Recently, I was riding the town bus in Dar es Salaam. Now, commuting by public transport in this hot coastal city is not your favorite cup of tea: demand for buses beats supply by far especially during rush-hour and the stakes are high since everyone wants to get a seat for the ride home or to work. No one welcomes the idea of spending one or even two hours standing in a bus, sweating! And because our forefathers queued long enough during the slave trade days, we have thrown that ‘Mzungu’ concept out the window. People prefer to rush the bus long before it comes to a stop. But this is strictly for the able-bodied. It is an unspoken rule that if you do not visit a gym regularly, you should not attempt that stunt. I tried it once and I am glad I lived never to try it again! When the first wave hits the bus, you can hear that banging sound – ka-boom! – as powerfully-built bodies hit the bus. One of the greatest miracles – literally – is that I have never heard of a person being run over by a bus in such situations.
Even after the seats have been occupied people are invariably stacked up, standing, like maize cobs. Sometimes you are so squeezed together you can’t even wave a finger.
In such circumstances it is only natural that patience is at a premium and tempers flair up at the slightest provocation. Bus conductors are not known to be very civil when provoked and the saying, “An eye or an eye” rules supreme. For them it is a defense mechanism; they do not allow themselves to back down under any circumstances.
On this particular day, a middle-aged lady had entered the bus and was standing shoulder to shoulder with me. I could feel her jostling for position, pushing this way and that and the word ‘Trouble’ was pasted all over her! I did not have long to wait. Soon the conductor began demanding fare from those around him and in the process he tapped this lady’s shoulder and asked her for her fare.
The minute he did that, the lady blew up like a landmine. She turned on the conductor and methodically tore at him with a barrage of insults. It turned out she did not like being touched on her shoulder, particularly by a bus conductor, and she made that clear in the rudest manner possible. Then she did what she should never do with any bus conductor: she threatened to not pay up. Well, as far as I knew conductors, this lady had just set the stage for one of the biggest showdowns in the history of this town. I could imagine the kind of reaction that would be coming from that conductor. You are allowed to insult the conductor, if he can take it; but threatening to not pay your fare is asking for a small world war. Normally, in such cases, the passenger will end up paying; but there is no clear winner because either verbally or physically, each party will have made sure they walk away with a piece of the victory.
I glanced at the conductor. He was looking down and I could not see his face. He was a young Muslim man (he had on his cap), and throughout the onslaught he had just stared at his sandaled feet. He must have a wife and kids, I thought; and, as a man, I knew he would fight his ground. When he looked up, I expected to hear him say: “Driver, stop this vehicle this instant! Someone here thinks I am their son-in-law and they are going to pay right now!”; or something like that.
Instead, the young man slowly raised his head, looked the lady in the eye and said quietly, “Madam, I am sorry, please forgive me.” I could see the expression on his face and there was no malice there.
Now, you wouldn’t understand the power of such a statement coming from a conductor unless you live here. It was not the words, really, but the way he said it. There was a deep sincerity and humility in his demeanor.
It suddenly became very quiet in our part of the bus. Everyone knew something momentous had happened. The conductor bypassed the lady and went on picking fare from other passengers as if nothing had happened. Everyone was paying as if they were before a priest. Then, humiliation written all over her face, the lady dipped into her purse and handed her fare to the conductor. The conductor thanked her and we continued with our journey without further incident
Sometimes after my wife has gone to bed, I remain on the couch and turn off the lights. That night I thought about the kind of heart that young Muslim man had shown. His humility had won a major battle.
I sat there and let the tears flood down my face.