Daladalas, Gelegeles, And How Learning Really Takes Place, Part I

I will warn you now that I have a fascination with public transportation. As such, blog entries about it will be way too long and drawn out, so bear with me… this comes from a girl who was fine with a two-hour commute each way when living in Montreal; oh the people-watching, the pages of writing and the books I read!

Mass in Eastern Senegal

Mass, driva of the most epic - and terrifying - gelegele ever

My first daladala trip in the regions happened today (check Peter & Debra’s and Ishwar’s blogs for accounts of the daladalas in Dar). I left the house later than I’d intended and walked to the roundabout to wait for a vehicle. I had wanted to get one starting in Kamachumu, in order to get a seat, but when a full vehicle arrived, I crowded up to the door… how could I resist! One man, tapping on the passenger seat window, said “mzungu!” (mazoong-goo = white person) and I thought he might be indicating that I could get the front seat. My first mistake, hesitation. Then the conducta tapped my bag as I attempted to climb in, so I took it off, and he grabbed it to take it in the back. A second loss of ground. Now, I almost waited to climb in, wanting to see my bag safely in the back.

In Senegal and the Gambia, there is an unwritten code that in a garas (anywhere you catch public transport), bags are not stolen. It’s worth the aparenti’s (the man who deals with money etc.) and driver’s reputation to keep the baggage in their charge safe. So while you wait for a vehicle to fill (and they do not leave until full!), you can leave your luggage on the roof and go off for hours to eat or shop, knowing it will be there when you get back. It is your responsibility not to be swayed by the aparenti’s constant jabbering that you will be leaving in five minutes, which he will do even when there are only three people waiting for a 15-passenger van. He does this in order to keep people from wandering away, because once you’ve claimed a seat and your luggage has gone on the roof, he really can’t leave without you. So he wants to scare his charges into staying close-by. If you are late, the aparenti gets really angry at you, as do all the other passengers. This rarely happens, however, because when there are just a few seats left to fill, he’ll amp it up to a fever pitch, running around yelling at people, the driver will start the engine, and idle near the gate for as long as it takes. At this point, you had better be in the vehicle, but the hurry-up-and-wait can be absolutely toxic when the exhaust is seeping in, the windows don’t open, and sweat is dripping down your legs.

Now, here I come to the main point of difference between Gambian and Senegalese gelegeles (gellygelly) and the Tanzanian daladalas. In terms of development, Tanzania seems to be mostly ahead of the game. Rules of the road do not fall in this category. In West Africa, when driving on a main road (i.e., with police checks), every passenger must have a seat, and it is strictly enforced. In Tanzania, this sort of safety regulation is ignored. My hesitation today caused me to have to stand, bent sideways, half sitting on an old man’s lap. The conducta carefully arranged my feet before squeezing himself in and slamming the door. As we set off, leaning wildly around steep curves, my proximity to the ceiling made me feel pretty sick. I was even forced to stop texting!

During the trip, people leaned on me, sat on me (a large woman, nonetheless, while I was propped sideways on a seat with metal digging into my hip), groped my boob (I don’t think it was intentional, his hand had nowhere else to go), and talked about me. “Mzungu, unaweza kusimama”. The literal translation is “white person, you are able to stop”, but I have no idea what he meant by that, since I was doing exactly what everyone else in the vehicle was doing. I was reminded of Leanne, in the Gambia, realizing that not every mention of “toubab” in her presence was about her. Rather, people could be talking about a “toubab car” or “toubab music video”; referring to anything Western. In this case, the man could well have been talking about the crowded vehicle and the stubborn refusal of Tanzanians to behave normally on the road. Once, sitting in a gelegele back to Njawara after a long day of travel, I got frustrated by a man going on and on about me. I turned around and made a snarky comment in Wolof, to which he threw his head back, laughing heartily, and said “toubab ku nuul, nga am”; “you are a black toubab”. It completely made my day.

In today’s daladala, having driven off the road onto something resembling a goat path, we all got out in to push through a mud-hole. When the men were pushing, I wanted to join but I knew it would be an exercise in futility, plus I’d be covered in mud. One man didn’t join in and sure enough, the conducta said, in Kiswahili, what are you, a woman?! Come push! Brilliant; an inkling of comprehension…!

When we finally rejoined the road, it was heaven. My nausea began to subside with the breeze coming in the window, and my hunch was confirmed: we had gone off the road to avoid a police checkpoint, because apparently, it is illegal to overstuff vehicles! We were stopped by a police piki, and they immediately forced about five people to get out of the car. They were left sitting on the side of the road, and I was finally sitting (with half my ass, anyway!) on a seat! When we picked up five more in the next village, my seat priority status just meant that someone had to sit on me rather than me sit on them. But that’s fine. I’ll take a bruised hip and being sat on by a fat lady in a white dress over nausea any day.

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