, making no more stops.

By the time we arrived, we had all caught our breath and calmed our hearts and were just grateful to have survived the trip. I know that one person, at least, had prayed aloud during the ordeal, and the rest of us probably prayed silently.

On my return trip, I found a clean minibus, no cracks in the windshield, with a quiet, polite driver. It had a sticker on the front window in the corner proclaiming that the bus was protected by the blood of Jesus, and I took that as a good sign portending a safe return trip--and it was.

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