Zimbabwe – Flying Mhunga Air

I got up at five-thirty to meet my first Zimbabwean bus. I didn’t like that. I like my bed too much. But the buses arrive early because there is fierce competition between rival bus companies to fill their vehicles. So the day after I arrived in Harare I took one of the slubberdegullion Renault taxis, with its pinpricks of light filtering through the floor and every other conceivable piece of bodywork, down to the bus station bound for Masvingo and then on to Renco. The driver had to turn off the engine in order to get it into first gear.

At six a.m. Harare bus station is teeming with vivid colour. Forget timetables; the buses depart as soon as they are full. That way you get to stops and pick up the passengers before the others. You know that the departure will be soon when the driver starts an elongated period of noisy engine-revving. Don’t try to ask anyone when the bus will leave – you always get the answer you most want to hear. This is the polite thing to do. It satisfies you. But only in the short term.

The Masvingo bus triggers new pandemonium as it arrives. It is besieged from all sides. The hoisting of bags onto the roof, or babies through the windows is accompanied by a surge towards the door. The rip tide of bodies carries me onto the bus. The four hundred km journey south will take five hours.

There was something worryingly unconvincing about that “Kukura Kurewra Bus Company” bus right from the start. It would only move in the lower gears and howled its protests. It was not even following the Masvingo road and is billowing a thick, black cloud of acrid smoke from the back. So the first (unscheduled) stop is the “Kukura Kurewra Bus Company” depot. They must surely have known the state of the bus before setting out, but the priority is to get it filled up before repairs can be attempted. Nobody seemed to mind much. Even the mechanics didn’t seem all that bothered. A dozen of them are lounging around on tyres ignoring the sick vehicle. Eventually one saunters over. The bus is hot and crowded: some children in smart purple and white uniforms; old bearded men with crooks; mothers with infants. Some spill out into the depot for the hour or so it took to fix the bus.

Now we are back on the road, lurching along to a cacophony of raucous chatter, animal bleatings intermingled with music from the static-ridden speakers, the crashing of metal panels and bus groans. The music is lively, optimistic and compulsive. The guitars belt out the intricate cadences of traditional mbira (a sort of hand-held thumb piano) patterns. The voices of the ancestors were believed to speak through the mbira.

After passing the industrial suburbs with their sheet-metal factories, tyre manufacturers, tobacco companies and engineering works, our gaudy little island of colourful noise-pollution is in the bush. It is a dusty landscape, a long, barbed-wire clad road with occasional clusters of round thatched huts or roadside bottle stores. Soon we are amongst huge whale-back hills. These are kopjes – enormous single rocks shaped by the weathering of the granite, some house-sized boulders balancing precariously on top of others, dwarfing the trees at their base. Meanwhile the black smoke is belching from the side of the bus now.

We passed four police checkpoints. When I asked what they were looking for, it seemed that the police did not actually know themselves. They were just doing their job. Sometimes they make everyone get off, take all the luggage down from the roof and undertake a search. They line everyone up, men on one side, women on the other and civil servants (who they must see as hermaphrodites) in the middle. The Air Zimbabwe magazine had proudly boasted that if you have forgotten your shaving mirror, then you can ask a policeman to borrow his boots. But these roadside boots would have needed a good dusting and polish first.

As soon as we hit Masvingo Bus Station we are under siege by Harare-bound travellers. A man shoves his bag through the window for me to reserve his seat. It takes a full ten minutes to fight our way off. There are no Renco buses. We are told that there may be one at six, but then again there may not. Taxi drivers helpfully offer to assist. So faced with a long wait for a bus that may, or may not materialise, we eventually succumb, one of the drivers being known to my brother who was working at a school in Renco. So negotiations begin. What clinched the deal was the fact that a young woman agreed to come down to Renco for the night with the driver. We stop off at his house to collect his ghetto-blaster-of-which-he-was-extremely-proud and for him to do his own negotiations on the price demanded by the woman. He is an effervescent character, smiling and joking all the way along the dirt road. We slow when he wants to chat to some friends and my suspicions are aroused because he does not actually stop and they have to jog up the road to continue the conversation. We were never in that much of a hurry. As we pull off he turns back to us with a smile the size of a horizon, proclaiming: “I have no brakes but I am stopping the car with the gears. I am a good driver!” He did a lot of turning round. I reserve judgement as to his driving abilities. He must have been reasonably competent to get us to Renco without the luxury of brakes, but on the other hand he could not have been of a completely sound mind to have even attempted it in the first place, especially given the state of the road. But of one thing I was sure: never have I seen anyone, anywhere, who could drive so far whilst spending so much time with his eyes averting the road ahead. The only people who suffered from his lack of brakes were the poor souls at the stream that crossed the road at one point. Despite his shouted warning and frantic gesticulations (no hands too now), he was unable to prevent the high-speed, brakeless taxi from giving them a good shower. Everyone fell about laughing. Eventually we coast to a stop in Renco.

