The Transportation Situation

I have been doing some traveling recently within Mozambique and have had the opportunity to talk to many people who work in different areas of the industry including car owners, drivers, doormen and lots of passengers. Like the market scene, transportation is a major way people make a living, and I was really curious how it all worked. I also wanted to relate some of my experiences traveling and using transport which is a colossal nightmare living in Mozambique. By far the most frustrating and taxing part of life here is dealing with transportation. I think you will see why.
Unlike the market scene, the public transport scene is pretty much entirely dominated by men. I have never seen a woman driver or door worker. Possibly because aggression and rude behavior is the norm in terms of customer service, most women are much too compassionate and reasonable for these positions. I always feel that it is easier to relate to women here in Mozambique; they are usually friendly, smile a lot, invite conversation and have a curious pleasant demeanor. Groups of men on the other hand tend to be more suspicious and reserved to talk, but will occasionally shout out a passing diminutive “Whiteman” call as I pass. So it was much more difficult to convince the group of Chapa (minibus) drivers and their doormen to divulge their personal finances and trade secrets, than it was with the market women. They all tend to hang out in front of their cars near the market, playing music, drinking beer (yes, some of them before driving, welcome to Mozambique), joking around and stuffing their faces with xima and meat. The drivers are usually older guys*, late twenties to forty and the doormen (the guys who collect the fees, load the car and arrange passengers) are usually younger; maybe eighteen to twenty five on average.
I have become friendly with some of the doormen throughout my time here in Manjacaze, and I occasionally stop to chat as I pass by the market. One day I made it a point to go and just hang out, to see what I could learn about the whole system. I approached a group of maybe 10 guys, who saw me coming and abruptly stop chatting, staring at me, not enthused. They turned back to their conversations and ignored me. I leaned up against the nearest car and seeing a guy I know called him over for a chat. We began speaking in Changana, and suddenly the drivers stopped talking again and stared; this time clearly interested. “Who taught you to speak Changana?” one of the drivers asked me. (This whole convo is in Changana) “Your Mom taught me” I responded, in a joking tone. All the men began laughing hysterically and suddenly I was surrounded by a crowd. I was totally in. We bantered a bit back and forth about normal things, building rapport. I learned their names, where they are from (all of them born within 30km of Manjacaze), and the routes that they drove in their cars. The novelty of the white man speaking Changana began to ware off, and I isolated a driver/doormen pair for a more intimate chat about the secrets of their vocation.
There are many different types of Chapas here in Mozambique; the open bed truck that usually goes to the more rural towns. The closed minibus that goes everywhere, the larger minibus that usually travels between the bigger towns and the biggest of the express busses that travel on regular schedules and go between the biggest of cities. For the vast majority there is no schedule, the car leaves when it is filled. And when I say filled I mean FILLED. The other day I learned a new Portuguese word, “sardinhar”, a verb which means “to sardine”. A guy turned to me in a Chapa and said “Damn we are really sardined up in here”! This is in reference to the packed nature of a can of sardines. The transport biz has developed its own slang relating people to the treatment of processed fish; how nice.
Back to the Chapa stop, I was chatting with a driver that made the 45km one way trip to Xai-Xai, the provincial capital of Gaza. He makes two round trips per day, over dirt roads that in the rainy season are so potholed it takes about 2 hours one way to navigate. “So how much does it cost to fill one of these cars up?” I asked casually. “About 2000 meticais” was the response. He uses one tank of gas per day. The fare is 50 meticais per passenger and 18 passengers are “sardined” (our new word) per one way.

