Intercity ─ Zambia’s largest bus terminus by area and commercial value ─ notorious for dupery with which, as a traveller, I recently had first-hand experience.
Scores of people are filing in through a prisonesque doorway into a square space amidst the unsettling chorus of call boys and the excited whistling of Higer buses. It is a boisterous scene.
The Friday is sweltering as, apart from personal opinion, one can tell from the piles of refreshments that are selling like hot cakes along the narrow tracks that meander through this territory of business and transport.
Whereas buses are queued up in open-air compartments, crowded at the doors with a stable of promo conductors and ticket-buying travellers, there is on one side a “titanic” shelter hosting individuals on rest, scheduled passengers, shops and a police post.
I have just got off from a taxi and I wish to board a bus to Ndola, my home-town. I pose. I am stunned at the intensity of people present with which Intercity is gripped. Intuition tells me I ought to tread this ground cautiously as if I were tiptoeing into my mother’s kitchen to test the dinner relish she has just prepared.
From my vantage point, what should be the rituals of the traders here is everything busy means to be. I haven’t used the phrases ‘excuse me’ and ‘thank you’ in a long time. But here I am, with my luggage shouldered, compelled to sort of parry walker vendors with these two strings of reciprocal words.
“Ankoz, tujombololeniko ama T-Shirt,” a clumsy kid, addressing me as uncle, holds out a display of Polo clothes, imploring me to give him business.
“Thanks, next time,” I reply.
He thinks I am not serious. He does not care about how incommodious I find him; he keeps pestering. But I discern that this is not unique to him: it is a culture, a trait of business character if merchandise is to sell, even idiosyncratic among the women dealing in all kinds of food here.
The terminus is, as much that of gender, ethnicity, build, stature, accent and demeanour, a melting point of race and colour not, of course, as a matter of racism but of description. Black is predominant, but whites, Somalians, Lebanese and Chinese can be seen walking across, heard talking besides me and found occupying the shade of any stationary structure above them.
Yes, this is Intercity, the largest bus terminus in the country, bar none. It is a big name in inter-city transport as far as Zambia is concerned. Statistics of revenue and worth are, in a very real sense, in terms of interest and calculation, the preserve of the economist. But Intercity is central to the heart of government, that is, in its own right.
This place is a hang-out home for the Lusaka young man who, lacking the needful qualifications to land him a white-collar job, has decided to exploit entrepreneurship. Many have fallen back upon the terminus for the promises of personal income it proffers.
But, as if to balance up things, and as is always the case in a marketplace-cum-terminus, while some do genuine business and have no intentions of taking customers for a ride, there are those who are destitute of moral scruples. For them, every business opportunity is a chance to prove a point. The fierceness of competition makes the terminus a breeding ground for deception and insincerity. This is the darker side of Intercity with which I had my equivalent of an unhappy experience.
I now sever connections with deductions and observations. I stride to a transport service stand which represents a bus bearing hardly visible initials. Since the bus is a quarter away from full, and it has a driver who keeps hooting and agitating the engine, the impression I get is that it should be hitting the road presently.
“How much are the tickets,” I ask an officer.
“Only K65, mudala,” he replies adding, “Shiteni apapene so! Tatulelo lela; tuletampako apapene.”
He speaks with a sense of urgency and he asks his colleagues to dismount the stand. These fares are K20 less than those of bus services beyond Intercity.
Neither does ‘caution’ nor the maxim ‘cheap is expensive’ mean anything to me. It is 10 a. m. and I am excited that I will be paying less. No sooner do I get a ticket than I enter the bus.
Several others, men and women alike, join after me. Alive to the environment as I am, I notice that for every journey man who enters, one inside takes leave. This is fascinating.
“Why are you leaving,” I interrupt one woman to ask.
“It’s nothing. I just want to get myself some talk-time,” she hastily replies in a shy voice.
This is not enough as some game seems to be going on. The once full bus is depleting in people on board.
Goodness! That is Intercity for you! The contemptuous laughter that greets my ears tells me that I am in for big trouble. The atmosphere grows frosty and it dawns upon me that the journey by this bus has many more hours to go before it can get underway.
I seek agreement from the man next door; but he looks at me without an answer. This utterly wrings peace out of me!
“Sir, could you kindly clarify the time as to when your bus is leaving,” I thus demand a definite answer from one of the promo conductors outside.
The conductor takes offence and sternly blurts out: “What is your problem, sir? Who in the world do you think wants to dupe you? How about those calm inside? Huh? Hold your peace and wait as them!”
“Nabamigonga pantu iyi basi tayayime inonshita. Yalaima nangu kuma 18:00 hours. Efyo bacita aba balumendo. Ngatamwacishita fye iticketi,” a woman whispers from behind.
Even if I feel embarrassed and fooled, this is unfair and immoral. The transport officer should have shared with me the shortcomings of their service and how, in an attempt to adapt, they compensate for them on a daily basis. Through indulgence I may have sat through the hours without the slightest show of anger, knowing fully well I had to do this in support of fellow men. Since he didn’t, giving him a peace of my mind is not enough. I have to get back my money.
“Excuse me, sir, may I get my money back. You have inconvenienced me and I can’t put up anymore,”
Vernacularly, the officer protests in an upset voice: “Icindike boi pantu twalakuponona ushale napano pene. Ni Intercity ino ngoleyangala. Tawayishiba efyo tu bomba. Natukweba ati nina naiwe ulecita ifyabupuba ata! Sela ulencilinganya!”
He threatens me with the beating of my life. I realise that refund is an unknown language here. I can only take to the police post of whose location is a walking distance away.
“Yes, sir, how may we help you,” a rifle-bearing male police officer, attended by his female counterpart, starts the conversation.
I reply with emotion: “I am Victor and I have just clashed with a transport officer outside. I have gotten the shock of my life. Contrary to my expectations for early departure, I have learnt that the bus can only leave after 18:00 hours. I have demanded my money back but they have rejected.”
“But, Mr. Kalalanda, you do not also change mind in that fashion. You ought to wait. Just liaise with the officer and wait for time out.”
I think to myself: “What is this supposed to mean? No doubt, blackmail goes on here shamefacedly, with the police taking the lead. It seems untamed interest in money has forced police to gang up with tricksters insofar as their original role has been supplanted.”
This had been my nasty experience. I had to put on a brave face, hold in my revulsion, join the bus and start off for Ndola at 18:30 hours.
It is an experience shared by unsuspecting travellers who board from Intercity the first time. It is one which many look back upon with varied emotions: laughter, embarrassment, shock and, paradoxically, nostalgia. As for me, I recall with a piece from all these.
Intercity must be salvaged by the powers that be. Such experiences mean different things to different people, and hence the call. Now is the time for real sanity to go mainstream at this terminus. The Government must act!
Writer, blogger, journalist. RANDOM AT BEST...
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