Some days are a real reminder of one’s own mortality. Watching death could not be a more intense force for recalibration.
On a trip from our banking town to the small metropolis of Moshi (a quick day trip to visit the post office), my friend and I bore witness to immense tragedy. As is the norm for travel here in Tanzania, we boarded a bus with about twenty five individuals. The journey was cramped and warm and my friend and I were smooshed on the backbench of the bus with four Tanzanians. I was listening to music, enjoying the scenery.
Everything seemed so normal. It was a sunny day, Tyler and I were nursing slight hangovers from the night before – chapati still warm in our bellies from breakfast. In an instant, everything changed.
As is normal, our bus driver went to pass the truck we were following. To do so, he moved into the lane of oncoming traffic, traveling at approximately sixty miles per hour. As he went to pass, he slammed on his brakes. It was too late. The front right bumper of the bus collided with an oncoming motorcycle (pikipiki). The collision happened at such speed that, as Tyler and I turned around to look out the back window, we witness both the piki driver and his passenger project off of the piki and into the brush on the side of the road. One individual lay unmoving. The bus driver continued on.
Shock. That was the first emotion. Tyler and I stared at each other, silent, while we wondered what to do. The bus continued on, a portion of the window shield now shattered. A slow murmur of conversation began to circulate the bus, whose passengers had before been silent. The bus continued on. Tyler and I, shock sinking in, looked around at our co-passengers, becoming a bit frantic at the lack of action taking place. The bus continued on.
After about twenty minutes (but what seemed like an eternity), the bus was stopped by a police officer. All the passengers unloaded from the bus and the police escorted the driver and the conductor (konda) to a nearby vehicle for what seemed to be questioning. One of our fellow passengers approached and asked if we were okay. He proceeded to explain what was happening – the driver would be taken to a central police station in a separate vehicle while the konda would follow with the bus and its passengers. We reboarded bus, along with one of the police officers, and continued on to a central police station.
Once aboard, our new Tanzania friend asked about our journey. We explained we were on our way to Moshi, but were concerned about the entire situation, in general. Our new friend slightly eased our worries, explaining he was also traveling to Moshi and we could travel together ‘tukopamoja’.
As we continued on to the police station, about fifteen pikis surrounded our bus. As it turned out, these drivers were friends of the piki involved in the collision. The police officer escorting the bus tried to fend off the pikis and explain to them that the driver was no longer in the bus. We would later realize they were likely coming to perform vigilante justice to avenge their friend.
When we arrived at the police station, our Tanzanian friend escorted us through the large crowd that had formed, and lead us to a bus that was traveling to Moshi. As we passed through the crowd, we overheard the piki drivers explaining that their friend had been killed.
Eventually, Tyler and I safely arrived in Moshi. We went to the post office, where I picked up a package containing a birthday present from my parents. We went to our favorite coffee shop and drank cappuccinos. We ran the errands we needed to run. We ate Mexican food and drank beer. The day seemed to so normal.
For me, the day continued on in a bit of a fog. But, simultaneously, I felt so incredibly alive. All my senses were heightened – so extremely aware of moving vehicles and individuals moving around me. As we walked the streets of Moshi, the normal fluidity of the hustle and bustle was somewhat jarring. A man had died, just mere hours before, and no one surrounding us was aware. That being said, all the young men who had surrounded our bus would be forever changed. They had watched their friend die. But, they would all likely wake up the following day, board their pikipiki, and head out for a days work. The world continues on.
Travel by motorcycle is very common here in Tanzania. They are similar to the taxicab industry of western metropolises. Thousands of young men drive motorcycles every day here in Tanzania, transporting people to work, school, church, and from town to town. That being said, road safety is not a top priority. Many drivers ride without a helmet and as such, do not provide helmets for their passengers. Buses go extremely fast on main roads, many of which consist of only two lanes. Passing into oncoming traffic is a regular occurrence, so the incident that we witness yesterday is tragically not uncommon.
Tyler and I, almost immediately, started brainstorming project ideas to help keep cyclists – and their passengers – stay safe. We have brainstormed an HIV/drivers safety combo course, in which we were bring in an instructor to teach on road safety and provide attendees with two motorcycle helmets; one for themselves and one for their passenger. Yesterday was, in a way, an intense call to action.
As we travelled back to Same, from Moshi, on a bus identical to the one we had ridden that morning, we sat in awe at our awareness of life. We stared at the window and chuckled at the fact that we do, indeed, live in Africa. That we are in the Peace Corps. That we share so much that only individuals going through this wild ride can even begin to understand. We hugged, and laughed, so incredibly grateful for each other.
The entire experience has been a jarring reminder of the fragility of life. As Tyler puts it ‘we really aren’t ever guaranteed a normal Saturday’.