So basically:
(18 passengers) x(4 trips) = (72 passengers per day) x (50 meticais per passenger) = 3600 mets per day
He usually adds 400 or so mets per day, charging people for bringing produce and animals on the chapa
4000 mets – 2000 mets fuel costs = 2000 mets per day profit.
Throughout the course of my travels and conversations I have observed a lot of suspect behavior with the police and corruption. I finally got the scoop from a driver. In Mozambique there is a law that says that in order for a Chapa to leave the town in which it is registered, it must have a special license to carry passengers. Apparently these licenses take a really long time to get due to bureaucratic inefficiencies, prohibitively high costs and just plain disrespect for the law. Basically very few Chapas actually have the license. When the police stop a chapa and ask for the license, if the fine were to go to court it would be 10,000 mets. The chapa drivers and police have worked out their own solution; pay 50-100 mets and just drive away. The transaction is always disguised, never done out in the open, but it is obviously happening whenever a chapa is stopped at a police checkpoint. The money disappears into the vacuum and the chapa is free to do its business. This may sounds insignificant, except for the fact that on the road from Manjacaze to Xai-Xai alone there are sometimes two or three police checkpoints. That’s 100 mets per trip, just vanished into thin air. Correspondingly, most policemen and women are very overweight; they eat very well at home.
The doorman is paid 150 mets per day and the driver is paid 400. Take out another 400 mets for corruption tax and the owner of the Chapa is looking at about 1050 mets per day of profit. The Chapa runs 6 days a week so 6300 mets a week or 25,000 mets a month profit. Right now that is about 800 dollars a month. Much better than a market woman!
I was interested to learn that most Chapas are not driven by their owners but instead hire drivers. This is the norm, with the actual owner of the car driving a very rare occurrence.
Chapas going different places have different economics of course: A Chapa going to Maputo makes one round trip per day, using one and a half tanks of gas. Thirty six passengers per day pay 265 mets per way.
9,540 mets in passenger fees – 3000 mets fuel – 600 mets corruption tax- 600 mets driver fee – 300 mets doorman fee = about 5,000 mets per day profit.
These chapas don’t run as often though because it’s a much longer trip (about 5-6 hours for the drivers one way) and the wear and tear on the vehicles is much higher. Usually 4 days per week for potentially 20,000 mets per week or 80,000 mets per month. About 2,300 dollars per month.
Of course I haven’t been taking into account the costs when things break, which is extremely frequently. The roads are dusty, potholed, littered with shards of glass and metal and destroy suspensions, tires, brakes, and every type of filter like no other. Monthly services are needed with major repairs coming every 3 months most drivers told me. Parts are really expensive as well and so if the Chapa owner doesn’t have substantial reserves to repair his vehicle, he and his drivers are SOL.
Enough boring logistics, to give you a sense of the thrill and pleasure of being a passenger in one of these chapas, here is a recounting of the most ridiculous Chapa ride I have had yet far and hopefully will never be repeated. One Sunday afternoon I was returning to Manjacaze from Xai Xai and went to the Chapa stop near the central market. After waiting for an hour for the chapa to fill with passengers, I was smashed into the first row seat, behind the driver, but not a window seat, sitting next to a young guy on my right and an old woman with live chickens in her bags to my left. A huge plastic washing basin was crammed behind the driver seat, which kept falling on the guy next to me. After the chapa filled, as typically happens, we sat around waited for nothing before finally leaving and stopping to get gas, load and unload baggage a few times as well as stopping at the usual police checkpoints. I noticed that the guy next to me was sneaking swigs from a paper bag shrouded bottle and reeked of alcohol. He was minding his own business so it didn’t initially bother me that he was in the process of getting hammered in the chapa.
All was normal as we turned onto the 35km section of dirt road that winds through the homestead studded hills of Gaza, leading to the beautiful villa of Manjacaze. I was casually looking out the window, feeling uncomfortably squashed and hot with so many people “sardined” into such a small space when suddenly I smelled an extremely rank odor. It was the unmistakable smell of human feces. Apparently one of the several babies that were on the Chapa had decided to evacuate itself in our company. The smell was atrocious, and the hot humid air did not help to ameliorate our collective suffering. People started talking about it, complaining and joking. The now drunk guy next to me perked up and started insulting the mother of the child, blaming her for something that was clearly out of her control. He was really offensive and people began to show disgust with his rude commentary. I turned to him and said in Changana that I thought it was him that had shit his pants and not the baby. The chapa erupted into laughter as the drunken man was publicly shamed in his own language by the foreigner. Predictably, in an attempt to save face he got angry and started insulting me now. We traded insults a few times, me just messing with him, and him quite serious. Being that he was a very small guy, wedged between a giant plastic drum and the window, I was not at all concerned about anything physically escalating. Additionally, public intoxication is socially frowned upon and I had the entire Chapa behind me to defend me. So we bantered back and forth a bit more and after tiring of this little game I just started ignoring him.
