“They wish we didn’t exist”: Tanzania school goers speak of transport woes
In the daily sharp-elbowed jostle to board daladalas, school students find themselves at the back of the queue.
Every weekday morning, Basilisa Isaka Ishengoma, 15, wakes to her alarm at 4:45am and gets ready for school. When she leaves home, it is still dark and so her mother or one of her older brothers walks her to the bus stop 400m away for her safety. Yet it is at this point that her journey gets more, rather than less, tricky.
Ishengoma is one of thousands of pupils in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, who have to commute by daladala to their public schools. In theory, each of these private commuter buses is required to carry a certain number of students, who pay TZS200 ($0.09) for a single journey compared to TZS600-750 ($0.26-$0.32) for adults, but operators often ignore this directive, especially during rush hours.
“Daladala may not stop when the driver and his conductor see that there are more schoolchildren than adults at the bus stop, and if they stop, most of the time they refuse to pick us up,” says Ishengoma. “It’s so heartbreaking to live with the fact that waking up so early still doesn’t guarantee that I’ll make it to school on time.”
Students’ struggles are not just limited to the morning. After school, they have to wait again and jostle with other sharp-elbowed passengers in the hope a merciful conductor will eventually let them on.
“The seats are for adults and those who are willing to pay adult fares,” says Neema Mbande, 17. “We students are usually held back to board last on buses – after they are full. Some daladala conductors wish we didn’t exist.”
Schoolchildren’s struggles with transport operators are often attributed to money. Daladalas are privately owned, and drivers and conductors pay the bus owners a set sum, depending on capacity and route, to hire the vehicle by the day or week.
“The money we get [from fares] has to be split for fuel, meals, mechanical services, and traffic fines. At the end of the day, the boss wants his cut, and we also need not to go back to our families empty-handed,” says Razak Tamba, a 30-year-old conductor. “If we decide to take every student we see then we won’t be doing any business.”
The impacts on students can be serious. Frank Chotingule, a teacher at Buza Secondary School, says schoolchildren who have trouble getting to class often struggle to focus after their hectic mornings. “As a teacher, you have to go above and beyond to help these kids perform well in class, or they will fall behind,” he says.
Some schoolchildren also report being punished for being late, which also affects their mood and eagerness to learn. Zahirina Mamuya, 17, recalls being caned for tardiness one day after she had struggled to board a daladala. “I cried a lot that day and I didn’t want to stay at school, but I couldn’t leave either, especially after the difficulties I’d encountered on my way to school that morning,” she says.
Some students avoid going to school altogether for fear of being punished. “They seek refuge in the streets, where they smoke weed and gamble,” says Ummy Msoffe, a teacher at a public school.
Young, particularly female, students who rely on the share taxis are also vulnerable to sexual abuse, either once aboard the daladalas or if they find themselves forced to accept lifts from strangers. Zuwena Shabani, 17, has classmates who are in sexual relationships with older men and recalls a day when she and a friend were offered a ride by a man in his mid-thirties who asked her friend, also 17, for her phone number.
“My friend stated that she did not have a phone number, but the man insisted that she take his, so she agreed, took a book from her bag, and scribbled down the guy’s phone number,” she explains. Shabani discovered months later that her friend and the man were in a secret relationship.
This issue of grooming and sexual abuse has long been recognised as a problem in Tanzania and was discussed in parliament in 2018 when the then deputy education minister admitted that schoolgirls face abuse, rape and impregnation. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a sexual and reproductive rights organisation, 360,000 15-19 year-olds girls and women give birth in Tanzania each year.
“Dar es Salaam leads in passenger rights violations, and schoolchildren suffer the most,” says Hassan Mchanjama, chairperson of Tanzania Passenger Protection Association (CHAKUA).
In the face of these challenges, Tanzania’s students have been far from passive. In 2016, for instance, Modesta Joseph, who was 15 at the time, created the mobile app Our Cries through which schoolchildren could easily report abuse to police and transportation authorities. The system reportedly collected around 200 reports but has since been discontinued.
Local pressure has also pushed authorities to respond. In 2018, for instance, the then-Regional Commissioner of Dar es Salaam, Paul Makonda, announced the purchase of 20 special vehicles for students. This policy seems to have fallen by the wayside too but, more recently, the Dar Rapid Transit Agency (DART) allocated four of its large buses, each with a capacity of 150 adults, to transport schoolkids in support of the government’s efforts to ensure all children get educated.
This initiative has been transformative for students like Mwajuma Mohamed, who is in her first year of secondary school. “I’m so lucky to have avoided the struggle that the majority of students face,” she says. Her mother, who is well aware of the challenges facing students, is also reassured. “She’s my third and last born, and I’m so relieved that she doesn’t have to fight to get home,” she adds.
The DART buses, however, only benefit students from 34 schools. To address ongoing challenges facing other students, CHAKUA is collaborating with traffic officers to educate conductors and drivers on the importance of providing students with transportation to school. “We all need to work together to ensure that we relieve our children of the difficulties that they are forced to face on a daily basis,” says Mchanjama. The Tanzania Students Networking Program (TSNP) meanwhile calls on every member of society should stand up for students when they see them being treated unfairly. “Everyone owes it to these young people to protect them as if they were their own,” says Secretary General Robert Majige.
It is hoped these initiatives will change attitudes. But many, like Ishengoma, are sceptical their transport problems will be resolved while they are still students.
“I hope that when I enter the fifth form, I will be able to attend boarding school. For the time being, I must remain strong and finish the two years ahead of me safely,” she says. “Every day, my mother tells me to be patient because these problems will not last forever.”