Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Dakar to Ziguinchor to Dakar

Creaking along on the train from Bamako to Dakar, we passed bent, overturned box cars and tanker cars that had been shunted to the side and forgotten, the result of an accident just a few weeks before. I have little doubt they’ll stay there for years. And I recently saw a statistic that between 2004 and 2005 557 people were killed and 2,581 injured in bus crashes in Peru. Disasters don’t usually change things much in the Third World.

Things seemed different with the ferry between Dakar and Ziguinchor, Senegal. I was a bit nervous buying my ticket for the 15-hour voyage along the coast, past the sliver of The Gambia, which cuts southern Senegal in half, and up the Casamance River into Ziguinchor. The present ferry was new, German built. But so was the MV Joola, which was just 12 years old when it left Ziguinchor late in the afternoon of September 26, 2002, bound for Dakar.

Ziguinchor is a hot, dusty city of 400,000, the capital of the Casamance, a flat world of waterways and mangroves and the Diola people. The Joola had a capacity of 580. But the rainy season was hammering the already bad road to Dakar, and so many people wanted to travel it had taken Pierre Colly, a 19-year-old Senegalese student, and his older brother, three days to get a ticket. By the time the Joola cast off from the concrete mole and glided into the river more than 1,000 had officially purchased tickets. Just as the train from Bamako carried a constantly rotating crowd of freeloaders on the roof, at least another 500 had slipped a little something to crewmembers for a place on board the Joola. The ship was already listing. Even worse in Africa where portents loom large: rumors were circulating that the Joola had swamped a pirogue as it pulled away, drowning a fisherman.

The Aline Sitoe Diatta, the Joola’s replacement, almost seemed deserted, and it gleamed – not a chip or flake or rust darkened its decks or rails. Unusual for the Third World: lessons appeared to have been learned. I claimed a fourth class seat and hit the bar on the stern, slaking my thirst with a lukewarm Royal Dutch lager, and we slipped away under a bright moon at nine, to arrive in baking heat at noon the next day.

But I was conscious every minute, and so were my fellow passengers, of the Joola’s voyage along this same route. As the ship, already overloaded, passed Carabane Island hundreds more swarmed out and clambered aboard. By the time it hung a right out of the river into the Atlantic at least 1,862 were aboard, though no one really knows how many.

Colly and his brother were in the crowded bar; a band was playing. A rain squall hit. Colly was nervous, who can know why, exactly, but he had a bad feeling. He stood next to the window. Around 11 pm the Joola thumped. The lights went out. “What’s happening?” people screamed. The lights flickered on, and then off again. Colly clutched his seat hard, tried to open the window further. Rain. Darkness. The Joola rolled, Colly reached for his brother and a girl next to him, as he clung to his chair. A sound hit, a sound he’d never heard before that haunts him still: the sound of tons of Atlantic Ocean rushing into the bar. Luck. Providence. The ocean sucked Colly right out of the window and he was gasping for air in the waves, where he would cling to a fish trip for six hours as a handful of survivors tired and slipped beneath the water around him. “It was so cold,” Colly says, “but God pushed me out the window and I said I must fight.”

I talked to Colly in a crumbling building in Ziguinchor. He is one of 62 survivors, 61 of them men, known as “the rescapes.” No journalist or government official or investigator had ever spoken to him before, no one had ever offered him counseling. He spoke looking down, choking up.

Colly lost his older brother. He quit school. And he was a marked man in Ziguinchor, a rescape, a freak. “People look at me and think I’m weird. They say ‘why did you survive? Why did you live? It’s not normal!’ People call me the rescape. They say ‘you saved yourself and the rest died.’ Sometimes I want to leave Ziguinchor and go from here.”

We read about Third World disasters in three-line news reports and the dead are numbers. Another bus crash! Another ferry sinking!

