No Armrest for the Wicked

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He moved to attack. I blocked. He pivoted, fighting for space, but I had seen him coming. His plan was to thrust with his elbow. I had allowed the original incursion, and now I was paying for it. I planned to use my current advantage to force him into a corner, and eventually, right off my armrest.

The battleground for this titanic struggle, this epic duel, was a bus to Mtwara, in southern Tanzania. It was a hidden battle, fought silently in the shadows of the bus. This upstart, who had not even bought a seat on the bus (he was one of a dozen standing passengers) had wedged himself onto half a seat across the aisle from me, squashing a family of three, and now he wanted my armrest. I could not allow it.

Suddenly, I felt something touching the back of my head. His hand! He had counter-attacked onto my headrest, no doubt aiming to deprive me of my sleep. In my weakened state, I would be easy prey for his elbow. The stakes were high. I could not simply use brute force; to slam my head back would invite indignation. He would rise, loudly, and use his ace card, his ultimate weapon: fluency in Kiswahili. I would be undone. I must bide my time.

The dry landscape outside, a contrast to the lush land around Dar es Salaam, mirrored the tension inside the bus. There could be no victory here, only frustration, exhaustion. My eyes, stuffed with dust, became a new weakness.

Help came from an unlikely source, a young girl from the row behind his. She moved forward to give her mother space to reach the luggage in their desperately overcrowded row. This girl, in her purple headscarf, was at first my nemesis. With childish innocence, she brushed the man aside and laid her arm on my armrest, undoing hours of effort. I could not blame her, children are communal in Tanzania, they float from lap to lap. No doubt she expected a welcome, but victory demands sacrifice and dispassion. Nonchalantly lounging against my seat, she even sought to claim the airspace!
But I am a no-fly zone.

I thrust her puny arm aside. Magnanimous in victory, I allowed her to remain against my seat as a buffer zone between me and the man. Space was mine at last. For a while. It was a long way to Mtwara, and one must be ever-vigilant in these harsh lands.

I was in Tanzania for six weeks on a shoestring budget, backpacking along the Swahili coast. After five glorious days mooching about the dusty pavements of Dar es Salaam, magnetic heart of Tanzania, I decided to head south. The numerous bus companies offered guaranteed human contact at high speed and low cost. The occasional broken seat, greasy curtain and bit of duct tape were thrown in for free, alongside the abysmal safety record and the odd small child plonked on one’s lap.

A rival company’s bus whizzed past, the words “Air Bus” proudly curving across its rear window. Every bus had a motto. Many were religious or upbeat, others were less reassuring. Passing the bus “Nothing But Prayer” or its sister “Deal With God” might unnerve lesser vehicles, but ours, the “When Loyalty Matters” had a proud and solid statement.

These slogans flashed past our window as our bus hurtled down the road. Even the “California Love” drove to its full ability, flower power long forgotten on potholed tarmac.

The road required a flurry of signals. Headlights could mean “Hi/Please/Sorry/Go ahead/Look here/How was your weekend?”. Indicators were used to ask the driver ahead if it was safe to overtake (the car in front would flash left for “all clear” and right for “not clear”) and, occasionally, might indicate a turn. Hand signals were used constantly; the driver should never have both hands inside the vehicle.

But the single indispensable tool of the road was the hooter/horn/klaxon. Often modified to have its own tune, it had many uses. Sometimes, it was an expression of lament. A long, hard hoot to the world at large, a raised fist in the air at the injustice of the traffic, cause unknown. Or it could be a general warning sign to others present that yes, here I am. Tremble before my girth. It took on metaphysical, religious connotations. It was an expression of self. I hoot, therefore I am.

Drivers got out, moved up the road to talk, think, check out the route and work out a plan.

On our way back to Dar es Salaam, we hit a notorious patch of road. Merely bumpy when dry, when wet it became a black hole, sucking in trucks, buses, cars, and slowing time itself. We rounded a corner to find our way blocked by a big lorry, its wheels frantically trying to churn the mud into submission. Another bus arrived behind us, and another. Soon, dozens of vehicles, hundreds of passengers and tons of cargo awaited on either side of this chasm in the world of transport.

Drivers got out, moved up the road to talk, think, check out the route and work out a plan. Passengers radiated outwards, like a spider’s web, sitting quietly on the ground, chatting good humouredly. A spade appeared, and a hoe, conjured from an unknown place into what was fast becoming an oasis of activity, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest town. This unlikely setting was a chance for employment. The truck, and whatever got stuck after it, would need manpower, diggers. Others with no tools offered to push, unload, and reload. Each meter of churned earth allowed the truck to move another half-meter. This could take hours. Or days. People started preparing to spend the night, breaking the news gently to us, the wazungu.

The armrest forgotten, we were in a new battleground, this time between man and mud. The crowd cheered as a truck crossed the worst stretch in a glorious spurt of spinning wheels and flying mud. One Tanzanian, bent over the wheel of his 4×4, streaked across the softer mud alongside the road, fighting for traction. The old man quickly became a local hero. “Yes, Grandfather!” “Ndio babu! NdioBabuNdioBABUNDIOBABUUUUUUUUUU!!”. But each successful driver meant less employment to go around. Would-be rescuers dashed towards any sound of spinning wheels. Twenty strong arms unloaded and reloaded bags of ammonium nitrate from a pickup truck, a failed queue jumper. It was a 2×4, a cripple. This time, the driver stayed in the queue.

Across! The first truck made it, painfully, and so did we. But now we faced a new problem. Our bus could go no further along the narrow road unless someone going the other way stopped to let us pass. Nobody wanted to give way; all were scared to create the smallest gap, lest it be quickly filled by some unscrupulous driver. The world became divided into those going north, like us, and those going south, an unlikeable bunch. Groups moved from driver to driver to negotiate a solution. Everyone had something to say. We became mud-brothers, stuck together. I met Victor from Arusha, going south “with my labour” to lay fiber-optic cable near Kilwa. I didn’t fancy his chances; the south-bound group was a sorry-looking lot.

As for us, we had to wait for four trucks to clear the mud. The fifth truck driver had agreed to let us through.

As we passed hundreds of people waiting in the dozens of trucks, cars and buses waiting in vain for their lucky break, I couldn’t help but be thankful. How many of them could boast an armrest like mine?

This article was written by MATHIEU DASNOIS

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