November 8, 2012


A shapa stop from the air
Last week I drove around the city trying to get some keys cut. I was unsuccessful - three times - but that is a story for another day. As I drove, I thought: “When I’m back in Sydney, I’ll have to remember to stay in my own lane when I’m driving.” Yes, I did actually think this, word for word.

Then I thought, “How is it that I am able, when in Australia, to trust other drivers to obey the road rules and, in Maputo, equally at peace assuming no one will obey the road rules? Are there road rules in Mozambique?”

In Sydney, when I am driving on a four-lane road I know that, aside from a blown tyre, earthquake or heart attack, the cars flowing predictably in the same direction as me will continue to do so unless they tell me otherwise with plenty of warning. It is peaceful and unsurprising. Last time I was there, I found it just a little humdrum.

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Shapas waiting for passengers
In Sydney, it does not occur to me that the car in the right lane will suddenly cut across in front of me to pull in on the left to pick up a passenger. No indicator, no warning, missed my vehicle by inches and only because I slammed my foot on the brakes. In Maputo when this happens, I hardly blink. In fact, it has made me laugh often.

Welcome to traffic school, Mozambique-style.

Once, I nearly lost a side mirror when I was stuck in a two-lane traffic jam. All was well until a shapa (a public minibus) swept between the two official lanes, creating a new lane all for himself and missing my mirror by millimetres. I watched while, as if in slow motion, his side mirror came within a whisker of mine. He did not slow down and I didn’t gasp. I didn’t honk the horn, I didn’t panic. I just watched, more interested than concerned, as his mirror whispered past mine, close enough for me to give it a bit of a spit and polish.

Repairing my side mirror during a border run

Now the floodgate had opened and more shapas used this newly-created lane: more vehicles squeezed through a gap I could not see until a family sedan got half-way, became alarmed and stopped, the passenger’s big brown eyes just inches from mine.

Shapa drivers are renowned in Mozambique as the revheads1 of the road. Their vehicles often lean precariously to one side, are rusting away, thumping out loud music, and regularly displaying silhouette-stickers of semi-clad women on the back. Shapas often have no window-glass, handy when someone needs to stick their bottom out the window to make room for one more person on the bus.

Personal space is an oxymoron when it comes to shapa travel. Be prepared to get close, then closer, then closer still. Plan ahead so you will not need to scratch your nose or look at your watch. In fact, don’t wear a watch – it may not be there when you disembark.

At shapa stops, groups of hawkers run wildly alongside moving vehicles, selling water, peanuts and bread sticks to the passengers within. They hand an item through the window then run, run, run to keep up as the buyer within tries to wrestle change from his pocket, hand it over three rows of heads and out the window. There must be unwritten shapa etiquette that allows for theSolemn Assembly 003 honest exchange of money on the move. There must also be protocols for who gets on first and last, who sits on whose lap (seriously) and how many people is just enough.

The city of Maputo owns about a hundred full-size buses that run mostly in town. For everybody else, shapas and utes (small, flat-bed trucks) are it. For me in a squeeze (pun intended) I’d choose standing with thirty other people on the back of a truck over a shapa ride any day. At least I can see the sky and know that, if worst comes to worst, I can do the sheep-in-a-pen thing and go up and over the heads of other people to get off. The unwritten rule is that everybody on the outside links arms and holds on to each other, forming one big, secure square, so nobody falls off. Ingenious, really. Until you’re standing in the glaring sun hugging someone you’ve never met before, it’s 45 degrees celcius, there’s metal under your feet and the traffic is at a standstill.

Taking a shapa is neither easy nor quick. Yes, shapas could be safer, more roadworthy, and a whole lot bMen on uteetter organised. For now, though, shapas and trucks are all that the people of this developing nation have to get to and from work each day: there is no other option.

I have never been the hard-core missionary-type and shapas are just a little beyond the capacity of this mildly adventurous spirit to conquer. Being the wuss3 that I am when it comes to enclosed spaces, I’m grateful that where I work is where I live, so my daily commute is just a short, pleasant walk through the sand.

1Revhead: Australian colloquialism for a hoon2.
2 Hoon: Australian colloquialism for someone, generally young and male, who drives recklessly, dangerously. Not a wuss3.
3 Wuss: Australian colloquialism for a person who is overly careful and unadventurous.