Now Colly was a driving a battered yellow taxi with no door handles. It was time for me to go – the Diatta was leaving for Dakar in an hour. Colly drove me to the ship for my voyage back to Dakar. As I climbed out I asked if he’d been on the ship again. “No, never,” he said, looking away.

At 3 pm the Diatta’s engines thrummed and we slid away, and I was happy that the ship looked so new and there were few people aboard. This time, at least.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Bamako to Dakar

Bamako, Mali looks like it was hit by a bomb. The heat is searing and dry, like you’re walking around in a world of hot coals. Piles of dust and sand; piles of concrete in streets of dirt; nothing but low crumbling buildings and corrugated tin and thousands of people hip to hip and sleeping on the streets at night. Yet the Malians are sweet, calm, like they’re all walking around on heavy doses of Lexapro.

The train station is smack in the middle of the downtown chaos and information is scare. The train for Dakar, Senegal leaves on Wednesdays. Or Tuesdays. Maybe Monday. Actually, said a man lounging on its steps, “No one knows when it leaves or when it arrives. It is very bad. It leaves whenever it arrives.”

I paid a local guy named Guindo to do the dirty work – go to the station every day and find keep tabs on the train. Guindo was sure it would be Wednesday, but on Tuesday at 2 pm he called. The train was near; it would be leaving in five hours.

As darkness hit Bamako the train lurched into the station, the most dreadful looking conveyance I’ve ever seen. Covered in mud. Dust. Holes in its sides. Every window open and akimbo and made opaque with grime. Inside, it’s once white walls were black. In 90-degree heat we piled in, squeezing, touching, pressing, with boxes of mangos and clay pots and suitcases and 100-pound bags of charcoal.

But a bad conveyance is only really bad if your movements are restricted. At this point I can bear anything, enjoy everything, and in the heat and filth I sat with my legs dangling out of the doorways watching Africa roll by at 20 mph; sat piled in the vestibule at night with bodies sleeping curled around a gas stove, a lean, long legged mango seller with two wives named Moussa making sweet strong Malian tea.

The train lurched and rattled and banged. It stopped in the middle of sand and baobab trees and went nowhere for an hour here, an hour there. We passed villages of perfect conical mud and thatch huts, and boys standing by goats in a world of heat and brown, desiccated shrubs. Men prayed in the aisles and my roommates – Papasi, Monsieur Ly (resplendent in green robes) and a clay pot seller I called Fetish – shared their water and food and tea.

The truth was, it was only a very bad train if you were in a hurry or squeamish about cleanliness. Otherwise, in fact, it was a very good train.

As we ground into Dakar in the dark and dust as thick as fog 50 hours after pulling out of Bamako, I was sad to arrive. Even more so because this first leg of the LE is drawing to a close. I have one more journey to make and then it’s back to DC, back to the real world, back to missed family and friends who I can’t wait to see. But in some ways, riding the world’s slowest, most crowded, dirtiest and even most dangerous buses, boats, planes and trains is a lot easier than everyday life.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

More Matatu Madness

Sometimes riding the Express is exhausting. But the harder I push, the wilder and more insightful the ride, as I slip deeper into modern Africa. Yesterday, I spent 17 hours hurtling – and sometimes going nowhere at all – through Nairobi with matatu driver Joseph Kimani and tout Wakaba Phillip.

Kimani was up at 3:45 am; an hour later he picked up the matatu he drives in Ngong Town, in the shadow of the Ngong hills, not far from Out of Africa author Karen Blixen’s coffee farm. Or what’s left of it. “I had a farm in Africa…” is one of those famous literary opening lines, but her elegiac words recall a different Africa. Ngong Town now is all overcrowded mud and trash and corrugated shacks, with the occasional Masai warrior looking like a Hollywood extra still in costume waiting at a bus stop.

Kimani and Phillip fired up their matatu and headed down Ngong Road to “town,” as downtown Nairobi is called. I rendezvoused with them at 6:30 am at the route 111 staging area: the Nairobi railway station.

