A Rite of Passage in the life of
Steve Van Nattan, editor here

It was turning out to be a rather typical vacation at home (from Rift Valley Academy where I went to boarding school) and my Dad decided I was old enough to go for the mail.  Now, most of you would not have to be very old to think that was a big event, right?  Well, we lived in Kibara on the shore of Lake Victoria, and the post office was 60 miles away over terrible road.  

In those days, many mission stations, schools, and businesses in Tanganyika got their mail in a bag.  The postmaster could fill your "private bag" and seal it, and he would send it to you by bus if you requested it, but along the way various bus drivers and "tani boys" might open it to see what could be procured.  So most people sent someone to escort the mail bag back to their station.

A word about "tani boys."  A "tani boy" is a very special hired hand who rides your truck.  He helps load it and dig it out of the mud, and in the old days, he would crank the engine while the Bwana would try to start it.  Thus, his title, "tani boy," is a corruption of what the Bwana yelled when he wanted it cranked-- "Turn, boy!"  As progress came, and as electric starters became standard equipment, the "tani boy" became the guy who collected the tickets on busses and shoved the last poor victim through the back door.  To increase profits, the "tani boy" would stuff the coach of the bus so full of passangers that he would end up hanging onto the back steps of the bus, or he would climb up on top of the bus and lay on top of the baggage.

Well, the day of my rite of passage had arrived.  I was to take the empty mail bag from Kibara to Nansio and exchange it for a full one and bring it home, and I would be on my own.  Kibara, our local town, was a dusty small town like a thousand other dusty little towns in Africa.  Business was carried on by several concerns.  There were the Indians from India in the biggest shops who offered every conceivable gong and trinket an African could want.  From the walls and ceiling cascaded down an inventory that, in the USA or the UK, would fill a rather large store, but in Kibara these shops looked very small from the street.

Africans also owned small shops, like the bicycle shop and a tea shop.  Luo tribal fishermen, who lived on the papyrus shelf along the lake shore, would be hanging around the main street trying to sell dried fish.  The arrival of a bus was a pretty major event in Kibara.  Folks went to the doorways to see who would get on and off of the bus.  Mail and supply orders from far away would be dragged off of the top of the bus.  The "tani boy" might have a few chickens he wanted to sell to anyone willing to pay the price.  Negotiations were fast and doubtful.  Then off the bus tore in a towering cloud of dust.

African busses in the 1950s were not like anything you ever saw.  A company in the capital city of Tanganyika, Dar es Salaam, would order a chassis and drive train complete to be shipped from the UK.  Bedfords and Laylands were the companies of choice.  Once the bus chassis was in Africa, the local company who ordered it would then build a body or coachworks on it.  The body, in the 1950s would be built of wood, and it would be bulky and heavy.  Some companies did pretty good work, but after 50,000 miles of washboard roads, the wooden framed coachworks would be real loose in the joints, dear reader.

Now, the bus that pulled into Kibara that morning very early was well used.  The back was for general class travelers.  It would seat perhaps 35 people on wooden benches and maybe 20 more sitting on oil tins down the aisle and on one another's laps.  There were laws about overloading, but the rule of thumb was, "If your thumb could fit inside, shove on in."  My Dad made sure I got to ride First Class, which meant I rode in the front seat with the driver.  It cost two shillings more, but it was worth it.

There was no cab as such for the driver.  You see, the whole coachworks had to be supplied after arrival in Africa.  The wooden framework came all the way forward, and the windshield was mounted in the wooden works.  So, as we wound through the countryside of Tanganyika at breakneck speed, I watched the whole coachworks shift at each turn.  There would be a distinct creaking groan from all sides as the coach lurched to the right and then back to the left.  In the upper right corner above my head I could see right into the sky at times as the coachworks opened to add ventilation.

As we progressed down the road, people would run out into the road to flag down the bus.  Each time the driver stopped, he would rush the people faster and faster until they could hardly get in the back door before he was under way again.  I could not understand why this mad rush.  We finally reached some hill country where there were long hills down to bridges and back up-- over and over.  The bus driver would press the accelerator flat to the floor going down hill until we were careening along in terror, then BANG, hit the bridge deck with a crash, then up the far hill in an effort to stay in at least third gear.

I could not keep quiet any longer.  I casually asked the driver why the hurry.  The driver told me that there was another bus coming along behind us.  Well, I wondered out loud what difference that made.  He told me he wanted to be the first bus to the Rugezi ferry crossing from the mainland to Ukerewe island.

You see, we lived on a peninsula which terminated in an island named Ukerewe.  Only one road went to the island, and a ferry crossing was mandatory to get onto the island and to the big town of Nansio where the Post Office and government offices were.  I thought about this for a while.  

