In a country of about 40 million people, with over 20 urban centres and still counting, the need for improved transportation services is not only a prerequisite for economic development, but also very important if the lives and property of all the people who use the transportation infrastructure and supporting systems are to be protected. Surrounded by a number of landlocked countries, Tanzania does not only serve as a transit point for goods laden for other cities outside the country, but also a major port for exporting goods from the sub region.
The country’s natural resources, wildlife and geographic features continue to attract tourists from all over the world, day after day. Mount Kilamanjaro (which many people think is in Kenya) and Mount Meru are major tourist sites in the North Eastern part of the country, along with the Serengeti and Ngorogoro National parks. The land is vast, and though endowed with natural resources and a substantial amount of fertile land, there is glaring evidence across the country that, just like any other African country, it has had its fair share of poverty biting painfully on the welfare of very kind hearted and welcoming people. If there is something that nowhere on earth can come close to Tanzania, then it is the number of good people you can trust as you move around the cities and the country side.
During my two month stay here in Tanzania, I have observed the rather much to be desired road transport system in the country, and laid my experience side by side with the framework of the four ‘E’s of road safety, that is environment, education, engineering and enforcement. One cannot judge the system as good or bad, but it is possible to see some of the discomfort road users have to go through in their daily attempt to get to their place of work, school, visit friends or even going to the market to buy an item or two.
Motor cycles, motorized tricycles, taxis, minibuses, medium sized busses and large busses form the main pool and diversity of public transports in major cities in the country, especially in Dar es Salam, the capital. While the motorcycles and motorized tricycles are a recent addition to the system (not more than 6 to 10 years), the taxis and busses have served the people for several decades. The mini and medium sized buses with a carrying capacity of between 11 and 30 people siting are assigned the role, probably by circumstance, to convey people from one major suburb to the other in the city or from one small town to the other. The big buses (coaches) move people from one city to the other. The motor cycles and tricycles usually pull people from the interiors of suburbs, where the roads are usually not tarred to the main roads. They have also become an alternative to taxis for people who cannot afford them. The taxis continue to play a traditional role of providing hire services to customers and charging based on distance travelled.
Most suburban roads are not tarred and town centre roads which are tarred are usually without paved areas for pedestrians. Because of the sandy nature of the coastal capital town, Dar, some of the tarred roads are covered with sand, which becomes a challenge to pedestrians during windy conditions. There are also a number of petty traders to be found along and within the major streets, especially in places where traffic jams are common- and mind you traffic jams are very heavy in the city. Apparently the Dar es Salam port spills over into the Mandela road which is a major long drive and it can be a bizarre sometimes; large trucks ranging from those carrying goods in containers, those hauling fuel (gasoline or diesel or even LPG) all mixed together on the same road with other small cars and motorcycles meandering through them and traders sandwiched within as they try to reach out to passengers to sell their wares.
One advantage the country has in terms of the environment is the fact that most of the lands are flat, making most roads linking cities relatively straight. Therefore haulage trucks take advantage and usually pull more than one trailer. What makes things even scarier is the age of the cars, busses and trucks on the road- many of them are really old, and one wonders whether they are good enough to do the work they do. Major roads linking cities also cross the paths of grazing lands, and in many places cattle sheep and goats sometimes cross the road in search of pasture…it gets really worrying when you see a cattle header trying to cross the road with his lot as busses run in both directions with the ‘speed of light’.
There are visible signs especially within the capital and across the regions that trunk roads are being improved with bitumen surfacing becoming popular. Thus for the relatively new roads, there are very few or no pot holes at all. One thing which is also glaring is the fact that most gutters, even along those roads which have been recently constructed, are not covered. These uncovered gutters pose a great danger to pedestrians and vehicles plying such roads. In places where the road has very steep sides you find that there are no guards- and this can lead to fatal accidents when a car skids of the road. I am yet to see an interchange on any road in the country, meaning that there are several junctions where roads where multiple lanes meet and this contributes to a large extent, to most of the traffic jams experienced. Mind you most of the traffic lights at these junctions seldom work properly and you usually find policemen attempting to control the resulting chaos and misunderstanding…it can be quite hectic.
The roads usually have no markings and signs. Zebra crossing markings have been worn away by tyres over time and one can barely see them. In places where there are visible, they mean nothing to road users, both drivers and pedestrians; you cross only when you think the road is clear. There are also some roads which have been boarded with pavements made from tar…you find that motor cycles and other small cars or even sometimes busses use these pavements, completing denying the pedestrian of any right or safety to walk along the road. What surprises me is that no one seems to have a problem with this, it seems to be fine! Speed limit signs are virtually non-existent and where they are present, they have virtually faded away. On some roads, signs indicating the presence of speed ramps are not there and new comers on the road could easily bump their vehicles into a ditch especially where you find many drivers going over speed limits. It can really get tough sometimes!
