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Here In Africa: Not My Problem

...At last the bus was ready and they had it on the road. The brakes were a bit wonky, and the gear shift had to be held in place, otherwise it slipped into neutral. There was a bad oversteer to the left going round corners. But the bus went along well enough if it did not travel too fast...

Could this bus be heading towards a disaster?

Barbara Durlacher tells an African tale.

When they stole his taxi, Bongani thought he was finished. But Temba told him that he’d seen a perfectly good 62-seater in the yards at the bus depot with a FOR SALE sign.

“Go and talk to them,” he urged Bongani, “Ask their lowest price and see if you can buy it on HP. I’ll help you with the money. We can run trips to the Transkei.”

It took a few months of negotiation before, with half the cash down, Bongani and Temba became the proud owners of the rickety old bus. The rest was due in monthly payments ‘to finish by Christmas’ as Mohammet Ali, the owner, insisted. That put a strain on their relationship, but eventually the ancient vehicle was handed over and parked in Temba’s backyard.

With no mechanical knowledge, the first thing the young men did was to give it a good clean up. They painted over the scratches, hammered out the dents and polished the well-worn tyres with black shoe polish. They swept the inside and cleaned the windows. Mama Zondi made seat covers from a roll of material she’d ordered from the Indian shop. Her sewing circle didn’t like the colour. They said their husbands complained it looked like dog sick, and she never sold a centre-meter. She thought it disguised the torn seats very well.

“Makes the bus look nice and bright,” she told the boys with satisfaction, when they emerged from her crowded storeroom carrying an old black and white tv they’d found in a dusty cupboard. “Yours, Mahala,” she told them with one of her sparkling smiles as they carried it off in triumph. It gave the bus the final touch, once attached to the shelf behind the driver’s seat.

“Tell them that we’re waiting for new tapes if they ask why it’s not working,” said Temba chuckling. “They won’t know any better, and it sounds good if we say the bus has ‘in-house television’.”

The next time Bongani went into town, he ordered a stock of printed cards from the printer who shared a shop with the man who duplicated keys and fixed broken shoes. He stressed he wanted the words “In-House Television” in heavy type at the bottom of each card. And his new cellphone number.

“They mus’ phone to book, like in the city,” he informed the printer, giving him R20 down and saying he’d pay the rest when the collected the order.

For sure he was learning the right way to do business he reflected as he walked away, his hand resting possessively on the thick roll of R100 notes in his pocket.

As Temba said, “Never give the other man your money too quick. Always keep him waiting. You can tell him you’ll give him more tomorrow. Who knows what can happen? He can go out of business, get sick or die; the police can find you and you have to run away. What you wanna give the other mans your money for too quick? Let him wait; you don’t need to worry΄bout these mans. They mus’ look out for theirselves. Your job to care for you!’

At last the bus was ready and they had it on the road. The brakes were a bit wonky, and the gear shift had to be held in place, otherwise it slipped into neutral. There was a bad oversteer to the left going round corners. But the bus went along well enough if it did not travel too fast, and after all, those mamas who wanted to get to the Transkei and the Cape would never notice with their all talking. What did a few hours matter when these people had plenty time to waste?

So, the “Eveready Bus Service God Bless You” began to trade. Bongani and Temba were raking in the money, but they still needed to meet the last two payments on their agreement with Mohammet Ali. They were overdue by two weeks on the last payment and the next one was due in four days and they did not have enough to cover it. Neither of them dared go inside any of Mohammet’s trading stores, which was a nuisance, as he carried the widest range of goods in the area.

Without access to his willing assistance, it was difficult to fill the growing list of replacement parts Solly the mechanic told them they needed. As the days passed, the bus needed extensive repairs and they told Solly to visit the local chop- shops and see what he could find to fix the engine and gearbox.
Bongani’s cellphone rang and warily he picked it up. Maybe it was Mohammet with another of his veiled threats. “What you wan’?” he demanded pretending haste. Then, turning his head to one side, “Orl rig’ I’m coming... jus’ wait, man!” as if he was talking to an impatient customer bombarding him with urgent requests.

But this time it wasn’t Mohammet. It was the Chairlady from the Thursday Ladies Church Group.

“Izinkulu village in the Transkei? It’s far.” said Bongani. “Very out of touch that place.”

“How many people? Seventy-two? No problem. When you wan’ leave?”

After fixing the price and the day, Bongani blew out his cheeks.
‘Good booking. With 72 passengers, they’d make a nice profit. If extra people got on and we charge them full fare, we can pay Mohammet. Then the bus is ours.’

****

Dumisani yawned and scratched his armpits. He needed a pee and a stretch. It was growing dark and they still had a way to go. Mus’ carry on. At that moment, the left headlight flickered and died. The speeding bus rounded a corner and Dumisani pumped the brakes. Once, twice. Floored them again and again. Nothing happened. The left off-wheel slipped off the tarmac and the bus began to tilt. The tilt grew worse, and then the bus turned over, hurtling down the hillside with increasing speed.

Shouts, yells, a baby’s piercing screams and a woman’s terrified cries. Then: silence. The evening mist clung to the boulders as the cooling engine ticked slowly to a stop.

****

Dumisani crawled carefully out of the wrecked remains of the cab and sat on the ground rubbing his right leg. It ached and he was not sure it would bear his weight. Better just lie back and rest before he tried to crawl to the road to summon help.

****

The paramedics removed 26 bodies from the wreck with 15 injured and Dumisani spent four days in hospital before he was dragged into court to give his version of the accident.

****

Bongani’s phone rang and he reached for it in the stuffy darkness. He listened, grunted and switched off. He reached for his trousers, jacket and the big bag of money, stuffed his feet into his shoes and slipped out of the shack. In a few moments he had hot-wired a car and slipped soundlessly into the night.

‘Not my problem,’ he thought.

‘Mohammet’s the registered owner. Let him sort it out,’ and revving up the engine, he turned onto the highway towards the bright lights of the anonymous city.

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