Post from Tanzania: The soft bodies of strangers

I’ve caught a handful of dalla dallas in the last few weeks (the cheap, local minibuses that buzz around n between the towns of Tanzania). They’re crowded. Very crowded. And I’m quite sure they’re not safe.

Dalla Dallas in Zanzibar

I’m not sure what it is about them that makes me leap to such a conclusion. In Australia, everything is so highly regulated that a blocked nose is considered unsafe. But I think I’d prefer too much regulation to too little. Even if I hadn’t heard about the accidents that regularly occur or been told the tales of inebriated drivers, or seen the dalla dallas that constantly litter the sides of the road (either with a mechanic underneath, or a crane hoisting them from a ditch), I’d have no trouble choosing which I’d rather.

But yes, a big part of what makes them unsafe is the overcrowding. And a byproduct of course of overcrowding is a distinct lack of personal space.

When my partner went to primary school, the teacher gave each of the students a hoola hoop and taught them how much space one should leave between themselves and the next person. I remember my nan holding onto my wrist at the checkout of the supermarket so as to keep me the ‘right’ distance from the person in front of us. To this day, I am conscious of how many seats to leave between myself and a stranger in the cinema, how far to stand from someone on the train station platform, whether I should shuffle my chair a little to the side to give a fellow colleague enough room in a training session. I am quite sure it is because of this that I find Melbourne’s public transport so traumatic: I get to work in the morning feeing beaten and battered for the human crush I’ve experienced just to get myself onto a carriage and into town. It’s not just me; everyone on the train is miserable. We try to create for ourselves a little place in the crowd where we don’t have to look at anyone, don’t have to press against another body, don’t have to share a spot on the handrail. We’re all tense, rigid, and desperate for the intimacy to end.

The thing about the dalla dallas is that the passengers seem to accept the crush. They know that each journey will likely be like that and there’s no point fighting it. People climb over each other to find space, they direct each other to shuffle down, they press themselves into each other to get comfortable, they remain soft. Soft is the best word I can find to describe it: people rest their legs against each other, the muscles in their upper arms are relaxed as they lean against you, women find the comfortable spot between your shoulder and theirs to rest the head of a sleeping toddler.

It reminds me of the way small children lean against you on a couch or on a park bench, when they nestle uninhibitedly into the curve of your hip, resting a hand on your thigh if you’re reading to them or showing them something. There is no tension. On the dalla dallas, there’s no huffing and puffing if the service is delayed. The passengers wait. If it’s more comfortable to rest the back of a hand against the side of your knee, that’s where it sits. The bodies sway in unison with the bumps and knocks in the potholed roads. They accept the lurching, the delays, and the fact that they’re all in it together. It reminds me of some advice I was given before getting on a plane for my first ever trip to Africa: It’s Africa. Go with it.

I’m quite sure that the good citizens of Tanzania would prefer a safer, more efficient, more comfortable public transport system. No one looks particularly thrilled to travel that way. But there seems to be something that accepts that this is just how the dalla dallas are, all the time and for everyone, and so they go with it.

Louise Pine

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  1. Yes, thankyou Louise. I’m one of those people, battered and bruised by and angry about Melbourne’s public transport system, and I am always overly conscious of personal space. It’s so absurd, when read in the context of this post and my own experiences travelling. (‘my own experiences travelling’ is a worrying phrase.)

    1. Hopefully my post doesn’t suggest that Melbourne’s public transport isn’t something that we shouldn’t get angry about – one of the things I love most about home is that we generally don’t settle for the substandard, that we always push for something better. Keep raging againt the crushing trains, I say!

      1. Not at all. And I certainly don’t plan to give up railing against Melbourne’s PT (excuse the pun). But it’s still important to remember the contrast.

  2. Louise, how do you make this experience that obviously no one enjoys sound so enticing? Soft, swaying, comfortable spot. All these descriptions would make me want ride one not knowing what I was in for.

    1. I think because it’s actually remarkably unstressful – sure, it’s crowded, but there’s no tension in the air. Not saying I’d like to ride them everyday, mind..!

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