One January day, I found myself in a minibus flying low on a Lesotho mountain road, wondering whether the holes in the windshield were caused by bullets or good sized stones combined with breakneck speed.
I’d spent a few days in Malealea riding in the mountains on a lovely little Basotho mare, experiencing nature. Nice as it was, though, a couple of days of peace and quiet were enough. A girl gets lonely after a while with no one but a horse to keep her company. I was anxious to move on to where the crowds were. I took off in the general direction of Maseru Bridge and the border.
Having lugged my backpack down to the main road junction at Motsekuoa, a fair distance in the midday sunshine, I looked for one of those mini busses I’d been told passed all the time. Not a bus was in sight, I sat on my pack and waited. I was soon joined by a girl and a boy, both about four years old, and a tiny baby tied to the girl's back with a blanket. The boy asked my name, and I was to seriously regret giving it up. "Sophie, Sophie, Sophie," he said, cute to begin with, infuriating after the 100th repetition.
As I sat there, I pondered the friendly, trusting Basotho people. On my way to Malealea a few days earlier, the bus from Mafiteng was filled to the brim, but the driver wasn't about to leave until the tiniest little crevice was packed. Through the windows, peddlers were busy passing sausages, Polish vodka, barbed wire, bags of biscuits, brightly coloured Basotho blankets, jewellery and eggs. Money was passed back through several hands. It didn't seem to occur to anyone that someone along the way to the window might pocket a maloti or two. The peddlers even ran after the bus to return change.
Meanwhile, I was still at Motsekuoa, waiting for a bus. Occasionally, a car would come by, offering to give me a lift – to Malealea. Apart from that, I didn’t see a soul. I was beginning to wonder if I had ended up in the Twilight Zone. "Sophie, Sophie, Sophie", chimed incessantly in my ears, I was seriously considering a name change, when a bus going in the right direction finally showed up.
Usually, these busses run with a minimum of two people per seat. Overloaded vehicles and road safety in general do not seem to be major concerns. Bracing myself for that forced intimacy, I entered the bus – and saw to my relief only two other passengers. As we took off towards Maseru, I noticed that both were cheerful young boys, 14 or 15 perhaps. As was the driver!
I considered getting off, when he suddenly spun the bus around and went the other way.
"Sorry," I said somewhat timidly. "Isn’t this bus going to Maseru?"
No response. I repeated the question twice before one of the kid passengers turned around and said something incomprehensible. My knowledge of SeSotho is limited to "greetings sister", "thank you" and "I don’t have any", none of which seemed appropriate.
He raised his voice and repeated – whatever he said. It dawned on me that he wasn’t speaking to me. Instead he was telling his mate at the wheel to get moving. At least that was how the driver interpreted it. I hung on to the door, but to no avail. The door panel soon ended up in my lap and screaming seemed a definite option. Even the king wasn’t immune to the hazards of driving in Lesotho. He had died driving off a mountain road here a few years earlier.
While the driver kept up his Ayrton Senna impression, I noticed a car on our tail. Had these kids pinched the bus or something? Glancing quickly over my shoulder, I saw an arm waving something at us from the passenger side of the car. Something shiny!
I knew those were bulletholes! And I was obviously in the middle of a shoot-out! I could almost hear the told-you-so from friends who said not to travel on my own in southern Africa. I was scared, angry and a tad nauseous. What if I threw up all over the driver, would that make him stop? With those chaps right behind us, did I even want him to stop?
After a while, I realized there wasn’t any shooting. As we approached another road intersection, my guy spun around while screeching to a halt. This spinning around seemed to be a hobby of his. The car stopped and a man approached us with the shiny thing, which upon closer inspection, was a metal box.
It turned out my guy was indeed a bus driver, of legal driving age, who forgot his lunch. The man slapped my back, laughed out loud and explained that he was the guy's father and this whole thing was just a bit of father-son rough housing. They did it all the time, although, he admitted, rarely with foreigners in the bus.