It was just getting light; literally hundreds of matatus, from 14 passenger minivans to 51 passenger truck/buses, were angling, squeezing, honking, pushing, to navigate a semicircle that they entered empty and left full. Kimani, 32, with a wispy mustache and a wiry body, worked the wheel and gears, while Phillip, 30, ran back and forth waving his arms, shouting and banging on other matatus, trying to leverage Kimani through the madness while enticing passengers. (That’s not all Phillip did, but the other stuff I didn’t see, never saw – it was all too quick, too fluid, too under-the-radar – and didn’t even learn about until midnight, 17 hours later.) Competition was fierce. Every matatu was going the same route.

The semicircle was 150 yards tops; it took nearly 45 minutes – think the tank scene in the film Patton. Matatus were jumping the curb onto the sidewalk, parrying, jockeying, blocking each other’s doors; when we broke free of it Phillip swung up into the doorway and we blasted up Ngong Road, an undivided two-lane wide strip of cracked blacktop, with the Bee Gees at deafening volume.

Back and forth from Town to Ngong we went all day as the traffic built; in places it took 15 minutes to move two blocks – wall to wall, bumper to bumper matatus honking and flashing their lights and blasting music, some with monitors pumping out music videos.

An hour and a half away, the Ngong Town staging area was a football field sized patch of mud and banana peels and cornhusks and cigarette wrappers and crushed plastic water bottles surrounded by four-foot square market stalls.

We pulled in, Kimani and Phillip shouted “tea time!” and leaped off the bus. We crossed the mud, crossed the muddy road, waded through garbage, wolfed down fried dough and a somosa and sweet, milky tea in a concrete room, and hit the staging area again. And that’s when the complexity of it all started to hit me, the minute economic scale spread over as wide a net as possible.

A small army of touts fanned out to fill the bus. “Forty, forty, forty,” they called. “Fortytown, fortytown, fortytown,” – 40 shillings to Town. The touts were freelance; Phillip would pay them each 40 or 50 shillings for their work.

And on it went, at a grueling pace, the economy of it all hard to grasp. A 14-passenger matatu cost 70 shillings and took 13; in a 15-hour day it could make six to seven roundtrips, taking in six to seven thousand shillings, about $100. A 51-passenger matatu cost 40 shillings and only made five to six trips. For passengers the bigger one was slower and thus cheaper; but for the driver and tout, the bigger matatu was better, the volume adding up to more income. Still, a driver and tout like Kimani and Phillip made about KS 600 a day - $10 – paid in cash at the end of every evening. Maybe.

The speed, the weaving and honking and cajoling; at first I saw it as some form of romantic and crazy African expression. But that was wrong. It was simple economics: desperate and hungry poor people trying to squeeze one more passenger, one more round-trip into a day that never seemed to end, a day where literally every shilling counted.

At noon we shattered a main front leaf spring and Kimani sped off to the garage. But it was no garage; it was a place that boggled my mind, that stretched my imagination. It was Dickensian: block after block of mud passageways littered with garbage and upended vehicles and men sleeping on piles of tires and the sparks of welders and the smell of smoke and oil and diesel and Bondo. It was one lane wide with two-way traffic. It was hot and glaring, a place of burning fires and braziers and hammering and music, and the mud was so dark, so black, so viscous, it was like oil. It was the worst and the most compelling place I have ever seen.

With ferocious hammering and sweating, three men under the bus in the black grime replaced the leaf spring in 90 minutes. The labor charge: 300 shillings. Five dollars.

And so it went. We had a quick lunch at 4:30 in a corrugated roofed butchery amid bloody carcasses. A pile of fatty mutton cut up at our table, a mound of salt and a bowl of ugali – corn flour – eaten with our fingers. $4 for two, including sodas.

