Mini-buses feature prominently not only in my posts but in my life in Malawi. Without a car of one’s own this is the main form of transportation. As I have written, a mini-bus trip is always an adventure. To add to the adventure is life just outside the bus.
The mini-buses do not run on a schedule, rather they depart the depot when they are full. As I have said, full in Malawi is far different than full in Canada. I have become quite skilled at estimating a mini-bus’ time of departure. Being impatient I have also learned that although an empty bus gives me my pick of seats, it’s best to squeeze onto a bus that is already loaded with people and goods. Once on the mini-bus it is common to wait at least an hour before departure when traveling outside of Lilongwe. I remember my first trip from Lilongwe to Salima. I had to stand on the coach as there were no seats left. I stood for 45 minutes before we even left the depot and I was furious. I now know that wasn’t such a long wait after all. Once I waited 2 1/2 hours on a mini-bus before leaving for Ntcheu.
On this last journey to Salima I boarded a mini-bus with 4 people already seated. As I waited for other passengers to board I had a clear view of the goings on in the depot. It is actually a perfect vantage point from which to observe as it is safe and you can just sit and watch without having to move on or be afraid of being pick-pocketed. I sat back and enjoyed the show.
In the depot young men wander around laden with goods for sale. If you stay on the mini-bus long enough you will surely find whatever you need. Being a Mzungu the vendors will approach me quite aggressively trying to get me to buy their items. Oh and the items they will offer to sell! Of course there are the typical and expected items, which include pop, doughnuts, buns, candy, water boiled eggs and ice cream. I have yet to learn what this ice cream is that they sell. Obviously it’s not ice cream. It would melt.
Aside from the food one can buy while waiting there are a plethora of other goods. While I waited to leave for Salima I was offered pirated DVDs of Nigerian, Chinese and American movies. A DVD usually has a few movies on it and will cost about $4. A CD of of music by Malawian, Zambian or South African artists may cost about $5. If I needed a charger for my phone, this would be the place to buy it. I might also want batteries which would quickly be offered to me. If I needed a portable radio I could easily obtain one here for about $20.
Aside from electronics I was offered art, clothing, toiletries and household items. Vendors will display holographic type pictures of Hello Kitty, Bob Marley, Kung Fu stars, angels and of course, Jesus. Clothing can also be purchased. Men can buy shirts, suit jackets and belts as well as shoes. Unfortunately women must go to the market or a shop to buy their clothing. At the mini-bus she can really only buy a scarf. If one needs spoons they can be purchased from a vendor at the mini-bus window for the low cost of 5 cents a piece. Dish towels, doilies and runners for tables are available to the patient shopper. Mirrors, brushes toothpaste and razors are all available for a good price.
All in all waiting on the mini-bus is like having a personal shopper. Unfortunately most of the items sold are junk and will either not work or will break within weeks of purchase but the price is right and for me, the entertainment value is priceless.