A boy walks up to your bus trying to sell you a mousetrap, razor blades, wallets, and watering cans. A woman walks down the highway carrying an infant on her back and the largest sack of potatoes I've ever seen on her head. A truck drives by with several large, dead fish hanging off the side mirrors to dry. A man pulls up on a bicycle with six live chickens tied to the back of his seat. The captain of the boat that was supposed to leave at noon tells us at 2:30 pm that it's looking like we'll probably leave around 4:00 pm because one of the passengers is still running a few errands. The power in town has been off for three of the last five days, but no one's complaining and business goes on as usual...This is Africa.
"This is Africa" or "TIA" is a term we learned almost immediately upon entering Mozambique. It's the phrase that's tossed around whenever an explanation simply doesn't exist for why or how something is happening in Africa. You shrug your shoulders and simply state "TIA". I don't want to make sweeping generalizations, and can only speak to a small part of southern and eastern Africa that we've seen so far, but there are commonalities among the countries we've been to. It's a region of beautiful vistas, but the landscape is often littered with plastic bags as far as the eye can see; a place where some work incredibly hard round the clock with neverending perseverence and others seem to sit around and wait for handouts; a continent where it seems that most villages don't have electricity but almost all villagers own a cell phone. Things happen at their own pace and get done in their own way. It can be challenging for a mzungu (a Swahili word literally meaning European but used to describe any white person) such as myself to make sense of it all.
The ability to at least try to put aside any expectations of sticking to a schedule, especially when it comes to transportation, is quite possibly the most important trait you can possess in order to survive--and more importantly, enjoy--a visit to Africa. Time has a much different meaning than what we are used to in the US. I'm not going to pretend that I haven't had my moments of frustration when "African Time", lack of personal space, being charged twice as much as the locals for a bus ride, or hearing "hello my friend will you please take a look at what I want to sell you" when I really don't want to has gotten the better part of me. In Nkhata Bay alone we spent three days in a row waiting for a ferry that never came, and then another boat that kept postponing its departure time until it decided not to depart and we finally decided to stop wasting our time waiting (unfortunately, due to logistics, this caused us to leave Malawi five days earlier than planned). Scheduled departure times-- heck, even scheduled departure dates-- are loose estimations, and no one but the mzungus seem to be upset when they end up being off by hours or days. On public transportation, there is no such thing as having your own seat, or any personal space, for that matter. I am not exaggerating when I say bus rides in Africa make the Paris subway smell like a flower shop. Your face is the color of a tomato, you're sweating profusely, armpits are centimeters away from your nose, babies are in your lap, chickens are held like hand luggage, bags of food are sitting under your feet: This Is Africa.
While travel in Mozambique, Malawi, and Tanzania has been the toughest we've experienced, we try to remember to appreciate the experience for what it is. I have learned to take a deep breath, look out the window, and take it all in: the dozens of brightly-clad women and children running up to the bus as it pulls into a town to sell us bowls full of ripe mangoes, avocadoes, pineapples and bananas, the man holding a chicken who's been standing in the aisle next to me for the last four hours, or the many women walking dangerously close to traffic speeding by them (there are no sidewalks), balancing anything from huge baskets of fish to a bucket of water to a broom on their heads. It's nuts; it's chaos; it's kind of beautiful in its own way.