And at midnight, 21 hours after they’d started their day, Kimani and Phillip spilled the secrets of the matatu industry over warm pilsner in a Ngong Town bar. They were, in fact, nickeled and dimed at every turn. Two hundred to the police at every staging area, for the “privilege” of working the stage. “That is a good job!” said Kimani. “A policeman at the railway station makes at least 10,000 shillings a day!” One hundred to the Mungiki sect, simple protection money. “If you don’t pay they will cut your head off.” Inspectors and managers and robbers all demanding their share. Kimani’s matatu had been robbed at gunpoint three times; on those days he did not get paid. And they did their part, too: the fare changed according to the situation, price gauging as art. They kicked it up in the rain. They boosted it at rush hour. They had their touts attract passengers at 40 shillings and then made them pay 60, claiming the touts were unauthorized. “If they refuse to pay we don’t let them off the matatu,” Kimani said, laughing.

At 1 am they saw me into a concrete room with no running water behind a steel gate in a world of mud. I was exhausted, beaten up, my neck, back, knees and shoulders aching, hungry for solitude and quiet and cleanliness; my nerves frayed from the constant jangling noise and crowds. Kimani and Phillip had four more days to go before the weekend. Another 70 or 80 hours of work for 50 bucks. And David, their friend, a taxi driver who had introduced us all – he had been working without sleep or food for two days and two nights, living purely off of Mira – the narcotic drug Qat. And yet they were all in a good mood.

I passed out, woke, dressed and stumbled out into a light rain. It was still dark and I didn’t really know where I was. Somewhere near Ngong Town. But, no worries. I stood on the side of the rood and a pair of headlights came around a corner, flashed, and I held out my hand. A matatu swerved to a stop. I piled in, and there was Shakira wiggling her hips on the video. It was six am.

Off to Bamako, Mali tonight, via Addis Ababa….

Friday, April 18, 2008


The most famous dangerous and crowded conveyances in the world are Kenyan matatus, the mini-vans that careen though the streets here in incredible numbers. Officially known as PSVs – Passenger Service Vehicles – their accident rate climbed so high that in 2004 the Transport minister forced a law requiring speed governors and seat belts. Yesterday, as I was blasting along the highway in a matatu, the insurance industry rescinded a 15 percent premium break originally given after the law was imposed. The transport minister who pushed the law is gone and yesterday the Transport Licensing Board told the Daily Nation newspaper that most of the matatu’s speed governors had been “tampered with,” and that “most PSVs were moving at speeds between 140 and 160 kmh, instead of the stipulated 80 kmh.”

“Travelers on Kenya’s roads,” the licensing board’s chairmen told the Nation, “are increasingly being put at risk because of the matatu madness.”

Mad but efficient. Waiting on the train and dhow yesterday, I decided to find a beach north of Mombasa. A travel agent said “White Sands” was the closest, and a few minutes later I am being assaulted by too many choices:

"Bamburi, Bamburi, Bamburi."

The shouts come so fast they sound like one long sing-song word.

"Ferry, Ferry, Ferry, Ferry."

Malindi, Malindi, Malindi." Malindi; that's it. I squish into the Hungry Vulture.

We are nine, and then in rapid succession ten, 12 and fourteen, plus driver and boy.

“Malindi, Malindi, Malindi,” the bus boy, who’s a man, not a boy, shouts again and again, like a cd stuck on skip. He rides with his head and shoulders out of the open door window, scanning the crowded streets. He’s not just collecting money and operating the door, he’s actively selling, cajoling, sniffing for the slightest sense of someone, anyone, contemplating a ride. Two hard bangs with his knuckles and the matatu swerves to the curb; the door slides open and out he jumps. A woman jumps in, steps on my feet – wide hips and thighs pushing against my shoulders – and squeezes into the back.

Two more hard, fast raps and the matatu is off. The boy swings in, slides the door forward with a bang, 50-shilling bills folded lengthwise between his pinky and ring finger. A tap – he doesn’t even make eye contact – and we hand over our 40 shillings, about 65 cents.

Had we been shot into space to a distant planet we would have been the perfect sample of humanity, conveniently packed into a can.

