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Bravo brother Mwakyembe for commuter trains

With sheer force of determination,Dr Mwakyembe has achieved what Napoleon Bonaparte couldn’t do. The legendary General left with 600,000 soldiers to attack Moscow but the Russians fled farther north, leaving his army to be devoured by the equally legendary Russian winter. Napoleon returned to Paris with just 20,000 soldiers and only 1,000 of them still of fighting capability.

The Russian expedition was Napoleon’s most flopped mission and remains in the annals of military history as one of the biggest losses of men under a single general. But Napoleon remains the greatest military genius of all time and a warrior like the world has hardly ever seen exactly 200 years ago today.

Dar es Salaam hardly compares to any other city in the world for most chaotic commuter bus services and, until now it appeared, it was a jinx authorities couldn’t kill. But Mr Mwakyembe promised the city’s citizens commuter trains amid great skepticism from some quarters and outright sabotage of the idea. But here we are today and through Mwakyembe, Dar es Salaam has made history as the first city in East and Central Africa to operate commuter train services.

Mwakyembe, wabulaga lishing’weng’we, (Kisukuma for Mwakyembe you have killed the monster). My own test assignment as a cub reporter 41 years ago was to write a story on city transport problems. Commuter bus services those days were run by a company called Dar es Salaam Motor Services (DMT), which also operated upcountry bus services under the same name.

DMT was nationalized and split into two, Kampuni ya Mabasi ya Taifa (Kamata) and Usafiri Dar es Salaam (UDA). Kamata died in the early 1980s while UDA limped along with impressive strides until it too went the way of its cousin. I think UDA again was the first company to introduce in East Africa the Hungarian made Ikarus articulated buses, which carried about a hundred passengers per trip.

But overcrowding in buses had by that time became quite a huge problem. Coupled with the high costs of operating an increasingly inefficient company, UDA too literally collapsed. By the mid 1980s, trucks replaced the comfort of the Ikarus buses. Passengers sat on two wooden rows facing each other like soldiers being ferried to the warfront. "Dar es Salaamites" nicknamed the "buses" “chai maharage,” Kiswahili for tea and beans, the breakfast of the most struggling citizens of the city taken by people humped on two wooden rows facing each other in shacks.

UDA has now been sold to private interests but it will take the company a painful path to equal its glorious past when the city operated London style double deck buses in the mid 1960, a sniffed but now completely forgotten pride of freedom. In 1971, it was easy for someone seeking entry into journalism to miss “the city transport problems” story as there was still some semblance of order in the sector.

Conductors wore proper uniforms, carried proper ticket vending machines and the buses operated scheduled services, with arrival and departure times shown at every bus stage while fares were charged according to one’s stage of boarding and disembarking! At this juncture I believe, young readers are quietly saying the old man is stitching words because it is now impossible to imagine a Dar es Salaam that was once so civilized!

Then in came the still reigning “Daladalas,”  neolexia from the US dollar. The dollar used to exchange for only five shillings but when it was devalued in the mid 1980s as part of World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) conditions to restructure the economy, five shillings became enough for paying the commuter bus fare only. Daladalas too ushered in a completely chaotic culture as buses competed for passengers almost unregulated except for the profit motive of the owners.

Half the fleet is owned by government officials, including traffic police officers who certainly live with a conflict of interest between enforcing regulations and letting the buses ply their routes overcrowded because that is what guarantees the owners maximum profit and maximum discomfort to commuters. That was Mwakyembe’s challenge. But just in the first week of commuter train services, all that has dramatically changed. Buses to Kimara, Ubungo, Mwenge, Buguruni and even Gongo la Mboto from Posta run virtually empty.

“The city transport problems” story no longer even attracted the attention of the media. Dirty and stinking drivers, conductors and touts no longer made headlines. Their brusque manners and harassment of passengers especially students, became accepted by all as the invisible cost of commuting in Dar es Salaam. Scrambling to board buses and even through windows rounded off the cultural decay in Dar es Salaam’s commuting life. People joked that it was impossible to respect even one’s in-laws as conductors groped every passenger under the guise of helping them to board.

It is my sincere hope that trains and the Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) project now under construction, will reintroduce Dar es Salaam to civilized commuting culture, at par with global practice. There should be seats in each coach for the elderly, mothers and the disabled and those seats should run unoccupied if no passenger answering to the category happens to be on board and at risk of tough fines for those ignoring the priority arrangement.

Trains in Dar es Salaam are yet another miracle from the man who has cheated death at least twice in his rather short but vibrant political life. It is a shaming and damning testimony to anyone who had wanted him dead.

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Author: Mboneko Munyaga

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