Tales & images from life as me…

TIA Tales – Driving…me crazy!

public transport in God

Since I last posted, I have been jumping through a series of insanely designed hoops in order to get my new photo ID driving license. Most people just bought their last one, without the guy who issued it ever seeing their face. Now, they’ve changed the rules.

Good, I thought when I first heard this, perhaps it will improve the situation on the road. I had clearly not understood, at this stage, what the new system would be…

Let me tell you a thing or two about driving in Tanzania. First of all, all the rules are… flexible. Second, no one really knows what the rules are. At least, there does not appear to be a book anywhere where they are recorded. If there is, no one’s ever seen it!

The traffic lights are a great example. About three years ago a brand new set of traffic lights were put up in the centre of Mwanza on a major cross road. It was our first set of traffic lights.

For weeks people came to visit to watch the light change colour! Initially the lights were not connected to a generator, so every time the power failed in town then they did too, so that caused further confusion! But, a policeman was put on duty to direct the traffic until the drivers got used to what the lights meant.

Anyway, three years on, you’d think it’s all sorted, right? Except it really isn’t. To start with the red light shows for almost five full minutes so the traffic builds and builds and the street kids use you as begging targets, but also the red light gets sort of ‘interpreted’ as a give way sign because people become so impatient. And as for bikes, well they don’t think it applies to them at all and no one has corrected them. Am I talking push bikes? No, not only. Here small motor bikes, known as piki pikis, are used as taxis (sometimes with as many as four people squeezed on) and they just fly on through!

Now, why is this? I found myself wondering, and quickly surmised that there is a two pronged attack on our road safety here!

Basically, it all starts with learning to drive (prong one!). As I mentioned, just a few years ago most people didn’t even bother with learning, they simply bought a license. Those that did take a test did so using a tonka toy car on a two-dimensional map of the town! The pushed the car around, saying things like ‘checking mirrors’ or ‘changing gear’ as they did so. One guy who was told he had failed asked the police officer doing the test why this was, and his answer?

“You didn’t indicate,” he was told as the officer wiggled his pinky (that, apparently, is right, thumb wiggle for left!). There was also a theory test which included questions like ‘if you want to stop, what do you use?’

Over the past four years I have seen more and more driving schools pop up. Initially there were small trucks loaded with people who shared the lesson, each taking a few minutes behind the wheel – after ten lessons you had maybe managed an hour behind the wheel and could take your test! Now there are far more one-to-one teachers and vehicles available, which is good, but even these learners are not taught to use their indicators (maybe we should go back to the tonka toy!).

One friend of mine paid for someone she knew to have lessons and get her test. The girls would come home from each lesson very excited and wanting to practice, until finally she took her test, which she passed. My friend then decided it must be safe to go for a drive with her to celebrate. During their drive they took a wrong turn. “No problem, just turn around,” she said jauntily.

“Oh!” responded the girl, looking concerned. “But I have not done reversing.”

What the…!!

OK so driver capabilities are not great. But I mentioned a two pronged attack… so the second? I’d say it’s the, hmmm how can I group this…? road management, shall we say, or lack thereof, which also leaves a lot to be desired.

When I say roads I am talking in general terms here – many of us live on roads that are washed away twice a year, and I mean COMPLETELY. Currently my road has a pot hole so large I could lose my car in it and no taxi will drive up! Another friend of mine was driving along when the road collapsed from under her and her car actually did go into the hole!

There are also women that sweep the dust off the main tarmac roads. They wear luminous waistcoats and builders hats and stand along the edge with their brooms – I’m telling you it is absolutely lethal. You turn a corner and there they are, in the middle of the road!

Oh, and that’s not all that’s in the road – children, goats, chickens, daladalas (insane people carriers with slogans like ‘in God we trust’ – you’d have to ‘cos no one trusts the driver – that tear around the town not using any indicators, just pulling in or out whenever they want to collect or drop of someone wherever they feel like it), pikipikis (the motorbike taxis I mentioned), men dragging cart loads of fruits or piled up mattresses which block your view, and the occasional herd of cows. Oh and all the roads that are being built now, have been brilliantly designed to save costs – with no pavements.

Not crazy enough? Try adding a zebra crossing on the main road immediately off the roundabout (a zebra crossing which incidentally no one seems to know how to use!). Stopping for a pedestrian would basically guarantee a crash.

During my time here I have seen a cow being shoved into the boot of a car, a donkey strapped to the back of a motorbike, a man with his entire shop (yes, I mean the building and contents) on a cart which he was dragging where the cow or donkey should be, a woman staggering into the road under the weight of a Singer sewing machine on her head (do you know how heavy those things are!) and endless examples of 12 people in a car or 30+ in a people carrier. Do any of these people get stopped by police? … Nope.

I could of course share some astounding police stories here as part of my ‘road management’ theme, but I’d rather stay in the country for now, so I’ll save those for another time!

Suffice to say, as you may have gathered, it is absolute mayhem. But it makes for some great pub chat every now again!

Anyway… You’ll be glad to know I got my new license today – it only took six visits to the TRA offices, two lots of finger prints, eight photos, three signatures, two trips to the police station, one ‘thank you’ payment, a trip to the bank to make the official payment, and a very patient taxi driver. Easy!

I’d love to meet the guy who designed this system and thought it was a good idea – they actually made a flow chart of the steps required… it’s A3 and the font is small! People have been fired for taking too much time off work to get their license.

So, that’s the theme for the week –Please do post some of your outrageous road experiences in response. I know all of you who live in Africa will have a wealth of them to share, but I’m sure there are good ones from the rest of the world too (I do remember laughing at an elephant stuck in four lane traffic jam in Bangkok), so come on – share!

Thanks for reading. Until next week x


2 responses

  1. The first time I ever drove a car was in Mwanza at 1am. Drove around for about 20 minutes with John instructing me in his Nissan hard body. I don’t think I was out of place compared to the local drivers, but John didn’t let me drive again after that for some reason…

    February 10, 2012 at 6:05 pm

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