Next to me is a woman in black, head to toe (which I find unsettling, unable to read face or expression or even dress), only her eyes darting about, her left hand ornately hennaed. Behind us a dark black woman with almost shaved head, a baby on her back, with long dangling star-shaped earrings and red beads around her neck. In front of me a woman with her arms covered in silver bracelets and a purple turban around her head, clutching a bucket wrapped in plastic, a Rasta guy next to her, and men in ubiquitous t-shirts and flip-flops. And me. The smell of humanity as raw and acrid as an eastern shore chicken house in August.

Knock, knock, swerve, open, shut, slam, knock; brake and accelerate and honk and swerve – the driver’s eyes never leave the road and the pace is fast; a dance times a hundred, a thousand, as matatus everywhere all around move in frenetic step honking and braking and bus boys jumping in and out, past rows of market stalls of sticks and plastic sheeting and carpentry shops displaying beds and coffins, that goes on for miles and miles. The third world is all about tiny margins of profit in billions of miniscule exchanges; speed and maximum capacity are of the essence. Regulation; safety; comfort – they cost money and there is no money here. Or rather, there’s money, it’s just like grains of sand instead of jewels that fill your hands.

But it works: in 20 minutes I am at the beach. Even more impressive, on my way home I had to catch a matatu from the highway and wondered how long I’d have to wait. No worries: I stand on the roadside for 11 seconds before a matatu scoops me up and deposits me at the Mombasa post office, there to grab a waiting tuktuk for my hotel. Total cost: about a dollar.

Off to the port to see Captain Mohammed and port boss Hamed, who sit around a scarred wooden table in a small office overlooking the Indian Ocean, talking of Dubai and Somalia and Zanzibar.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Original Lunatic Express, Delayed

Sitting in the relative splendor of the Royal Castle Hotel, originally built as The Palace in 1909, in Mombassa, Kenya. Ceiling fans on the high ceilinged verandah, the hedge of palms and mother-in-law tongue a buffer from the heat and sun and frenetic street.

Arrived last night on the slow bus from Tanga, after pulling into Tanga on the slow bus from Dar es Salaam, all the while ruminating on just how much money insulates, especially in the third world. Indeed, it’s no wonder that the rich live longer, healthier lives.

Life out there is harsh: the air is polluted; the water is full of who knows what; the sun is intense, unrelenting, unless a sudden rainstorm is driving down. In buses and mini-vans, known as daladalas, passengers are squished together like chickens on their way to the slaughterhouse. There is no respite: the clanging of horns and shouting; dirt, dust and mud; heat and dampness – my senses get overwhelmed by the raw elements from which there is no relief. The exhaust alone can be overpowering. For a while it poured rain yesterday and the bus’s roof leaked: big steady drops fell on my legs.

Well, there’s relief for me – after suffering last night in the New Palm Tree hotel – broken toilet, no hot water – I hit the Royal Castle.

We got stuck on the Kenya/Tanzanian border last night for two hours. No food, a couple of wooden benches on which to sit, all because two passengers were without passports and got kicked off the bus at the Tanzanian exit yard. Six miles further in, at the official Kenyan frontier, their luggage was discovered still on the bus. The authorities were flummoxed, hence the long wait, which left us hurtling through the darkness past villages glowing in flickering fires and oil lamps, and not arriving in Mombassa until 9 pm, almost three hours late. People without passports would never be on the fast, air-conditioned bus.

Contemplating my next move. Arrived at the train station this morning to find out about the train to Nairobi – the original Lunatic Express, in fact. The station was deserted. “Oh, many troubles,” said the guard, sweating under a white shirt and tie over a second collared shirt, that one with pink and blue stripes. “The train is canceled for now because we care a great deal about our customers.”

