U.S. School Buses Get 2nd Life in Congo

The Associated Press
Thursday, September 7, 2006; 3:16 PM

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 children now haul 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 tail lights that had protected many a child are now either missing or broken.

While many castoff products from rich Western countries find new use in Africa, the ripped T-shirts, faintly treaded shoes and old computers 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."

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 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 U.S. cents.

The yellow buses first 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.

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