The town is frequently known as Renco Mine, which is a pretty accurate description just as is the way South Africa at the time was always called Racist South Africa in the press. My brother assures me that the RSA they have on their stamps is commonly understood to stand for this rather than the Republic of South Africa. Likewise Renco is a town owned lock stock and barrel by Rio Tinto who were mining for gold there. The mine itself, all the houses, the three bars, the shops, golf course, squash court and land all belong to the multinational. Mine employees are allocated housing according to their grade so if you are promoted then you also have to move house. The managers live up by the golf course (complete with a water hazard inhabited by a hippo). Here the houses are spacious and airy. The miners live in the township and the middle grade workers’ housing separates the two areas. In fact many miners sub-let their houses and live in traditional round huts to supplement their income. The gold is expected to last for another six years. After that it will be lights-out in Renco just as it was in its sister town, Empress. When Rio Tinto left they sold the whole town to the army. At first the military occupied the affluent houses above the town. But the sewers were soon blocked because old shirts were used in the absence of toilet paper. So they moved to the middle grade housing, but not before they had stripped their old accommodation of anything that could be removed and sold. This included bathroom fittings as well as door and window frames. But soon the sewers to the new lodgings were blocked too and it was at this point that the army decided that they had never wanted to buy the town in the first place and pressured Rio Tinto to buy it back. However there was the problem of the unnaturally swift depreciation in the value of the properties. The government decided to uncover the missing fixtures and fittings so set about searching in the most obvious place – the surrounding villages – and in the process recovered the loot as well as something they had not bargained for: a veritable cache of arms, uniforms, ammunition and other supplies: in short, government property. When the gold runs out in Renco the minimal wages it brought to the local people will disappear along with the security guards and (white) managers. The swimming pools will run stagnant and the golf course will be reclaimed by the bush. People will probably go back to the land where in the dry season around Christmas the earth stands hard as iron, in the wet the rain simply washes the ground away. Only the original inhabitants will be left to eek out a meagre living – unless the army decides to buy the town.

We were befriended by an old-time Rhodesian at the great Zimbabwe – Chubby Gallagher. He was kind enough to give us a lift back to Masvingo Bus Station on our return to Renco. “Where’s the booking office?” he enquires, which betrays the fact that he obviously has never been to a bus station before. He is actually quite shocked. We assure him that we will be ok and set off in search of a Renco Bus. It does not take long for the bus company touts to find us.

“Where are you going?”

“Renco Mine.”

“This bus is for Renco.”

“It’s all right. We will wait for one with some seats. It’s three hours from here.”

“Five dollars forty for Renco Mine,” he declares as he ejects two people from their seats. “Here are two seats.”

And here is our problem. If we do the decent thing and reject the seats then he will lose face. This will be a problem for us all. In the end we have little choice as we are bustled onto the “Magwizi” bus against the flow of alighting passengers: a blind woman with a begging-bowl and a baby on her back; a fruit vendor and a man selling nail-clippers. In the meantime a wheel is being changed on the bus. By the time it leaves it is packed as full as a sardine can, but the conductor is still trying to pull more people inside; however some are left behind. They pursue us all the way to the garage where the wheel is changed again and are rewarded with a place on the bus somehow squashing between babies, chickens, bodies and bags.

To be a bus conductor you actually need near-superhuman qualities. You need to be able to fight your way up and down the interior through a solidly-blocked aisle to collect fares. You have to be fit too. This is so that you can climb up on to the roof via the swinging door with the bus at full speed to collect and deposit luggage. Speed is of the essence to get there before your rivals so you don’t actually come to a halt at the stops and you must swing aboard via the door. The man’s energy in the stifling ninety-seven degree heat is incredible and his agility in flip-flops is indeed super-human.

