The ultimate Tanzanian question: just how many people can you squeeze into a daladala?
Daladalas, the speeding, overcrowded minibuses that keep Tanzania beating. Daladalas were developed as illegal taxis in Tanzania, in response to deteriorating government public transportation after the change in government from African socialism. The name stems from how much it used to cost for a ride: one “dala”, which at the time was 5 Tanzanian shillings, secured you a bus ride. Now it costs about 400-500 shillings, around 20 US cents, depending where you are going (and whether or not you know how much you should be paying!).
The government legalized the daladala buses in 1983 and they have remained the most popular way to get around cities and towns -- the streets are overflowing with them and when you arrive at a bus stop (basically the side of the road where other people frequently congregate to get on the bus) you can expect to wait no more than 2 minutes for one to show up. I was lucky when I lived in Tanzania because a “stop” was right at the bottom of my driveway! Oftentimes, they get to you before you are even at the road, banging on the side for you to hurry up and jump in. Don’t forget to duck low (I hit my head at least once a day, but clearly this dog doesn’t learn new tricks) and get on as quickly as possible -- these guys are there to make their money and leave as soon as you have a foot in the door. It is not uncommon for the driver to lurch forward and throw you into the lap of the sweaty teenage boys in the next row of seats which at least provides them with a lot of giggles to start their day!
The buses are fairly short, in height and in length. There is the front area with a driver seat and another seat next to it, but the conductor (I don''t his official title, but they work in teams of two. The "conductor" collects the money, bangs on the side, yells at you to hurry up. He doesn't sit in a seat but rather hands out the side of the daladala, holding on to the roof, as the driver races to pick up the next set of people). After the front section there are four rows of three seats. They aren’t luxury size seats, about the size of an airplane row in my beloved economy class. As math has shown, these buses should hold 12-14 people, but those numbers are considered mediocre in Tanzania. A good bus holds 20-30 people and now we are making money. Boarding the bus you must be prepared for anything: you might sit in someone’s lap, you might have two people sit on your lap as you sit on the hot engine cover, you might even get to hold some chickens or a goat in your lap (those are considered good luck days!). Everyone is covered in sweat because there is no air conditioning, so really at that point, there is no holding back. But hey, at least it's still more comfortable than riding a camel.
The windows are small, usually covered with stickers, and low down, so if you are trying to look for landmarks to figure out where you get off, you must wiggle your head through the crowd and try to revert millions of years of evolution by turning your head upside down and spinning it around. But by far the greatest part of the daladalas is the decorative flair. I haven’t figured out if each driver personalizes his own van to fit his personality, although I think that’s the case because I found the daladala online Craigslist equivalent (if anyone is curious, you can move to Tanzania and become a daladala driver for around $4,500 USD, my friend and I already have our business model planned out). And boy, do they personalize. Most of them are God themed with large quotes painted around the sides. Some though, dare to defy the standards. My favorites thus far: the Spongebob Squarepants themed daladala that I passed on the way to work sometimes, it was painted blue with white waves, had Spongebob stickers on each window, and a massive beach ball (also Spongebob themed) hanging from the rear view mirror; the Pope Francis themed daladala, garish and ostentatious, this daladala featured a life-size painting of the Pope on the back of the bus, his face on every window, and gold, glittery lettering in KiSwahili saying “Be Like The Pope”; the Michael Jordan themed daladala that, of course, had his face plastered in every possible spot and said “SLUMDUNK” instead of “slamdunk”. Do they have daladala decorating competitions? This should be a national thing. I need to @MagufuliJP about this!
Actually, I take back the decorative flair being the greatest part of the daladalas. It’s really impossible to pick the best part -- the people definitely add to the experience. Men on the bus have always seemed very intrigued by my hair. The first time a man behind me started touching my hair, I had no idea. I got off the bus with a friend and she told me that the man behind me had been twirling my hair around his finger and staring at it, I guess trying to determine if it was natural or a weave. Now I notice when men are doing it. Sometimes they ask, sometimes they don’t, but they seem to really appreciate the opportunity to pet my hair. One time, I befriended a lady fairly quickly and she insisted on me trying her corn-on-the-cob, which she had been snacking on. It looked delicious, but I kept refusing because I was heading home for some dinner. She was becoming agitated that I was unwilling to try her corn and thankfully my bus stop pulled up, so we left with promises to taste it next time we ran into each other. My first week in living in Tanzania I was actually in a daladala wreck (a lot of confusion on the road). The buses were stuffed that morning and I was sitting in the front seat with the driver and a guy in between us. It all happened in slow motion and the guy next to me actually threw himself across my lap to make sure I didn't get hurt. Don't worry, he was fine, thankfully! We all just got a bit banged up, but that will always be in my list of moments that show just how loving people are all across the world.
If you are heading to Tanzania, I know it sounds like a lot, but don’t be overwhelmed! No one truly knows what they are doing. There is no official map to the system, you just ensure you are standing on the correct side of the road, flag down the bus (in Tanzania you hold your palm parallel to the ground and flap your wrist up and down!), and tell them where you are going. They will either shove you on or keep driving! Usually, if you tell the conductor where you are heading, he will remember to tell you to get off — tourists are quite easy to spot in the tiny buses :P!
Just remember, relax, because you can't ever know just what to expect on the daladalas.