Kombi – king of the traffic jungle
Urban commuter transportation in Harare is nothing short of an adventure, even for the locals long used to it. This is largely thanks to the hair-raising antics proudly exhibited by the youthful drivers and conductors manning the minibuses chiefly used in ferrying passengers. There are several types of minibus models in all the urban centres of Zimbabwe but they are all known by one name, Kombi. Beginning around 2001, conventional buses were systematically phased out of urban public conveyance, leaving private minibus operators to monopolise the service.
The name Kombi is derived from the German Kombinationskraftwagen meaning combination motor vehicle. The VW Kombi popularised by its German manufacturer in the 1960s was the first model to dominate the Zimbabwean market, hence its unrivalled status as the generic name for any vehicle in the shape of a minibus. Yet this presents a major paradox in that today, there is no single VW Kombi permitted to ferry passengers in Harare or other cities around Zimbabwe. In fact it is the Toyota Hiace that rules the roost, followed by Nissan Caravan and a host of other brands but they are all simply known as Kombi.
Having done justice to issues pertaining to nomenclature, the next logical step is to interrogate the anatomy of the two-man Kombi crews. The typical Kombi driver and his conductor are a pair of conjoined accomplices ready to give any daredevil test driver a good run for his money. Since there are no such rivals in Harare, it is the municipal traffic police and other road users forced to bear the brunt of the Kombi crews’ shenanigans. Many analysts attribute the mischief-making to plain immaturity and general lack of finesse on the part of our heroes in focus. Despite frantic pleas by various stakeholders to legally stipulate a minimum age limit of 40, the average Kombi driver is in his twenties. This has resulted in many commuters, resignedly boarding a public transport vehicle driven by a youthful fellow with seemingly nothing to lose. The actual Kombi population in Harare alone is so big everywhere you look your eyes will inevitably fall on a minibus, either speeding away or dangerously parked. Even pedestrians have to precariously navigate through a maze of parked minibuses.
Furthermore, riding on a Kombi comes with a high level of physical discomfort that never diminishes with any length of experience. To begin with, the average Kombi is authorized to carry a maximum of 15 passengers but in reality the figure is considered the minimum, with actual passengers ranging from 18 to 22. This is easily achieved by employing touts to pack passengers in rows of four on every seat. Whether you have a huge backpack or small handbag, the sitting arrangement is not subject to negotiation. Depending on where you sit, you may find yourself having to disembark each time anybody sitting behind you needs to alight from the Kombi, until you reach your own destination. Then there is the issue of loud music played out of monster speakers fitted at strategic points for maximum impact. From my own experience, the loud music tends to linger in one’s grey matter long after staggering from a Kombi feeling a bit disoriented. The coup de grace is proudly administered by the spirited touts strategically positioned to be at your service, especially when you do not exactly need it.
Nevertheless, there are quite a number of positive aspects to the Kombi phenomenon. For starters, riding on a Kombi is one of the cheapest things to do in Harare. For as little as half a US Dollar, you can be ferried to any destination within a 15 kilometre radius from the city centre. On a good day a Kombi conductor can be the face of customer care, offering royal treatment to all and sundry. Provided you board the right Kombi, getting lost is very unlikely as both the Kombi crew and fellow passengers go the extra mile in ensuring that you disembark at the correct destination. Since it is a shared, public facility, a Kombi provides the largest surface area for trending local gossip, rumour updates and new music – albeit delivered at ear-splitting volumes. Upcoming musicians, actually distribute their recorded music among Kombi crews for free ‘airplay’ and direct contact with their target audiences. Lifelong friendships and even lasting marriages born out of a shared Kombi ride are not unheard of in Harare. New slang coined by Kombi crews and their touting partners quickly goes viral like a Kim Kardashian hashtag, thereby shaping Zimbabwe’s urban semantics particularly among the youth.
Above all, every commuter omnibus represents a couple of youths gainfully employed. For all their negative publicity, some of the youths involved in the industry are actually young breadwinners responsible for their small families’ welfare. Most youths unable to complete or further their education usually end up in the public transport business either as drivers, conductors or touts. In these and other ways, Kombi culture, so to speak, is a demographic reality in Zimbabwe. However, only time will tell if it will survive into the near future. Authorities are reportedly mulling over modalities that could see the return of conventional buses. Such a move would certainly end the dramatic reign of Kombi – king of the traffic jungle.