The Great East Road

Contrary to one’s first instinct, it was safer, easier, quicker, and quite frankly, it just sounded more adventurous than saying, “I took the bus home.” Standing on the outskirts of Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, I usually distanced myself from the nearby bus stop to avoid being confused with a bus patron. The bus conductors would still encourage me from afar that I should take the bus instead. There was always time, especially when the bus is mostly empty. It wouldn’t leave until it was completely full.
I could be standing on the side of the road for less than an hour or all morning. I would usually bring a book to read while flagging cars. Over weighted taxis and minibuses dominated the road. I wanted something with a little more leg room. It was always a risk. Land rovers belonging to local non-government organizations, colloquially known simply as NGO’s, or Zambian government workers were sporadic on the road, and it wasn’t always a guarantee that they would be curious enough to pull over. I hoped at some point an NGO land rover or a private vehicle for a Zambian government worker would be very confused by an American flagging down cars while wearing a skirt made from the brightly-colored traditional African chitenge material. Their confusion would lead them to stop to give me a ride.
There were so many advantages to hitchhiking over taking the bus in Zambia. Those land rovers could speed right around the roads winding through the boundary of the Muchinga Escarpment. Sometimes there was air conditioning, which was a plus once the road declined into the soupy, sticky air of the Luangwa Valley. For comforts like these, there was always a price for hikers, albeit one cheaper than the slow bus system. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I always paid in conversation. They wanted to know what I did, where I was from, and what America’s like. Some men jokingly talked about wanting to marry a musungu—a white person .As a woman, I would get a few marriage proposals that I could shrug off.
The biggest advantage was getting to know the people. They were fascinating. They liked to talk. They would often reply to my tales of America with stories of their own. They traveled throughout the country as teachers, government administrators, and business leaders. Two times, I was picked up by someone who previously lived in the U.S. One attended divinity school in my home state of Kentucky and moved back home to Lusaka after graduating. The other told me stories of struggling in D.C., working 2 full time retail jobs. He saved all his money and applied for a visa. American life was not was he expected it to be. He missed his family and the slower pace of Zambian life and evidently returned home.
Not always were the rides smooth sailing. There was the occasion when a MAC truck stalled and my travel companion, another volunteer, had to get out and help push to get it started. My favorite story was a ride with three young Zambian women who accidentally hit a goat in the middle of the road. Fearful the local villagers would make them pay for it, they sped along, only to run out of fuel 10 minutes down the road.
Sometimes, a ride never picked me up. Occasionally, there weren’t many cars on the road, or they were too harried to bother stopping. Standing there on the side of the Great East Road for four or more hours, I would sometimes just head back into Lusaka and try again the next day. The day before school was in session was a day I felt more rushed to get home. I was a teacher at Ndake Basic School. It was the end of August. I had been enjoying my month-long vacation during the school break. I was tired and ready to head back home in the village.
Slinking over to the bus stop, a couple of travelers offered me condolences.
“You’ll get the next bus, don’t worry. No problem. It will be no problem.”
“Not many drivers to Chipata today. Sorry sorry.”
I explained I only needed to get to Nyimba, which was about halfway between Lusaka and Chipata along the Great East Road. From Nyimba, I would ride my bike to Ndake village. I kept my bike safely at local shop in Nyimba. If I didn’t get back in time, he would be closed up for the night, and I wouldn’t be able to retrieve it.
I announced to the conductor that I was a teacher, and that school started the next day. He nodded as though he felt the gravity of the situation. There were other teachers at the bus stop. We were all trying to get back to our schools. While we waited, we chatted about the differences in Zambian and American education. Even though they introduced themselves as fellow teachers, they were instantly recognizable. They were reading books or magazines. Others writing in small ledger notebooks—lesson plans maybe. I imagined that they were also in a rush to get back after relaxing in the capital, or maybe finishing studies of their own at the university while the rest of the schools were closed.
I let out a small laugh and told them I missed home. Home was a two-room hut in Ndake village. Everyone laughed at the idea that I lived in a hut with a grass-thatched roof. The teachers balked at the idea. They told me I should demand a metal roof. I was a teacher, after all. Grinning naively, I said, “I love the smell of my grass roof and mud walls.” They just shook their heads and responded, “You Americans are very peculiar.”
Standing there outside of Lusaka, home was about 400 kilometers away, but it felt like the other side of the world.