When we returned to Harare two buses arrived at the stop at the same time. For no particular reason, except perhaps the sense of disorientation which accompanies the arrival of any bus, we chose the “Zimbabwe Omnibus Company” over “Magwizi”. As we rattle away “Magwizi” is in hot pursuit, but has greater acceleration and races up to within yards of “Z.O.C.” Finally it passes, both sets of passengers yelling and gesticulating wildly at each other. The “Magwizi” conductor is swinging on the door, making lunatic gestures at his rival. So now we are in the dust storm thrown up by “Magwizi”, which swirls in through the windows. Another day of danger and excitement on the buses.

“Z.O.C.” dropped us on the outskirts of Harare and we take an “emergency taxi” (cheap fare, but crammed with anyone who wants to chance it) to the bus station to be greeted by the usual riot of touts/conductors. Hands tug at our clothes in the melee, numerous individuals pointing purposefully at their “official loader” badges and jostling each other. It is the school holidays, so the buses are on “emergency timetable”, which means they are fuller than ever, if that is possible. The word “emergency”, when applied to modes of transport, is less to do with catastrophe and more to do with vast numbers of people here. So for the “emergency” in “emergency taxi” or “emergency timetable” read “dangerously overcrowded”.

We travelled once on  the “Tanda Tavaruwa” bus out of Masvingo bound eventually for the Eastern Highlands – “Scotland with snakes” is how my brother described it to us. There is a wait at the bus station: the driver has not even got to the revving-of-the-engine-stage yet. But it was sort of worth it – this was actually quite a comfortable bus with soft seats. For reasons inexplicable and unknown, the Tanda buses have the word “Mhunga” (a drought-resistant cereal plant or millet from which they make the staple food which is a thick, tasteless porridge – how can anything so bland be so disgusting was the best description I heard of this) emblazoned across the front, and for this reason, as well as their comfortable nature, they are known in Renco as Mhunga Air. The bus is as densely packed as ever affording no opportunity to recover from the ordeal of actually getting aboard and hoisting the rucksacks onto the roof. As we are pulling out of Masvingo, I see a man with a bucket in the middle reservation of the wide road washing the trees with a broom. For that brief moment, in the stifling heat and hubbub of the bus, I had the distinct and disquieting impression of having gone totally insane.   The bus station in Harare is in as much of a state of emergency as the one in Masvingo.

The next day we travel to the airport for a flight to Victoria Falls and it is then that I travelled on the crème-de-la-crème, the haut monde, blue-blood, dog’s bollocks of all buses: the airport bus from the Meikles hotel. And to top it all, the propellered Viscount that usually does this run has been replaced by the president’s plush personal jet, which he lends to Air Zimbawe when he is not using it. An equally smart (tourist bus) is there to take us to the town from the airport.

It was soon back to the real world when we travelled out to the Eastern Highlands from Harare. It leaves at five am. The touts were out in force. There is a wait but eventually a “B & C Bus Company” bus pulls in to be greeted by the usual crush. An “official loader” grabs the bags and passes them up to the roof, aggressively demanding four dollars for his work. In the midst of the scrum I notice a hand slipping into my pocket. My hand joins that of the intruder and I turn to him, saying,

“You’re not a very nice man, are you?”

He stares ahead as if he has not heard and shoves me through the door. Once inside verbal communication is rendered impossible by the volume of the radio. The conductor is wearing an affable smile and pink nail varnish. His shirt is unbuttoned to the navel and he sports a garish replica diamond necklace. We rattle out of Harare through a township and rows upon rows of faceless blocks of flats. The bus lurches through the suburbs frothing its symphony of engine screeches, raucous chatter and the lively static-ridden zimbo-pop radio station. It has the optimistic words “B & C Luxury Tours” emblazoned across the side. In towns along the way the windows become an opaque tableau of flattened fruit-sellers pressed against the glass. At one the conductor instructs everyone standing in the aisle to crouch down. The bus is over-crowded and he doesn’t want to get stopped in town where there are certainly policemen about. His instruction is greeted with compliant laughter. Fares of those who have just got on are passed down the line of squatters. Once out of town the conductor giggles as he tells everyone they can get up now.

