Sunday, 12 February 2012

Traffic - brought to you by Hasbro

Before we left for Swaziland, the risk assessment provided by Skillshare International listed the probability of being involved in a car accident as the most severe threat that we would encounter. At the time this seemed bizarre - it doesn't any more.

While the crime rate is low in the context of Southern Africa, both the road systems and the public transport are based a lot more on negotiation than a flawless adherence to the rules. We have learnt the hard way that the 'green man' at pedestrian crossings signifies one of the worst times to cross the road, as cars coming from around the corner either ignore their newly-red light or are directed, by means of a filter, into the path of the crossing even where we have a green light aswell. Only trial and error has taught us instead: cross when you see the 'flashing red man' (itself a pretty ambiguous signal), as fast as you can, whilst making eye contact with the drivers of the cars and even putting your hand up in a 'stop' sign to be clear that you are crossing.

Our first ride in the privately-owned kombi minibuses in our orientation week was a terrifying experience, as has been almost every use of them since. If you are boarding at a station, all that is required is to walk down into the busy area in the centre of the grounds, where you will be intercepted by any number of people shouting destinations and asking you where you are going. Tell them your intended destination, and you begin to be treated something like a particularly small marble in a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos. Whoever hears you first will take you (grabbing you by the clothes and pulling you towards the right one, at times), to the kombi and will place you on board. If you are one of the first people to be caught, as a prize, you get the choice of a seat, which allows you to drop yourself, by then dripping with sweat (if you're me), next to a window, which when the bus moves creates one of the coldest temperatures I have experienced in Swaziland. The bad news is that the kombi won't move until the driver has collected all fourteen marbles.

When you're actually being driven, there is plenty of rapid acceleration, horn honking, undertaking and pulling over to get petrol, among other things. They are not a means of transport to use if you are in a hurry. Yet what somewhat redeems the whole process is a complete lack of anger or road rage. A car that goes around a corner to find you in the middle of the road may nearly kill you, but you will look up to find the driver giving a genuine smile or self-deprecating laugh. Putting your hand up to say 'stop, I'm crossing' would be construed as rude in the UK, as if you were telling the driver that they did not know the road rules, or that you were more important than the Highway Code - but here, to my knowledge, it is not remotely offensive.

On one level, the whole thing seems like a serious and dangerous problem, masked only by the customary friendliness that we have experienced, almost without exception, throughout our time in Swaziland. But on another, I can't help but feel that by removing the sense of complacency that UK pedestrians have, and enforcing a constant vigilance when using the roads, they can in some senses be safer. The comparison can come from Bury St Edmunds, where there was once a single roundabout at the bottom of a hill, and there were many crashes in a short space of time. They introduced a ludicrous double roundabout system, where some drivers need to give way twice within three metres, and a year later on I was told there were no crashes since - as the people had had caution forced upon them. At any rate, comparative statistics would be interesting to see.

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