Last night, after a Friday happy hour with friends spent drinking half-off mojitos and munching surprisingly decent sushi while carefully calculating our increasing bar tabs against our tight budgets, mentally trading the indulgent reprieve for a week of rice and beans at the end of the month, my buddy and I walked from the uncomfortably swank expat hub that is Cape Town Fish Market in Dar es Salaam, past the taxis and bajajis waiting to ferry the tipsy, rich clientele back through town and deposit them safely behind the gates of their homes and compounds, past the bored, decorative Masai guards and onto the poorly lit road, where we waited a few minutes, squinting against the headlights of oncoming traffic, and finally flagged down a city bus.
We cruised through the dark, straphanging in the aisle and chatting in English until we reached Macho, a busy bus stop that allowed us to grab seats as half the passengers debarked into the dark swirl of traffic, vendors and nighttime travelers. Normally, it takes a while before the bus fills again, a time that seems interminable when you’ve got somewhere to be, but last night wasn’t the case: a large crew of vijana—youth, usually boys in their late teens—crowded on to the bus, claiming the open seats and cramming into every last aisle space, squeezing back and together as more and more streamed on. Seated near the back with a backpack on my lap, my first thought was of what a pain it was going to be to get off the bus at my stop.
As we departed, I asked the kid jammed in closest to me where they were headed—Muhimbili, my stop. Sometimes the universe has your back. Cultural correctness kicked in and we introduced ourselves, and once I explained what I did as an American in Dar, I found out that my new fried Hassan and his soccer team were headed to a match in our neighborhood. It explained the rowdiness and high spirits of the group, which were quickly getting on the nerves of the konda, the fare-taking conductor on every daladala in the city. The boys were all claiming to be students—therefore only on the hook for half fare—but our conductor wasn’t having it, and only half the team had IDs. As I watched the lights of Dar es Salaam alternately whip and crawl by the window, I smirked a little as I heard Hassan explain in an insistent whisper that one student ID was enough for two players, that they should pass them back out of sight as the konda tried to make his rounds in the impassable, overcrowded aisle. I felt a little older than I realized, appreciating the knuckleheaded teenage boisterousness of it all, yet there was some fellow-feeling—I don’t really see myself as outside the scrape and hustle years, just yet.
At our stop, the players streamed past the beleaguered conductor who, after arguing, threatening and complaining, had been reduced to accepting whatever fares the team pressed into his hand at the door. My buddy and I extricated ourselves from the seats and paid in full, stepping down onto the curb making our way through the throng of excited footballers. I gave a nod to Hassan and crossed the street quickly amid the high beams that represented oncoming cars in the dark, doing the step-pause-dash dance of unregulated traffic, my mind a block ahead in the warm night, looking for what’s next.