Then reality sunk in.  When an ordinary automobile crossed over on the ferry, it could be loaded, and all the passengers could stay aboard.  But these ferries were small pontoon arrangements.  The hired helpers would drag the chain or cable up from the lake floor over the ferry and drag the ferry along that way.  

Thanks to Mike Paterson from the UK, whose father served under the colonial office on Ukerewe Island, for the photo of the Rugezi ferry at the left.

Since this was a lake, and there was no current as at a river crossing, the system worked just fine. But, when a bus came along, the thing was almost too much for the ferry WITHOUT the passengers.  So, the passengers ALL had to cross in dugout canoes.  This meant that a complex and lengthy process was followed since the whole top of the bus would also have perhaps two tons of chickens, bags of corn, hoes, plows, and just about anything your could imagine.  Much of it might have to be offloaded and, with the passangers, ferried across in the dugout canoes.

The second bus to the ferry crossing would have a very long wait while the first bus was processed across.  I forgot the terror of the moment and turned to the driver and yelled, "Haraka, harake, rafiki."  Roughly, that means in Swahili, "Get going!"  The driver lost all inhibitions.  A representative of the White race had just given him permission to put the pedal to the metal, and HE DID!

He still needed to stop and pick up more passengers though since the "tani boy" in the back assured him he could cram in a few more.  Hey, that's profit, right?  Speed and capitalism must be balanced in order to pay the bills. So, stops were perilous, and everyone watched to the rear for the other bus. As we topped the hill going down to the landing of the ferry, Layland Motor Works of England would have been proud.  The brakes worked splendidly.  Coachworks of Africa, and chassis of the UK, were still in reasonably good fellowship. Best of all, there was not one car or bus at the ferry landing ahead of us.  Cheers went up for the driver, and, on my part, a prayer of thanks for deliverance went up to the Lord.

The process of crossing the ferry was nerve wracking for the passengers.  One of the luxuries of "going First Class" was to ride the ferry across since there were only two of us in First Class with the driver.  So, I escaped crossing in a dugout canoe.  The prospect of this is not the canoe ride itself-- the terror is that they always overload them due to the fact that another bus is coming soon.  And sure enough, the second bus rolled over the hill just as we were grinding onto the ferry in low gear. Various groans could be heard from the second bus, "Bahati mbaya" (bad luck) and "Min Allah" (Allah's will). In the rodeo of African transportation though, our driver went up a couple of notches in fame.

The crossing was as uneventful as it can be in Africa.  One canoe had to be bailed constantly to keep it afloat, but the passengers were always willing, what with the alternatives.  On the other side, we loaded up, and the ride to Nansio was leisurly since there was no more pressure to arrive first.

Nansio is a combination of port, government center, commercial chaos, and gossip city.  The four principle merchants in those days were Walji, Virji, Damji Mamji, and JP Patel.  Walji was the most friendly and the most crooked, but he had the best inventory.  JP Patel was the most honest and helpful but lacked the funds to build a large inventory.  Damji Mamji was probably a great guy, but we never shopped there-- I don't know why.

I went around to Walji's and bought some candy or something to munch on.  Walji insisted on hearing how all of my family were doing, and he made me promise to take greetings to my father.  Walji was crooked in pricing and quite able to gouge if he could get away with it, but he seemed genuinely sincere in his care of my parents.  A Hindu merchant is an obscure and perplexing person all of the time.  If honesty pays off best, he is as honest as anyone you ever knew.  If lying and tricks turn the best profit, count your fingers.  Once the Hindu cleans up on you, he reverts to sincere concern and friendliness, and he will demand that you stay for a cup of tea.  A Muslim merchant is just as friendly, but he is not a crook in business.

There was a soda pop bottling concern nearby, so I went over there for a cold soda. That was a real luxury in Africa in the 1950s. There was no electricity in the city during daylight hours, so the refrigerators, Servels from Sweden, were run on kerosene. Several merchants kept cold soda in an aging Servel in the back room. Whiskey was on hand for the Catholic priests. The flavors of soda pop were only limited by the imagination of the merchant and had nothing to do with the flavor of the beverage. My favorite was ice cream soda, which tasted more like rose water.

I wanted to catch the first bus back home, so I went on to the Post Office to get the mail. Switching bags was no trick, and off I went to the bus park. Now, in all of Africa, except possibly where civilization has intruded in South Africa, the bus leaves when it is full, and no sooner.  So, to get out of town quickly, I had to walk the line of busses and read their destinations.  The ones headed for far away destinations would leave first since they had the prospect of picking up added passengers along the way to fill the bus.  I made my choice and was delighted to find it was about to leave.  Again, I managed to acquire a First Class ticket and a place in the front seat with the driver.