Unfortunately the silent treatment was too effective, and instead of eventually dissipating his anger, it seemed to fuel him into a frothy rage. The alcohol intoxication was probably the main culprit. I think there was a five minute period where I looked straight ahead, without even acknowledging his existence, while he talked at me from the side. He insulted white people in general, he insulted Barack Obama, he insulted my appearance, nothing was spared and I was laughing hysterically inside. Finally, after hearing enough of this guy’s bullshit, the driver spoke up and told him to knock it off. Suddenly the driver found himself the target of the onslaught and they started slinging insults at each other. With each passing minute the driver became angrier and angrier. Clearly he had never had an older sister that teased him to death and taught him to withstand a verbal onslaught with calmness and stoicism. The whole chapa started chattering now, and the situation was getting pretty heated. Suddenly the driver stopped yelling and pulled over onto the side of the road, where he quickly leapt out of the vehicle and started attacking the drunken guy through the open window. The driver was trying to hit the guy about the face and neck, while he had assumed a defensive posture and was holding on for dear life. The doorman leapt out too and went to restrain the driver. I grabbed the drunk guy and restrained him from retaliating as everyone on the Chapa began yelling and screaming. Other cars that happened to be passing by also stopped and watched the brawl. Almost in unison, the poopy babies all started crying, a crowd of people and cars formed and the scene just got crazy.
Finally the driver was restrained, the drunk guy sufficiently scared and quiet, and everyone piled back into the vehicle. Off we went, with the driver noticeably speeding faster than before, in anger and in haste to get rid of the drunk idiot. Not 5 minutes down the road, the drunk guys started mouthing off to the driver again. Basically the entire scene repeated itself; the driver stopped and attacked the man through the window, I restrained the drunk guy while the doorman restrained the driver, the women chattered, the babies cried, the onlookers gathered and the clock kept on ticking. A ride that normally takes an hour and fifteen minutes was already approaching the hour mark, and we weren’t even a third of the way home, and the chapa still reeked of poop.
Somehow we managed to calm the driver and I tried to talk some sense into the drunk guy. I told him that the driver was going to kill him and that if he knew what was good for him he would be quiet and not provoke anyone. The driver was angry and driving like a maniac now, which was putting everyone else at risk. In order to restrain the drunk guy I wedged the giant plastic drum against him and the seat, effectively keeping him pinned down as we continued over the potholed dirt road. As I already said, the driver, being angry was not driving safely, speeding and taking curves way too fast. A woman in the back shouted for him to please slow down and drive more carefully. He slammed on the brakes and we came to a halt for now the 3rd time as he got out and came around to the door of the chapa. He began yelling at the woman, saying he will drive however he damn pleases etc… basically being an egotistical asshole. He demanded that she get out of the chapa. He intended to leave her in the middle of nowhere, simply for asking him to slow down. Up to this point I was not choosing sides, just trying to avoid a major conflict or accident, but the driver was being ridiculous. I spoke up for the woman and very calmly reminded the driver that we are paying customers and that he has a huge responsibility for our lives. He seemed to think about it and even agree with me, but in the end his ego and pride won out and he still demanded the woman get out. Being that it was his car, she had no choice and got out. We left her standing on the side of the road as she furiously flipped off the driver and yelled obscenities. Everyone in the Chapa was really upset with the driver now, the babies were still crying and the smell of poop was still haunting us.
It was almost dark by now, a full hour and a half into the nightmarish journey. Luckily the drunk guy was passed out and no longer needed restraining; I thought we were home free. As we careened over the ruts, I noticed a persistent metal knocking sound becoming more and more audible. The driver and passengers noticed as well. We pulled over – now the 4th time – to investigate. At this point I was in a state of Zen–like acceptance to the situation, with the only goal in mind of making it back to Manjacaze safely, no matter how long it took. We got out of the chapa and the driver and I walked around the car looking for the source of the noise. I noticed that the trunk was slightly open, the rope that had previously fastened it shut had come undone and was hanging limply from the tailgate. I called the driver over and he confirmed that this was in fact the source of the noise. No problem I thought, lets tie this puppy up and get back on the road! However the gods had other plans. The driver started talking quickly in Changana, gesticulating wildly. Through his rapid speech I heard the words corn, fell and return; I understood enough to realize that a bag of corn had fallen out of the back of the chapa and that we were going to turn around to look for it. The driver announced the new plan to the passengers and with a collective groan we did a U-turn and sped off into the quickly approaching darkness to look for the missing corn sack.
