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Buffalo vs Bus – both sides lose


The adventure continues and I’m finding that Africa is beginning to grow on me…. especially life in the bush. Although I’ve spent my life travelling and working in countries and continents around the globe nothing quite compares to life in Africa. It’s hard to explain the attraction but hopefully in time I will understand it and can communicate it properly. There is certainly the feeling that this is where it all began…..that this is where WE all began. My neighbours in the bush live similar lives to their ancestors. Not much has really changed here.

I’m sitting here in my cottage without lights or electricity (frequent power outages here) and can hear my neighbour Hebensu Nandu, his wife, and children laughing while playing games in the dark beside their mud hut that adjoins my property. Hebensu speaks Tonga (his first language) but can also get by in English. He told me that he has two biological children aged 2 and 5 and that he also looks after his brother’s 11 year old daughter. They all share an 8ft by 10 ft mud structure with a thatched roofed that serves as a home. Hebensu’s brother and his brother’s wife died of aids a year ago so Hebensu is raising his 11 year old niece as his own child. Sadly, this is a common occurrence here in Africa. Hebensu must only be about 25 years old. It’s a responsibility that few in developed countries would accept at such a young age.

So….back to my second week in Africa……………

I travelled to Lusaka at the end of my first week here to obtain my Zambian commercial pilots licence. Some might think that in a third world country this would be easy but the fact is that Zambia, being a former British Colony, has adopted the strict British system and structure for aviation qualifications. As a lifelong recreational pilot the exam was way over my head and I failed to obtain a passing grade. Never having failed an exam in my life this was absolutely soul destroying. Having endured a 7-hour bone crunching bus journey to Lusaka, a stay in a mosquito infested backpacker’s dormitory, no food for 48 hours, and thugs trying to relieve me of my money, I was devastated to say the least.

I returned to Livingstone embarrassed and was planning a humiliating return to the UK. However, upon explaining my failure to my employer (Batoka Sky) they said that a first time failure was not uncommon and that it was an “interesting situation” having something to do with the way bureaucracy works here in Africa. I’ll leave it to the readers of this report to draw their own conclusions.

After a few days in Livingstone I called the Zambian Civil Aviation authority and after a a bit of grovelling I was granted a second go at the exam. I immediately boarded a bus for another 7 hour bone crunching journey to Lusaka. With no time to book accommodations I arrived late in the evening with no place to stay in a city where it’s dangerous to be about on the streets after dark. A sympathetic taxi driver by the name of James took pity on me and found the only room available in the immediate area. No running water, no mosquito net, no sheets, no pillow, only a crusty bowl for a toilet, but a place to sleep nonetheless.

I arrived at the DCA (Dept. of Civil Aviation) the next morning to re-sit the exam. I was tired, smelly, irritable, and anxious but determined to do well. I was given the same exam that I sat previously and apart from two answers out of fifty I gave the same responses as before. Guess what…..I passed with a 96% pass rate…….funny that!

Armed with renewed confidence I made my way to the bus station for the 7 hour return journey to Livingstone. Unfortunately I missed the preferred afternoon bus for Livingstone and was hustled by a bunch of hawkers onto another bus for Livingstone that they claimed was departing in 5 minutes time. Three hours later the bus was still sitting in Lusaka. Every fifteen minutes the hawkers would claim we would depart in 5 minutes time. It was a scam! I realised the bus wouldn’t leave until they filled it. It could be another hour or another 24 hours!

The Zambians on board were irritated as well but Zambians by nature are kind and tolerable people. It’s not in their nature to complain or to speak up. Young and old alike sat there sweltering in the 40 deg C (110 deg F) heat putting up with the Mafiosi. After three hours I had enough. I wanted to stand up and proclaim freedom for the oppressed hostages on the bus. I was tempted to say to my fellow passengers ” Rise up! Exit this bus united and demand a refund from these oppressors” but somehow I knew that this was not the way in Zambia.

Nevertheless I stormed off the bus, confronted the hawkers, called them all “F-in” liars and demanded a refund. All hell broke out! Here I was the only white man in the place and I was making big trouble!. Looking back, I was a man possessed. I was angry….more for the Zambians on the bus than for myself. I was a Bill Davis that few have ever seen!

As expected, I was refused a refund but I didn’t care as I had made a stand for my fellow down trodden passengers. A few minutes later a couple of men…..big men, approached me and said they wanted to give me a refund. They asked me to accompany them to the ticket stand a few metres away. I did and then they said that the stand didn’t have the right change and to follow them down the alleyway (dark alleyway) to the money changer. Yeah right! I said “Do you think I’m an idiot? Forget the change. I’m leaving.” and then I made a beeline for the taxi stands.

My taxi man James was there to rescue me. James is a wonderful Zambian. He’s about 60+ years old (could be 40 for all I know but in Zambia people age quickly). He has raised 6 of his own children along with 5 of his sister-in-laws children. His sister-in-law and her husband died from AIDS so James and his wife took the children in. He was saddled with raising all 11 children on a taxi driver’s income (less than $300 / month). As James put it…” we could not abandon these children…..we just had to make do”. Sadly…most families do abandon children in similar circumstances and these abandoned children end up street kids as young as 4 years old. I’ve seen too many in my brief time here.

James spends his free time working for a charity that provides funds for families to bury their loved ones with dignity. Without such help many must bury their dead in shallow graves in the bush. I’ve grown very fond of James. He’s an honourable man.

With James’ help I finally managed to catch a bus the next day to Livingstone. After a tumultuous couple of days in Lusaka I took comfort knowing I would be safely home in familiar territory by nightfall.

Five hours into the bus journey home, along a stretch of paved road (rare in Zambia), a water buffalo bolted across the road as the bus reached maximum speed. The collision was a direct impact. The front of the bus was demolished as we hit the animal at 50+ mph. The bus screeched along the road and everyone was thrown from his or her seat. As I was in the front passenger seat I (along with another) was propelled into the air towards the massive front windscreen. I blinked and when I opened my eyes the windscreen was gone. Immediately in panic I began to feel for my head, ears, nose, scalp, etc, assuming that I had hit the windscreen and gone though it. It all happened so fast. The fact is, the windscreen had shattered on impact when the animal was hit and I had never touched it. The bus dashboard prevented me and the other guy from going through it.

As all 70 passengers waited along the road for the police to arrive local bush people showed up and began to carve up the poor animal that had been propelled 10 metres from the bus along the side of the road. I felt sorry for the animal but could quite understand the jubilation of those who would have a meal that might be the only decent meal for years to come,

Twelve hours from the start of my return journey I arrived in Livingstone and felt I had somehow made contact with Zambians in a way few could experience. The next morning I understood why I felt this way. By 7AM I had received a number of phone calls at work from fellow bus passengers who somehow found out where I worked and wanted to make sure I was OK.

As they say here……..T.I.A. This is Africa.Fly with Bill at Batoka Sky.

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