The Back Of The Bus


My brother Brian and Jan Polisensky hitching a thousand miles to the southern tip of Lake Tanganyika in 1963

The Back Of The Bus

Lots of change was in the air in the early sixties. The ‘Negro’ Freedom Riders were protesting against being relegated to sit at the back of the bus in the American South. Their bus was set alight. Macmillan’s Winds of Change were sweeping down Africa.  The great experiment of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was dismantled in December of 1963.   Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland got their independence.  My brother, Brian, finished up school at Chaplin High and was headed for Cape Town University and his own much anticipated independence.

The Back Of The Bus

There was a six week gap, over Christmas, between school leaving and higher learning.  Restless after the holiday, Brian wanted to get to Lake Tanganyika having snorkeled in Lake Nyasa amongst the plethora of colorful tropical freshwater fish a few years before with the family. On the map, it seemed a very doable one thousand miles. Jan Polisensky, already having racked up a year at the Post Office Engineering College, agreed to go along for the ride.  Short of cash, they planned to hitch hike.

It was easy to get a 600 mile lift, the going smooth on the tar road north from Bulawayo to Kapiri Mposhi.  Here the road forked; west, paved and well traveled, to the rich Copperbelt.  North: the dirt road beckoned.

The traffic thinned.  Not many were going that way even in 1963.  Rides were few and far between.   They were lucky to make it to Mkushi before night fall. Though they were out on the road early in the morning not a single car passed them the following day.

Next day, luck was with them.  They pushed on to Mpika. Beyond Mpika they branched off the Great North Road.  The tedium of the long haul of endless woodlands to Abercorn with nothing to punctuate it except the occasional isolated trading stores lay ahead. It was three days of waiting before they got a lorry.  Finally at Abercorn they got a lift down the short steep road to Mpulungu,  on the southern tip of the lake.

True to form Brian went for a swim. He struck out for a good distance before he became aware of stinging sensations. He felt slimy things on his thighs.  When he got back to shore he saw big black, leeches clinging to him.

“Where are your fags? The thing to do is burn them,” Jan advised. “This is one time your Dad will be happy you’re a smoker.”

They looked at the inviting ferry MV Liemba that cost a bomb. They inhaled deeply as they poured over the map.  The way north by road was circuitous. The spaces between dots loomed large.  Miles were no longer the measure.  Measurements instead were made in days of waiting.  How many days of waiting would it be between Mbeya and Tabora?

Suddenly the University of Cape Town seemed a long way south.  “I think we’ve come far enough,” Brian said.  “I’ve got to pack for ‘varsity.”

“This is as far as I go. I’m turning off to my farm at this trading store here,” said the driver in the middle of nowhere.

“Who know’s when we’ll get out of here,” said Brian gloomily, taking a deep breath of the meld of smells as he looked around at hessian sacks of mealie meal, along side bags of fertilizer and cement, sugar and flour, tins of paraffin for stoves and lanterns.  Hand ploughs and yokes along with pans for gold prospecting were stacked at one end.  Black cooking pots, aluminum kettles along with Dutch ovens, copper pots for boiling marmalade and dryers for coffee beans were jumbled together. Glass beads and gumballs filled the sweet jars on the counter, men’s suits and cheap cotton frocks hung on a rod at the back of the store.  Bolts of ‘Kaffir‘ sheeting, muslin and canvas were stacked on shelves.  There were rows of tins of sardines and kippers along with boxes of Oxo cubes, Fray Bentos and Beefex canned meats, soups, spreads and gravy powder, Splendo vegetables and puddings, bottles of Olivine and tins of Tanganda tea.  A section of herbal remedies for common ailments was well stocked.  Two typewriters and a few Supersonic radios were for sale. Babies knitted caps and booties were jumbled on a small table. Bolts of fencing wire: barbed, woven, mesh, and poultry, was also on hand.   He negotiated the run of fowls through the store, adjusted his eyes to the filtered light and finally looked up.  There amongst the tin baths, bicycle tubes and tractor tires were two brand new Raleigh bicycles, The Greatest Name in Cycling.   “There is no use hanging around here,” he said.  “Might be weeks before anyone passes by.  Lets buy these bikes and peddle under our own steam to Kapiri Mposhi. Back to thumbing it after that!”

“Buy bikes!  They must be ten pounds a piece,” said Jan in alarm.

“They have the latest Strumey-Archer 4-speed gear and Dynohub,” chimed in the storeowner.

“More to go wrong.” said Jan.  “It’s a long way, hundreds of miles.  What’ll we do with the bikes when we get there?”

“Sell them and get our money back,” said Brian.

“Where is the money coming from in the first place? Now that I’m eighteen I’m on my own.  My old man is not going to spring for me.  It can’t be more than ten shillings to take a bus.  More comfortable.”

“There’s a bus in two days.  You can camp on the verandah if you like, free water and P.K. (toilet)” volunteered the trader.

In Africa there is no such thing as a full bus.  They threw their packs on the roof along with the hoeks (cages) of chickens, sacks of meal, bundles of kutundu (belongings).   They boarded the bus and worked their way past all the mfazies, (women) with babies on thier laps and small picannins (children) at their sides and medalas (old men) headed for one village or another to visit relatives as well as young men destined for jobs on the Copperbelt. They squeezed gratefully onto the bench at the back of the bus.