iSTEP Tanzania

Thoughts On Dala Dala Buses

Posted on: May 29, 2009

So I’ve been really impressed with the Tanzanian public transportation system so far.  The main mode of transport is dala dala buses.  Well, bus might be a bit a misnomer, they’re more like large vans.  Dala dalas generally have four rows of seats, including the driver’s row, plus one row that faces backwards located directly behind the driver’s seat.  They look well used, but also (usually) well maintained, and my best guess is that they are never retired from the fleet, just repaired again and again.  Painted around the bus is the route, e.g. “Ubungo / Mwenge via Choo Nyikenii,” as well as the words “Power of God,” “Jesus Loves You,” or something in that vein.  I’m still not sure why the dala dalas are so religious.

So how are the dala dalas different from the PAT buses or other systems you might be used to?  (Besides the “Power of God” bit, that is.)  Well, for one, they’re far more crowded.  I know that most of you have had the experience of riding a 28X to the airport for Thanksgiving break, or catching that 59U to the waterfront that you’ve been waiting for for an hour and a half, but trust me, the dala dalas make you wish the bus were only that crowded.  Once you think the dala dala is full, the conductor can probably fit about five more people in.  At least.  Of course, not every dala dala is that crowded, but it can take a while to find one that has at least some room.

Which brings up another difference: the conductor.  At least in Pittsburgh, buses are operated by just one person, the driver.  Here, it’s a two man operation.  The driver does all the driving, and the conductor gets out at every stop and tries to convince passers-by that they want to ride the bus, the conductor collects the fare, and the conductor is responsible for stuffing all those people that you thought wouldn’t fit into the bus.  Also, note that the term “stop” isn’t quite the same as you might be used to.  The dala dalas are more than happy to stop anywhere – and I do mean anywhere, even on a crowded highway – if they can pick up another paying passenger.

Dala dalas get their name from the Kiswahili slang, “dala,” meaning five.  When the system first began, the fare was usually five shillings, so the conductors would shout out “dala dala” along the way to try and attract passengers.  Since then, the fare has risen a little bit, to 250 shillings, or about 19 cents American, but the name has stuck.

This past March, I took a trip to the Dominican Republic, just for fun.  They had a similar system of buses their, called gua guas.  I thought I had gotten my craziest, most crammed bus experience for a lifetime when we encountered a gua gua so full that I rode standing on the lip of the doorway, and holding on to the roof, with my body hanging outside the gua gua, as we barreled down an 80 km/h highway.  Tanzania forced me to reevaluate this, when we caught an Ubungo / Changanyikenii dala dala that was so crowded it made me wish they would have let me ride that way.  Dala dalas may have some disadvantages versus Pittsburgh buses, but they’re cheap, they get you from place to place, and you can count on some excitement when it comes to trying to fit into the things.

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An Ubungo / Mwenge dala dala at a nearby bus station. Notice the dala dala in the background which reads "Sir God."

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5 Responses to "Thoughts On Dala Dala Buses"

Dala dalas remind me of “Jeepneys” in the Philippines but they never get that crowded! We also have “Tricycles”, similar to “Auto rickshaws” in India. Do you have something similar in Tanzania too?

Yeah, they’re called “Bajaj” (after the Indian manufacturer I believe), and they’re a cheap alternative to taxis. I’ve only ridden in the back, but Brad, who had the “pleasure” of riding in the front seat next to the driver of one says they can be pretty terrifying.

yeah, those gua gua rides in the dominican were pretty epic, but the dala dalas sound pretty similar…..though more religious….any chance we can get a picture of you hanging out the side of a dala dala?

that reminds me of when i was with an excursion in the pantanal in brazil, and i needed to leave the group early in order to catch a train to santa cruz in corumba. i got a ride in a jeep with some ranchers to the main highway. buses going by to corumba are only once or twice a day, and we didn’t have the schedule, so the ranchers sent me off hitchhiking in the back of a big beat-up van packed with brazilian farmers that happened to be passing by. no seats, everyone was just crowded on the floor with our luggage. that was quite a memorable 2 hour ride.

yeah, sounds a lot like mini-bus taxis in south africa, too.

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