On the dusty roads, you find some men and women in all-white attire. They are called the traffic police and mandated by law to enforce the rules of road safety. Their task is enormous, equipped with very rudimentary tools in an environment where road users know very little about traffic regulations, enforcement can be a nightmare. Coupled with traffic jams, the attention of the traffic police is usually taken over by an attempt to ease the congestion on the roads, rather than making sure that road users obey the rules. In the mini bus system which connects Mzumbe to Morogoro, it is not uncommon to find an eleven-seated bus over-loaded up to about 22 passengers, excluding the driver and his conductor. Commuters standing in such buses barely have room to breathe, and even when one is over whelmed with such an over- crowded bus, you still find drivers pulling over to get some more passengers on board. The question I usually ask myself is where these extra passengers are going to fit, but they eventually do. Even coaches which have been loaded at lorry parks with the right number of passengers eventually get their walkways filled with passengers who they pick up on the way. Some of such passengers either sit on the floor, or stand in the bus for up to 2 or 3 hours, creating discomfort not only for themselves, but also for seated passengers. The bus- air circulation becomes impeded and on very warm days passengers will sweat profusely, and pray that the journey ends sooner rather than later.
Apart from over-loading, the accelerator is also the friend of many drivers and as soon as they get to a free highway, no matter what the speed limits say or whether they are driving through towns where they need to be much more careful, most passenger vehicles will speed. Sometimes it gets quite chilling and dangerous. If you are not used to these speeding levels you may involuntarily shout as the buses are crossed by motorcycles and the drives abruptly slam on the breaks. Obviously because there are no seat belts whatsoever, you will find passengers slamming into one another, especially those who are standing.
Some buses are also fond of stopping and picking up passengers anywhere, with very little respect for no stopping signs. Such stops can be so brief that the passengers they targeted never get the opportunity to get on board. It becomes very ‘nasty’ and on the edge when nursing mothers and the very old people are found in such a situation. Even when the passengers manage to get into the bus, there is very little coordination from the conductor to let the driver know the passenger is safely seated or has found an anchor to hold, especially if they are going to be standing. The unsuspecting passenger usually find themselves falling over others or sometimes getting bruises from exposed metal parts of these usually old and rickety buses…with people only saying sorry to them without any compensation or any formal or informal attempt to improve the way things work. Traffic police seem to be busy all the time, but you see very little change in these areas. Many of the road users have become used to the system and you find them complaining very little about the way things work. The road users are however by law supposed to be monitored, supported and controlled by the law enforcing agencies including the police, but very little is being done. A friend of mine made me aware of an incidence of a driver whose vehicle was involved in a fatal accident killing and wounding of a number of passengers…no one knows what happened at the police station, the next day this driver who survived the accident was behind another steer with his arm in bandage. What an unsafe system…there is no big brother taking care of the interests of the vulnerable. Now some hospitals have special emergency centres for receiving and treating victims of motorcycle accidents because of its rampant nature. Some of the motor riders are reckless, taking very little safety precautions and putting the lives of their customers and other road users in danger.
I am not sure if I am in a good position to elaborate on this point since I do not know so well what goes into the training of drivers, law enforcement agents and general knowledge on road safety of the Tanzanian society at large. However, another friend hinted that, most commercial drivers learn the trade from their ‘masters’ who have been in the business for so long and end up passing on both good and bad habits to others. I have seen, but very few driving schools around the country. There seems to be no policy for instance on how the motorcycle operators would be trained and weaved properly into the transport system, though they are playing a vital role. The general public which uses these transport systems also seem to have very little or no voice at all. I have not heard nor seen any passenger challenging or resisting a driver’s attempt to take more passengers than he is supposed to. Even when there is clear evidence that other buses are available for picking people up, passengers continue to crowd themselves into the currently moving one. Maybe, both the drivers and passengers do not know, because they have not been taken through it, the consequences of such habits and the fatality that can result.
One cannot also tell whether the enforcement agencies also do not know that over speeding, overloading, and stopping in the middle of the road are all road offences. They keep on stopping cars guilty of all these offences, but nothing happens. There is certainly the need for all these stakeholders to be properly trained if any improvements are to be seen in the transport sector of Tanzania. If a pedestrian decides to use a zebra crossing, he can stand there the whole day and no car will stop for him to do so. If the issue is that the drivers do not know about this rule, then there is the need to reconsider the current training method prior to the issuance of drivers’ licence. The gap between what we see on the Tanzanian roads and what we desire to see can, to a large extent be attributed to the fact that players in the sector do not know the rules of the game, and there is also no one (institution) around, at least indeed to enforce these rules.
While I cannot profess to know all the details of road safety gaps in the country after two months of stay, I would argue that, the problems are so glaring, that any visitor may see them. I would further argue that authorities across the length and breadth of the country should go beyond principle and desire to make the roads safe to actually making them safe…it is too chaotic, and in the country’s attempt to attract tourists from all over the world, the transportation system will certainly count. While we wait for the rail network to be revamped, the traditional road transport should be seen as the life blood of the economy. Long live Tanzania and the good people who live in this country.