- The Washington Times - Friday, 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.

Boxy buses that once carted American schoolchildren now haul the Democratic Republic of the 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. The blinking taillights that had protected many a child are now missing or broken.

While many castoff products from rich Western countries find new use in Africa, they haven’t had their original use quite as thoroughly inverted as the yellow school bus: Yellow buses symbolize safety and restraint on American roads. Not here in Congo.

“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.”

The buses vie for space on the roads with other battered vehicles, including motorcycles, heavy trucks and the smaller minibuses also used to transport Congolese around the city.

Speedometers don’t work on many of the buses, but they appear to reach speeds of up to 50 mph, fairly fast given Kinshasa’s traffic and the condition of its roads.

An American might be horrified at the sight. 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 for most is dodgy taxi vans or walking.

Bruce Kingambo 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.

“Transport is a big problem in the city. The yellow buses help regular people get around,” said Mr. Kingambo, 25, who had taken the bus to Kinshasa’s main market, where he has hawked used clothes every day for the past two years.

Total cost across town: 30 cents U.S.

The yellow buses arrived in the early 1980s in what was then called Zaire, run by the corrupt dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, whose government imported the vehicles from America to ferry civil servants to work.

Those vehicles crumbled under the neglect and corruption that characterized life under Mobutu, who took power in a 1965 coup d’etat and ruled for 32 years before fleeing ahead of a rebel advance on Kinshasa and dying in exile in 1997.

Now private entrepreneurs are bringing in the buses.

Most of Congo’s new generation of yellow buses come from Virginia or Maryland, according to Jeff Cohen, sales manager at Sonny Merryman Inc., the Rustburg, Va., company that sold the yellow buses to Kinshasa company Nasser Trans. Mr. Cohen’s company sells used yellow buses to African and South American enterprises, usually after a decade of service to American schools. The buses cost about $2,000 in Congo; a new one would cost 40 times that.

Mr. Cohen said the buses he ships meet U.S. safety standards when they leave, adding that while school districts in Virginia use the buses for 10 or 12 years, others elsewhere in the U.S. keep them running up to 30.

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

Nasser Trans owns 200 yellow buses but has shipped 40 to Congo. The rest are waiting in North Carolina, said John Tokandji, director of finance and administration at the company’s Kinshasa office.

“There are political problems in our country now,” he said, leafing through a wad of green sales certificates, marked Commonwealth of Virginia, for the 1987-model yellow buses. “Maybe we will bring them after the elections, if things calm down.”

A presidential runoff is scheduled in October after a first round ended with gunfights between the top two vote-getters that illustrated the volatility of a nation that has never known democratic rule.

The buses, which can 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 addressed it in typical Congolese fashion: improvisation.

“Sometimes we lack a brake pad so we bend some scrap metal and use that,” Mr. Biba said. “But it’s not an ideal solution.”

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