That was a bit too enigmatic for me, so I pressed on, and found a kind woman behind steel bars at the ticket office. “They have suspended service because of the kills,” she said. “For the time being there is too much risk to human beings.” Turns out the train was attacked two days ago, a victim of the Mungiki sect, which particularly likes, apparently, to circumsize victims and sometimes just cut off their penises. No passengers killed, in fact, but the tracks were ripped up and the morning train met its end. “The cargo is still going; we can pick that up,” she said. “But the carriages capsize and tumble over one another and it is very messy. We will review the situation on Monday and maybe a train will go on Tuesday. Yes,” she said, “you can take a bus. Have you thought about flying?”

I really wanted to take that train. And offers are coming in, that might make me veer off the Express for a bit. In Dar I ended up drinking warm Scotch and soda with Bhachu, a 60-year-old Tanzanian Indian now living in Lubambashi, Congo. He’d just taken delivery of six dump trucks and two coaches from the UK, which he was about to drive to the copper mines of southeastern Congo. Six days. “You are most welcome to come along,” he said. “At the Congo border much will be stolen from the trucks, but we are prepared for that.” I was intrigued.

And then this morning I found my way to the port, through the twisting alleys of Mombassa’s old town, full of women in full chador – only their brown eyes peeking from narrow slits. I paid 100 shillings – about 75 cents – and slipped through a gate, the Indian Ocean shimmering blue and green down a few flights of steps. Moored just offshore lay a 100-foot long wooden dhow waiting to take on thousands of pounds of cooking oil, electrical transformers and bags of cement, and on which I was offered passage to Zanzibar. “Leaving Saturday,” said Crispin, a deckhand, “and should only take 18 to 20 hours.”

Might be too hard to pass up.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Welcome to Africa!

Stuck in Jo’burg, waiting for a flight tomorrow morning. All not lost, however: yesterday after arriving here from Sao Paolo I ended up at a travel agency in super chichi mall, trying to get tickets on Air Zimbabwe and Air Malawi. Not a straightforward matter. Agents Mpume and Deborah were delightful, however, and by the time we were done I had an invitation to dinner in Soweto. Six, they said, for real African food, and don’t be late.

Not exactly a ride on the Lunatic Express. Met them as they were locking the agency doors and they were ready to go: all high heels and lip gloss and lilting accents, like two birds chattering on a spring morning. We bombed through Jo’burg and after an hour of traffic and getting lost, a half-dozen cell phone conversations in various languages to help get us on track, and weaving through traffic lights darkened by the city’s rolling blackouts, ended up at an open, that-roofed bar/restaurant with picnic tables and oil drums filled with hot coals against the cool night.

The Township of Soweto is vast, a million people, a warren of narrow streets and square concrete and cinderblock and corrugated metal shacks, barely illuminated with dim lights. But post Apartheid has brought improvements and restaurants like this one never existed until its end.

I sucked down tripe stew and tumbled through the keyhole, lost in an array of languages. Deborah spoke five; Mpume, a Zulu, sang songs punctuated with clicks, and the hard drinking men around us closed in. “Why are you girls with that white man?” Mpume, translated, but curiosity (and the allure of the women) got the better of them, and soon they were plying us with Johnny Walker Black and beers.

“I hate Americans,” said a guy whose name was something like estrellas, but with a click at the beginning, “but I like you. I don’t know why.” Politics and political murder; crime; the resurrection of Christ – “We have a new pastor and I told him, ‘I am a good Christian but I do not believe in the resurrection.’ We argued about it, and on Easter morning I passed on my usual shot of whiskey before church. His sermon burned and moved me and made me cry. But it did not convince me!”

I tried to buy a round but failed, and Mpume rebuked me: “You cannot compete with them,” she said. “They must show how important they are so they buy for everyone at all these tables,” she said, waving her hand at the tables on either side.

After three hours we escaped into the night and the Soweto traffic, swerving around smashed cars in what looked like traffic wars, and hurtled down the highway back to the suburb of Randburg, Rihanna and Akon blasting at top volume. And Mpume shouted, “Welcome to Africa!”

Unfortunately, I forgot my camera...