Our way back to Renco was on the “Shu-Shine Bus Company” vehicle, which sat revving its engine noisily for a full half-hour in order to encourage would-be travellers. Then there is the usual wait for a Renco bus. We sit on the steps of a bottle store for a cooling drink and a bag of stale crisps. For some reason, crisps were always stale when you bought them.  A man approaches and asks if I would like to play table football with him. I accept. It is not long before another man asks if he can join in too and it’s two against one. After a while a bystander observes that two against one is not fair and joins my side. He is a very good player and has this trick of trapping the ball under the player and flicking it at a gazillion miles an hour, with unerring accuracy and unstoppable, into the goal. It sounds as if it will go straight through the wood as it hits the goal with an authoritative, ear-piercing thump.

“I bet you two bucks we score the next goal,” my partner ventures. The opposition accept, but predictably we win the wager. My partner hands me a dollar: “Your half of the winnings,” he tells me. I try to demur but he is insistent. He then places a ten dollar bill on the table.

“You think you can win?”

There are only three balls left, which means that we only need score one while they must score all three. The two men opposite look at each other and then one slaps a twenty dollar bill down on the table.

“You must put in ten as well,” he tells me with an air of gravity. I turn to go, thanking them for the game. But by this time a crowd has gathered around us and I am jostled back to the table. The bet seems too good to be true. A forty dollar pot when my partner is obviously the best player by far. Things are happening in a loud and confusing manner. One minute a friendly game, the next some heavy betting. Rather than pushing through the crowd and walking away I turn back to the table.

But astonishingly, my partner suddenly seems to have lost his skill. It is as if it were three players against one. We lose our bet. Or to be more precise, I lose ten dollars while the three friends saunter off to the bar with my ten dollars. They had been working together and played quite an elaborate trick on me. I didn’t fell angry at being duped – they had played their roles to perfection and I had a begrudging appreciation of their audacity. Ten dollars was no great shakes for me and it is better than having ten dollars taken through the threat of, or actual, bodily harm.

The last bus I took was back to the first: “Kukura Kurewa” returning to Harare. After a short while I can hear an eerie hissing coming from the bush. It is a puncture – quite a regular event on these uneven roads which we had been lucky not to encounter before. There are many willing hands and much useful advice offered. The wheel is soon changed. The driver is a portly man wearing a beige safari suit, a wide-brimmed wicker Stetson and aviator shades who drove like a maniac. It was a fitting journey to end on, sort of summing up the whole bus travel experience (except airport buses): mechanical instability, borderline insanity, good humour, cacophony, over-crowding and an aching backside by the end of it. The driver swerves to avoid a donkey which is rolling in the road to relieve an itch, reminding me that bus crashes are not infrequent. If this happens the driver must run away as fast as he can or he will be lynched. So add danger to that list. But do not let that deter you; these buses give an intimate and intense window into everyday life and should not be missed in Zimbabwe.

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4 thoughts on “Zimbabwe – Flying Mhunga Air”

  1. 1st September by steve48

    I always think that using public transport is a really good way to get to know another place and its way of life. You’ve certainly proved that to be true, Pete. This is a mega public transport experience! I admire your bravery in giving it a go and it looks like it paid off big style with a string of unforgettable experiences. You sock it to us, one after another – fantastic! Your table football scam reminds me of my fake arrest scam in Nairobi. I’ll have to post an experience about it.

    2nd September by sgtpluck_v2.0

    That sounds like the kind of experience that was fun after the event and not so much when you’re in it! I had a similar experience in Afghanistan, on a bus named Titanic, but it was a reasonably sedate trip compared to this!

    2nd September by steve48

    Any vehicle called Titanic sounds like a bit of a risk to me, Rob. Although I don’t suppose there was any risk of crashing into an iceberg in Afghanistan!

    Are you not going back to Bratislava, Pete? And do you still have your VW campervan? Because of circumstances I seem to satisfy my wanderlust these days by UK jaunts. I’ve had some great ones. Went up Scafell Pike last weekend. Weather was perfect and the views were fantastic. The climb was tougher than I thought it would be though – but it was well worth it. I’l post.

    5th September by DavidRoss

    Brilliantly written and, as stated above, a great experience to look back on, although a lot of it must have been uncomfortable at the time. Personally, I stick to trains wherever possible!

    I agree about the scam. It doesn’t seem so bad when you’re relieved of money through guile and trickery rather than threats or violence. And yes, it’s quite a good idea for a writing competition.


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