Boring jobs are the same the world over. Doing exactly the same thing day after day after day can destroy you.
The man who tells this story works as a bus conductor on a route between towns in Malawi. He has been doing this job for nine years, but it feels like a hundred years…
At Chitakale the bus, although already packed full, picks up a few more passengers and continues on its way. The road is wet and the March rain beats gently but endlessly upon the roof of the bus. Outside, the yellow maize stands in the fields, unmoving, drunk with too much rain. The rainy season, dark, long and heavy, is coming to an end, and soon people will be coming to cut the maize.
But neither the muddy road nor the maize in the field can show me anything new or interesting. For nine years I have been a bus conductor, and I cannot begin to count how many times during those nine years I have been on this road. Whether it is the rainy season as now, or a dry September afternoon, or a cold June morning, it is all the same to me.
I always have one wish, and it never changes: to get to the end of the journey as quickly as possible. And yet I never get my wish. I know the life history of every bridge, every stone, and every tree on the road from Limbe to Migowi, I promise you. My past is on the road, so is my present, and I find it hard to imagine a future away from this road, the road to Migowi and back to Limbe, and back again to Migowi…
I don’t enjoy thinking about my past before I became a conductor. I know I once had a father and a mother. We once lived on one of the large tea estates in Mulanje. But in my mind this time is distant, not clear. My father died when I was a little boy, and my mother lived on, selling kachasu, illegal beer, to pay for my schooling. When she had finished doing that, she drank herself to death on the day I went home with my first pay.
I also had an elder brother who went to work in the mines in South Africa. At first we used to write, then my brother stopped answering my letters, so I stopped writing.
The bus stops, and I loudly ask if there is anyone getting out here. There is no answer, so the driver starts his engine and the bus moves on. But a moment later someone rings the bell and again the bus stops.
‘I’m dropping here,’ says a man rising up from a seat not far away from me.
Several passengers shout rude, angry words after the man as he pushes his way to the exit. I say nothing to him and as a result some of the ugly words are thrown at me too.
Before I became a conductor, I worked in a tea research station. My job was to sit all day and write down the figures produced by a strange and complicated machine which, I was told, measured the brownness of tea. I never understood what those figures meant, or how the machine worked, but my boss repeatedly told me that my job was of great importance to tea research. I did not understand this either, though I was proud to play my part in this great work. However, I quickly grew tired of sitting in the same place and writing down the same figures day after day, and I left the job after only a year. ‘I want an interesting job,’ I told my friends as I left. ‘I’m going to be a conductor; there is variety there, different people, different places every day.’
The bell once again rings and the bus stops for some passengers to get off.
‘I have a bicycle on the roof,’ says one man.
‘And I have a bag of maize,’ says another.
I’m sure I know the reason why I am growing so thin: my ears have grown tired of hearing such things. I have heard them hundreds, no, thousands of times. Maybe one day the passengers will be kind enough not to say them.
The bus has reached the worst part of the road and is moving at walking speed. The driver swings it from one side of the road to the other as he tries to keep to the less muddy parts. Many a time the wheels go deep into the mud, and all the passengers have to help in pushing the bus out.
‘I wonder what time we’ll get to Migowi,’ I say aloud without meaning to.
The driver, hearing me, looks at his watch, ashamed. ‘By five o’clock we should be there,’ he says.
The driver is a very old man, has been a driver for over thirty years, and should not still be working, although all attempts by the National Transport Company to make him stop have failed. No one understands why this strange old man, who is said to be very rich, prefers to go on working. I suspect he will die as soon as he is taken off the road. Behind the wheel he looks full of life, but his eyes show the shadow of death; it is only the road that keeps him alive.
The bus slides in the mud on a steep hill and nearly turns over. Streams of water run down the side of the road.
‘Everyone come out and push…’
It seems to me that the road changes everybody, no one is free of it; not just the driver, but all the passengers I have ever met. I feel sorry for them, but the thought worries me.
I became a conductor in order to escape from a boring job, and a cold impersonal machine that measured the brownness of tea. But after nine years I do not find much variety in the brownness of men. Indeed, it seems to me that these are the same passengers that I left Limbe with on that rainy morning nine years ago.
That rude talkative man has been on the same back seat for nine years, and is still telling the story of his business success. So too that other man near the window, who smokes all the time but won’t let the windows be opened. That crying child never seems to grow up. And there is that fat woman, who cleverly pushes off everyone attempting to sit next to her… Yes, these are the same passengers, and it is the same road, the same journey without end.
‘Everyone come out and push.’
The rain continues to fall and the driver keeps swinging the bus from one side of the road to another, to avoid the mud. The bus complains continuously under the heavy load of passengers, which never seems to get less. People get on and get off, but the bus is always crowded.
At Kambenje the bus stops to pick up a few passengers, wet with rain. Among them is a man wearing an old yellow raincoat. I look at him carefully as he gets on. Yes indeed! My father! My father had just that hardened look on his face, that bent back from years of picking tea. And for the first time in these nine years, I see before me a clear picture of my father, my mother, my brother, our little house on the estate, the fruit trees in front of the house, the red roof of the factory in the distance, and the black smoke coming out of it, everything to the last detail.
I hear the singing of the workers as they pick tea leaves in the fields, in their rough yellow raincoats, with baskets on their backs. I feel now as I felt then: respect for these workers who, with their songs, make hard work and hard lives seem so pleasant. A feeling of joy suddenly fills me. I move over to where the man is standing and touch his shoulder.
‘Father!’ I shout, and I feel the tears coming out of my eyes. I turn and smile at everyone in the bus, and I see my joy shining back from their faces. Oh, what a beautiful world! The sound of the rain on the roof and the complaining engine have become sounds of joy, the old man at the wheel has become happiness itself. The voices of the passengers and the crying of the child fill me with a wonderful feeling.
So my father and mother have never died after all, my brother has never had to go to South Africa, and I myself have never had to write down figures from a machine that measures the brownness of tea…
But suddenly the bus comes to a violent stop, and all the standing passengers fall over one another. I try to stay on my feet by holding on to the man I had called my father, but he is already falling and he pulls me down with him. Everything in my dream disappears; I seem to be coming back from the dead as I and the man I had called my father help each other to our feet.
‘Everyone get out and push.’
The bus has once again got trapped in the mud; the two front wheels are in so deep that it is going to take hours before we can continue.
‘By seven o’clock we should be at Migowi,’ says the driver, when we have finally succeeded in pulling the bus out.
Once those words used to calm me down. But now as I hear them I feel cold all over. The idea of arrival has now begun to frighten me. I say nothing, and instead look at the maize in the fields outside.