From up in the sky comes the distant drone of jet engines. The little boy’s grubby concentration on his mud pies is temporarily diverted. He points a small finger vaguely into the wide blue yonder. ‘Plane’, he says insistently, ‘plane’. It is almost the first word in his vocabulary: ‘car’ perhaps just got there first.
This image is not exclusive to the Western world. That little boy may just as well as be playing outside the thatched huts of an African village compound as in the luxuriant garden of a Beverley Hills estate. There is virtually nowhere in the Third World which has not been penetrated by the technological miracles of modern transport. Everyone is familiar with the District Commissioner’s Land Rover, the visiting Minister’s air force helicopter, the clumsily converted Volkswagen minibus which the mission hospital uses as an ambulance, courtesy of some voluntary agency grant.
Even in remotest Africa, fascination with the motor vehicle has brought a whole new set of social aspirations associated with the wonder of sitting inside a noisy metal box and going somewhere. One African friend once described to me her first such experience as a child on the bus. She thought it was the countryside that moved, not the bus she was sitting in, as if she was embarking on a voyage in some H.G. Wells time machine.
Whole sub-cultures and sub-economies have developed in Africa around that agent of social transformation, the motorized vehicle. Down in Mathare Valley, Nairobi’s most crowded and poorest slum, the children have their own version of plastic airplane kits and dinky cars. They scavenge pieces of wire and old tin cans from the city’s rubbish tips and make cars out of them.
Every now and again an enterprising social worker runs a school competition where the children describe what they want to be when they grow up. The sum total of the children’s aspirations is to drive a Peugeot Matatu - a communal taxi - on the 500 kilometre run from Nairobi to Mombasa. That’s a big job, the one that confers status. Apprenticeship will be a precarious balancing act on the back mudguard of a city-bound matatu, taking the two-shilling fares for a cut of the profits.
Elsewhere in Africa it’s the same story. The lithe young Somali nomads, who used to derive their standing in society from driving the great camel trains down to the coast from the desert interior, now win a similar status from driving the great truck convoys that ply the same routes along hundreds of miles of poorly made roads.
In those halcyon days before the intrusion of the train, the car, the truck, the bus and the Land Rover, most African peoples resolved their transport needs by the use of a commonly available device: the woman’s head. Among settled peoples, the only transport requirement had to do with carrying small loads a few miles in one direction or another: porterage, in effect. Water must be collected, fuel gathered and surplus produce from the subsistence plot taken to market, all of which fell to women. Travel per se, beyond visiting relatives in a nearby village, had no purpose and was generally unsafe and unsought after. People only moved significant distances as a result of misfortune: driven out by famine perhaps. Which is why in Swahili the conventional greeting to a traveller is to offer ‘condolences’ for the voyage.
In traditional society, those with the greatest transport needs were the nomadic peoples. They moved their whole household to new grazing grounds according to the season. In Mogadishu camel market, you can still see the traders counting out wads of Somali ten shilling notes, and it is the pack-camels not the milk camels which fetch the highest prices. The long hot distances eliminate the less efficient method of a woman’s two patient legs and that special gliding walk with all the locomotion in the buttocks.
In Africa today, where the modern world has extended people’s horizons beyond their immediate environment to the schools, the health centres and the urban amenities, there is no viable alternative to the meeting of transport needs than motorised vehicles. Even where community-based services really catch on, allowing people’s health needs for example to be serviced by a barefoot doctor on bike, easy communication to the town will still be required. It will become more, not less necessary to reach the agricultural marketing board store or the credit union branch. As for passenger traffic, nothing less than bus, train or car will do for those who need to travel. And many do, as any visit to a small town bus station will bear witness.
There are lines and crowds, clamouring for tickets, bundles of luggage; vendors of glasses of sweet tea and sticky doughnuts who know to their favour that the posted timetable represents only a bureaucrat’s fantasy. There are people going to visit their relatives, who these days live a lot further afield than the next-door village. There are husbands and wives (never together) returning home after conducting ‘some business’. There are school pupils going home for the holidays, there are those seeking, or who have failed to find, a job. People require motor transport: it is their lifeline to the modern world which they want, and are being obliged to join.
A remarkable example of ordinary people determined to solve their transport needs is a village in an arid subsistence area of Eastern Kenya. There the Women’s Club managed without an outside grant to save up for a down payment and borrow several thousands of dollars more, to buy a bus. They were disenchanted with embroidery, knitting and the standard crafts because they didn’t solve any of their problems. There was no convenient public transport to take them to the local town 6 miles away, where they had to go to fetch water in times of drought, to take their produce to market and their babies to the clinic. They wanted a bus and nothing else. Not only did they manage to get their bus, but they managed to run it at a profit and pay off their debts, as well as start up a general store, build a community centre and save up half the costs of a replacement against the time the present bus would wear out. At this point they thought it might be useful to learn to read and write. This then, was their order of priorities.
Formerly New Internationalist co-editor, Maggie Black is now editor of UNICEF News, New York.