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Congo's yellow juggernauts

Published September 8, 2006

KINSHASA, Congo - Ever wonder where America's yellow school buses go to die? Some don't - they find a second life on Central Africa's rutted, traffic-choked roads.

Buses that once carted American children now haul Congo's impoverished people, young and old - and their loads of preserved fish, powdered milk, beans and onions. Charging breakneck around the capital, the yellow buses rattle fiercely as they crash through the potholes peppering Kinshasa's roads.

While many castoff products from rich Western countries find new use in Africa, yellow buses are unique in their conversion from symbols of safety and restraint.

"This bus is all about speed," says Alfonse Musambu, a 39-year-old pastor of a Kinshasa church called the Chandeliers of Gold, sitting in a bus as it barrels across Kinshasa. "Pedestrians are used to it. They know how to get out of the way."

Buses appear to reach speeds of up to 50 mph, fairly fast given Kinshasa's traffic and poor roads.

With traffic so chaotic and roads so rutted, safety seems beside the point, but Congolese cherish the buses as comfortable and sturdy - particularly since the alternative is dodgy taxi vans or walking.

Bruce Kingambo, 25, is barely able to move, stuffed with more than 100 other people and their baggage in a 60-seater yellow school bus. Squashed between a cane basket of smelly fresh fish and a cardboard carton of milk powder, he's thankful for the ride to Kinshasa's main market. Total cost across town: 30 U.S. cents.

Congo also imports buses from Europe, but mechanics say the American ones are sturdier.

The buses, which can also be seen in other African countries including Nigeria, mostly operate in Congo in the capital. The city of about 8-million has most of the 300 or so miles of paved road in a country the size of America east of the Mississippi.

Spare parts for the buses are a problem, but Nasser Trans chief mechanic Jules Biba addresses it in typical Congolese fashion: improvisation.

"Sometimes we lack a brake pad so we bend some scrap metal and use that," says Biba. "But it's not an ideal solution."

[Last modified September 8, 2006, 02:25:33]

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