How to Ride a Mini Bus

If you ever find yourself on public transport in Zambia, sit tight. You’ll be reassured that the bus is leaving soon-soon. No problem. Very soon. Don’t be fooled. In all actuality, the bus will leave when it is full of passengers, so be sure you have a book and find a snack. There will also be plenty of people to converse with as you all wait quietly for the bus to leave.
Don’t be the first one on the bus. You’ll be directed to the back, and the rows fill up from back to front. That means you’ll sit in the very back crammed with everyone’s luggage pressing on your back, and you’ll feel every pothole along the cracked tarmac road because the bus doesn’t have any shocks. Not to mention, every window will be open and blowing dust and fumes right into your face. No one else will get into the bus until they are sure enough passengers have been persuaded and the appropriate price bargained for.
As the bus stop gets busier, more local business proprietors will start hanging around in the hopes you’ll find their fritters or egg sandwiches calling your hunger pangs. Sitting in the shade of the bus with the other patient passengers, you can motion for any of them to hurry to you for a snack to tie you over.
It’s not just food vendors trying to get your attention. It’s the perfect time to browse for a new pair of sunglasses from the guy who just walked by. I always enjoyed collecting new bright chitenge material to have sewn into beautiful dresses later on. You could finish all your shopping while sitting on your luggage.
Sometime right before lunch time, it will be ready to pile into the bus. It’s probably best to hold on to your own bag. That single rope net that holds down 30 plus suitcases on the back of the bus may not hold for long. Put your bag between your knees because the mother sitting next to you might plop her youngest child in your lap while she wrangles with the others on her knees.
The ride is usually slow, heavy with luggage and people. The conductor still on the lookout for prospective passengers will be clinging to the doorway where the missing sliding door used to hang. You’ll stop multiple times along the road and for a longer period of time in small towns like Chongwe. Some passengers will depart, but even more will squeeze in. At some point, your driver will be at his home village, and you’ll depart to continue the journey on another bus.

Just Trying to Get Home

On that particular day, the minibus would break down somewhere along the Great East Road where it is the hottest—in the Luangwa Valley. I was getting so close. I was maybe 150 kilometers to Nyimba, then about 10 kilometers on my bicycle to my house. We all got out trying to push the bus. Everyone chortled at the American musungu attempting to help. I knew it wouldn’t work. We were stuck and the conductor assured us that another minibus would come.
I started flagging any passing vehicle. It was no use. There were dozens of us eager for a ride. A few other teachers were complaining about not being able to report to their schools on time. I joined in on the complaining with them. After all, school was supposed to start the next day.
After about an hour of waiting, others became restless, inquiring about the minibus that was summoned. When it started to become dim and the sun was fading, a pickup truck was heading our way in the distance. I stood up to wave my arm at it, along with most of the other passengers who were so hopeful about the bus coming.
The truck slowed down. “Madame Gregory?”
It was, Mr. Nyirenda, a former teacher from my school. He was heading back from his university studies. His wife was a teacher at Nyimba Secondary School. He smiled. I bolted to the passenger side door and crawled in. He motioned for several others to hop in the back after negotiated a price and collecting some fuel money.
“Madame, what are you doing out here?” he inquired, still smiling to see me.
“Just trying to get home. School starts tomorrow,” I replied. He giggled at that response.
Mr. Nyirenda got me home as quickly as he could. He even offered to pick up my bike and drive me directly to Ndake from Nyimba. He was a kind man. He safely dropped everyone along the way to Nyimba, taking care to help them with their bags. It was after dark when we arrived at my house. I was his last passenger. I thanked him and paid him. He refused, but I playfully tossed the money in the passenger seat.
The next morning I was dressing and heard the familiar traditional greetings outside my door, “Odi!” My neighbor, Alice, was there to greet me. She missed me, too. When I opened the door, we hugged. She called me by my local name, Tokozani—meaning giving thanks. Her eldest daughter shyly greeted me too. She was helping her mother carry water.
She wasn’t going to school today. I didn’t hear the usual bustle of children walking along the path to school behind my house. I realized, it was just the first day. In Zambia, does anything ever start on time? Like most cultures in Africa, villagers of Zambia are generally poly-chronic, and time does not flow linearly. Time is cyclical and events happen when the time is right.
I realized I wasn’t in a hurry to get to Ndake because school was beginning. I was in a hurry because I wanted to be home. After a month of meetings with other Peace Corps volunteers and a couple of weeks of vacation, I was ready to conclude my traveling. I aimed to get back to the place I called home for nearly two years. I was ready to commence teaching my pupils, playing football with them, and playing games with them in the library. I wanted to sit in my kitchen and chat with my neighbors and play with their children. My fellow travelers thought it odd I would call this place home. It was the place I felt most comfortable, safe, and loved.
I knew my time in Zambia would be brief. I realized that I would always be an outsider. I was always one step behind when someone else was speaking the local language of Chinsenga too fast for me to fully understand. Despite these things, I loved and was loved by my fellow villagers. I never understood until after leaving my home in Ndake the profound affect these people had on me. I may have been an obvious outsider, but I was brought with open arms, and a bit of curiosity, into their community. I never knew I would be more homesick for my hut than my old apartment in America. Even now, nearly three years after returning to America, I get homesick for Ndake village.