Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Life through a Daladala

One of the PCV's in my CBT wrote this and I thought it was a wonderful encapsulation of what riding a dala is like here. This is her work, not mine. Enjoy! : )


(first draft)

The dala dala experience is both a thrill ride at the carnival and that anxiety nightmare that ends a moment before the fiery crash.

The first time for me I half expected Rod Serling to appear hunkered down in the back seat and in that iconic, calm voice announce that I had just entered the Twilight Zone. But certainly it was me that was the one out of sync. For everyone else, it’s part of the essential daily routine, and yes there is a rhyme and reason to Tanzanian life, but you have to look hard sometimes. But for me on this first outing, wedged in among the hefty mamas and uniformed school kids and babies and long-legged teenage boys, I was convinced Rod was right – this experience was in some other dimension.

A dala dala is a jerry-rigged van with all the padding and extras (like part of the floor?) removed to cram in more fare-payers. If you’re standing, inevitably you are, your entire body is pressed up against the metal roof, making it impossible to actually see where you are going. A stout lady in vivid pink satin (is she headed to church?) sits primly next to my legs. She takes my bulging backpack – no words exchanged – just the way it’s done. Children get passed onto strangers’ laps. (An occasional unlucky stranger learns that TZ babies don’t always wear diapers.) No one moves or speaks, best not to upset the delicate order, but it is a ridiculous sight: like a picture of one of those old fraternity contests to see how many students you can stuff into a Volkswagen.

Hanging precariously off the side is the fare-taker, always a young hotshot about 18 or 19, rail thin, who acts as a kind of carnival barker – calling out, cajoling walkers --keep ‘em coming, there are no limits. One more squeezes in, and I stare, fascinated, at where all the appendages fit in. Ten bags of flour? Put it on the roof. It’s fascinating to watch him work. He can spot someone coming out of their house up a side road and through some unspoken language between him and the driver, the van begins to lumber backwards up the hill, plucking him up.

Tanzania is a country of small-scale entrepreneurs, and the dala dalas appear to be one of the success stories. Everybody uses them, unless you have the fare and daring to hail a piki piki (motorcycle). The piki piki guys all think they’re James Dean, even though they don’t know it. It’s all about volume here – dala dalas, ferries, buses. The more fares, the more money in your pocket. The result, unfortunately, is a lot of accidents, like the recent ferry capsizing on the way to Pemba. Apparently they didn’t learn a thing after the even more deadly Lake Victoria capsizing.

Adding to the carnival effect is the paint job. Tanzanians don’t get too excited about art, at least not the kind you put on your living room wall, but the dala dalas do display a creative side. Colors, slogans, you name it, even a “Barack Obama express,” gives each one its peculiar character. But something like “In God We Trust” is definitely a theme. Usually displayed on the back, as a kind of indirect warning, it sets the tone: “We’re hell-bent on getting down the road as fast as we can, but God will avert disaster (we hope).”

With my head crammed up against the roof, I know I was praying. Here there are no stop signs, street or traffic lights, or even a “Slow. Children Playing” sign. DD’s and every other wheeled contraption on the road are invited to join the games. Weaving left and right, like a dance, competing with the piki pikis, bicycles and the hapless walkers.

The last are down the scale of concern with dogs and chickens, I’m convinced. Pedestrians just get a beep-beep, their only warning to get out of the way. I learned to heed the minimal warning whenever I found myself walking that tightrope of space between the edge of the road, which apparently belongs to the bicycles, and a deep ravine that the annual rains carve out.

We hit a pothole at full power. I groan and curse under my breath. Thirty pairs of eyes tell me: hamna shida. Then we pull over. The kid has remembered my stop, and that he owes me 200 shillings (he’s a professional). I extricate my head and legs, one at a time. Next trip, maybe this will all seem normal. What better place to practice TZ’s particular kind of zen. Glowering at the guy as he packs one more soul in won’t get you there any faster.

I glanced back. There was Rod S., who now was holding two chickens.

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