IN ZIMBABWE, they are colloquially known as “CEOs.” They are not corporate heads of McDonald’s, as the name might suggest. In this case, CEO means ”Chief Executive of Everything.”
They are the everyday “bus conductors,” they’re pseudo-transport-concierges, and often the first point of contact for foreign visitors to Zimbabwe. When lost, traveling around Zimbabwe, the bus conductors are your go-to person. They are the envy of locals, actually.
The bus conductor’s tyrannical presence begins in Zimbabwe´s city bus terminals: noisy enclosures filled with brawls, bickering, shouts, and turf wars for passengers from British Leyland buses or Brazilian-made Marco Polo coaches.
Zimbabwe bus stations can be places of unrestricted chaos due to widespread unemployment in the country. In one grim incident that made international headlines in May 2016, a newly wedded 25-year-old woman and her unborn baby died from abdominal trauma after “conductors” brawling for South Africa-bound passengers fatally squeezed her.
So, naturally, the bus conductor presents himself as some sort of a safety hand, especially for vulnerable female travelers and tourists.
“Your bag and Gucci wallet are safe next to the engine,” gloats the bus conductor pitching travelers to his coach.
Once you have been coerced into the coach, the lies pick up-tempo. “Lucky you’re the last 90th customer we have been waiting for. The bus will depart now.” In reality, you’re the 11th passenger to board. When you notice the lie, you will protest your right to check out other nearby buses.
“I’ve already written your ticket. I can’t reverse my book,” the “bus conductor” will reply, tearing off a fluffy paper out of his ticket book, sticking it into your hand.
Now that you´re locked in his coach, his mood mode changes. A bus scheduled to leave at 7 am will stay on until 9.30 am, much to your helplessness. Peering outside the bus, you see your conductor, swinging up and down the bus´s metal roof, brawling in turf wars with other coaches.
What´s Behind Their Charm?
In the ’90s, the “bus conductor” was stereotypically the profession of Zimbabwe’s school dropouts. But at the dawn of the millennium, between a catastrophic collapse of the country´s formal economy and jobs sector, U.S. sanctions, and biting poverty has meant attitudes and fortunes have changed.
Now the bus conductor job in Zimbabwe attracts polished graduates of the British Cambridge-modeled education system, including former teachers fed up with pitiful salaries or ex-hospital clerks.
The new class of Zimbabwe bus conductors speaks fluent English thanks to Zimbabwe´s status as one of the countries with the highest literacy rates in post-colonial Africa.
This baffles first-time Spanish, French, South African, or Canadian tourists taking a ride on Zimbabwe’s public bus system and expecting to see a less-educated country in the throes of financial ruin.
“Morning, sir. I’m the badge conductor in charge of this bus and this terminus. Which country is currently suffering your absence?” says the bus conductor when he notices a nervous European or Chinese tourist.
In the blink of an eye, a fake ticket book might be produced, and a quarter of the bus passenger’s fares are funneled to the bus conductor in secret liaison with the bus driver.
This is possible because the real bus owner lives far away in the African diaspora, in London or New York, and receives only 75% of his bus’s daily income. The International Labour Migration estimates that 4 million out of Zimbabwe´s 16 million-strong population live abroad in economic exile in South Africa, the U.S., England, or Australia.
This “fiddling” with the buses’ ticket-book is the reason why some bus conductors live in seven-bedroom middle-class rented homes in Zimbabwe today and can afford to send their kids to private schools with nostalgic British names like “Queen Elizabeth Preparatory School.”
“It’s a game of chances, there’s healthy money to be made if the owner of my bus lives abroad in London, England,” says Goliath, a bus conductor who hides his proper name because he’s been fiddling with his employer’s tickets book over the last seven years. Through his job, he’s been able to buy three taxis of his own.
When the real bus driver revs up the engine, there is no need for maps or GPS on the bus. The conductor knows and memorizes bus stops and road signs by heart and necessity. “Tell me your bus stop, five kilometers in advance! My brakes are untested, shame!” the bus conductor shouts as if he is the man at the wheel.
Along the way, the bus is occasionally stopped by dotted traffic police officers–Zimbabwe´s roads rank among Africa’s most notorious shake-down highways.
Again, the point man is the lively bus conductor. He rattles to action, doles out a bribe of $5, lies to the bus owner via WhatsApp that he paid a $20 police bribe, and pockets the difference.
Along the way, to the further disgruntlement of passengers, the coach stops abruptly on a sideway butchery or restaurant or coffee shop. Passengers are commanded, “Get down, go eat! Thirty-five-minute break.”
The purpose is not a deserved break for weary travelers. It is a crafty scheme that earns the bus conductor and driver free meals and cash vouchers from impressed restaurant owners. Again, for the bus conductors and driver, this is a further avenue to claim inflated expenses from the bus owner abroad in Europe.
“The reason why being a bus conductor is such an envied profession lately in Zimbabwe is that this is a convenient scam whereby the real bus owner is far away in the diaspora abroad and the bus conductor becomes the de-facto owner and thus [there’s] self-enrichment,” argues Zimbabwe sociologist Kudakwashe Magezi.
For bus conductors like Willard, who refuses to reveal his name, he says he feels no shame about these schemes.
“Fifteen years ago the bus conductor was a mocked profession and we received paltry wages despite sleeping in buses [and] terminus queues, and dodging road accidents frequently. Tables have turned.”