By now it was very hot, perhaps 1 o'clock in the afternoon.  Nansio had taken on the mid-day odors of frying onions for the evening meal, mixed with various varieties of manure, dried fish, and elderly cuts of beef hanging in the meat market in the center of town. The dogs were in slow motion, as were many of the inhabitants. The driver was in a subdued mood due to the mid-day heat, but he was happy to see the bus full. Mamma would have enough cash to buy more beans and casava for the babies when he got home tomorrow. With some luck they could buy a goat for the coming celebration of their son's return from the government school in Mwanza. Life was good, and I was heading home. Speed would not be so high a priority since the next bus was not nearly full and would not be trying to pass us on the way back to the ferry.

The driver's section of the bus was comfortable enough, but the back of the bus was an oven.  It would have been better if the poor passengers had not been crammed in like sardines.  In any case, we made the ferry and crossed without a hitch, and we were on the mainland cruising along fine when someone in the back lost their lunch.  The bumps on the road, along with the sweltering heat, had taken their toll.  The groans were audible as people got sick one by one by proxy.  Each sick passenger inspired one behind him, and on those bus lines there were no little brown bags provided, like on your favorite airline.

Well, it was getting tense and depressing.  What was needed was a distraction.  In Africa, in Tanganyika, circa 1956, on any given day along the roads and pathways, distractions are pretty easy to come by.  Thus, a dear old man riding a bicycle was our distraction.

In all of Africa, there is a special kind of bicycle sold in nearly every Indian shop. It is made in England or Hong Kong, and it is more like a truck than a bicycle.  I believe China still makes these vehicles by the hundreds of millions and ships them around the world. Three Pigeons was the most famous brand in East Africa. This bicycle can be loaded until you would be in awe and expect it to break in half.  A whole family can climb aboard.  A special carrier is attached on the rear which is massive and holds a great load.  The bicycle is then peddled slowly since it is so heavy. It can be loaded even heavier, but the owner must walk it down the road since it would fall over if he tried to ride it. 

As we cruised along in the bus, we came to an area where the road made slow graceful curves back and forth as huge clumps of wait-a-bit thorn bushes were negotiated.  Roads in Africa don't go through such obstacles-- they simply go around them.  The "right of way" is whichever way provides the least resistance. Each of these "bushes" was really huge, averaging maybe fifteen feet high and 40 feet across.

As we rumbled along this way in the heat, we came around a particularly large bush of wait-a-bit thorns-- perhaps 200 feet in diameter.  Half way around the curve, we met an old gentleman on a bicycle, fully loaded with some unknown cargo, and just creeping along.  The bus driver blasted the horn, and I thought we would run right over the old man.  Well, the fellow did the only thing he could do-- he turned and parked the bike in the thorn bush.  The bus zipped past his rear wheel missing it by inches. The wait-a-bit thorn bush was so thick that after he crunched into the bush, and after we tore on down the road, he was left there perfectly upright, sitting motionless on his bicycle, and totally supported by the thorn bush. The wait-a-bit thorns were supporting him as they clung to his clothing.

Now, African wait-a-bit thorns are like millions of fish hooks and grow on canes similar to roses.  If you even brush up against them, you are caught solidly.  To pull away would mean the end of your clothes and probably some nasty cuts.  They can be escaped from only by stopping and peeling the branches off slowly, thorn by thorn.  Now, imagine yourself on a bicycle, completely encased in, and propped up by, a million wait-a-bit thorns and no way to back out.

Well, Africans don't deal with disaster like Westerners.  The whole bus load of passengers saw every detail of the scene and action as we tore by, and they all broke up in hilarious laughter.  Africans laugh at disaster, even if they are the one suffering.  I don't know about the old man.  It just might have been too much for him to be merry at that point.  But, the driver broke into such fits of laughter that he nearly drove into a tree.  

The roaring of laughter went on for miles, but finally it settled down.  After a period of quiet, an old gentleman in the back began to tell a story.  "Once upon a time there was an old man named Tembo.  He needed to get some corn to market to sell, and he wanted to buy some things.  So he set off early one morning from his village and on his bicycle to go to the market in Nansio."  On and on the story went.  Finally I realized that this fellow was telling the story of the old man on the bicycle in the thorn bush.  When the story teller finally got to the part where the old man met the bus, all of the passengers were on pins and needles.  As the story teller described the crunch of the bicycle into the thorn bush, the whole bus broke up all over again, including the driver.

This went on all the way home to Kibara.  Over and over the story teller would tell the story, every time the same plot, and the passengers loved it.  It also helped all of us forget the heat and stench of lost lunches.

I suppose life is very different today.  The busses are much nicer.  They build them with steel coachworks now, and there are nicer seats and better ventilation.  But, somewhere on the Kibara planes, late at night around a low fire, I dare say you can still hear a story about the old man on the bicycle and the wait-a-bit thorns.   Some things are just too good to change.