Everyone has their own limits when it comes to maintaining personal sanity and coherence while dealing with stressful situations. Living in Mozambique, my limits have reached almost previously unimaginable dimensions. Every time I travel I experience the same personal evolution of character and behavior. First comes the anger. I am angry that I am treated like a sardine in a can, smashed and violated without any concern for personal space or comfort. I am angry that I must waste vast amounts of time simply waiting for the car to the leave the station. I am angry that the other passengers are not protesting this type of treatment, but simply accept it with a conditioned docility reminiscent of livestock. I act out this anger like a child having a temper tantrum; I snap at the driver and the doorman, make all sorts of ridiculous demands that we leave, constantly complain about the treatment and just be a general pain in the ass. This phase usually lasts until we are at least underway in our journey. I then put in my baby pacifier, i.e. music and headphones, with which I numb myself into forgetting the terrible situation that I am actually a part of. My mood begins to mellow and at this point I may even apologize to the driver about making those ridiculous demands. This feeling of well-being and acceptance grows the closer we get to the destination, but it’s a capricious feeling, and I am still quick to anger if there are any ridiculous delays. Given the fact that there are always ridiculous delays and stoppages, the anger, frustration and stress always come back in waves. It takes a lot of energy to be angry however, and with each passing temper tantrum I find my will to complain and my will to fight weaker and weaker. Finally, I reach a point in the journey where I completely accept my situation. Yes, I am uncomfortable, yes its smelly, hot, incredibly cramped and we stop every two minutes to pick someone up or drop someone off; and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. I will arrive when I arrive and that is that. I have completely lost the will to be angry. This relinquishing of anger is not a virtuous act of conscious equanimity; it is a product of repeated mental and emotional breakdowns, like a prisoner who has given up all resistance in the face of his torturers. Traveling in Mozambique has broken me, and I do not think that this forceful humbling has made me a better person, only more bitter, cynical and hardened to the realities of life. The only positive of this repeated mental scaring is the ability to relate to the countless masses of people that are without personal transport and must rely upon this dehumanizing abomination for their sole means of mobility.
Back to the now dark Chapa, searching for the sack of corn. Luckily, by this point I was in the complete acceptance phase of travel, and I actually started laughing hysterically after recounting for myself all the events of this nightmarish chapa ride. We retraced our path for at least 10 km without seeing a single corn kernel, and everyone began to get vocally pessimistic about the chances of us finding the sack. The driver finally agreed, and swearing at his luck turned the Chapa around for home; now two hours and fifteen minutes since leaving Xai Xai. I can just imagine the situation that unfolded with the sack of corn, as some man, woman or child, finding the sack of corn just waiting for him/her on the side of the road probably thought himself to have won the lottery! And yes we passed the woman whom we had previously left on the side of the road twice. The poor woman’s face lit up when she saw us coming back, thinking the driving had a change of heart, only to start cursing furiously as we sped right by her. I do not know what became of her, but I assume she survived.
Finally, after no further incidence, we made it into Manjacaze, a full two hour and forty five minute journey, which was by far a personal record. I thanked the driver and cursed at him in the same sentence, and ran home for a bucket bath to wash the filth and grime of that horrendous experience from my mind and body. The smell of baby poop, sweat and exhaust came off quickly in the shower, however the emotional scars remain, and to this day I shudder in fear and frustration when I know that I have to take a chapa ride.
Unfortunately, stories like this are not at all uncommon and illustrate many of the negative aspects of life here in Mozambique. I could propose many ideas to improve the situation; mandating strict restrictions on the number of passengers, facilitating Chapa drivers to get the required licenses therefor eliminating corruption, enforcing a system of scheduling with set times and stopping points as opposed to the free-for-all mentality. Basically arranging an actual functioning system of public transport, like any “developed” country has is what needs to be done. But these things take time, and I can only hope that this is the direction that the country is moving in.
Photos: Transport related
Lunch dipping extravaganza – Cucumber yogurt soup, garlic hummus, spicy guacamole
Fruit- Mafura. This is as type of Mahogany tree native to SE Africa. You soak the red fleshed seeds in water for 30 minutes and suck off the softened pulp. It is a fatty fruit, sort of like avocado, but the taste is absolutely unique. Sweet, yet savory, sort of like mayonnaise!

*Note: In proof reading this post I realized how much my cultural filters have been rearranged, considering the fact that my first reaction was to call someone in their late twenties or thirties an “older guy”! Old men are a rarity, but kids are everywhere, so my norms have switched to that end of the spectrum. My apologies to all you late 30’s western men who I just called “older”. In your own culture you’ve still got at least half a lifetime left. If you were here in Mozambique you should probably start picking out your grave site and arranging your affairs.

4 responses to “The Transportation Situation

  1. I will be 36 in June. You think you could inquire about any burial sights out there I can look at? Thanks jerk!

  2. I stumbled across your blog in my search for what people are saying about Mozambique these days. Fascinating story about the chapas – and honest discussion about corruption which I can identify with as I see it on more of a corporate level. I will keep up with your blog, if you don’t mind and maybe you can take a look at my thoughts if you have a spare minute. I’m based in Northern Mozambique so I may have a different take from you. Besides, the interesting bit about being out here is not just the local perspective of indigenous peoples and residents but also the South Africans, Portuguese expats and the like. They all like to talk – especially in that socially-frowned upon drunk in public state. I’m sure you know what I mean… Stop by the site if you have time: http://academiaenafriqueadventures.wordpress.com

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