Driving in the Congo

One of the fun things about living in Lubumbashi is driving in the city. Some of the American missionaries living here are simply driven crazy by the city and driving conditions… but I actually find it fun! It is like going on a Carnival drive every day.

In the entire city there are perhaps 5 or 6 traffic lights that work properly. This means that it is a free-for-all at every intersection. There seems to be a rule that you give way to traffic coming from your right…but it isn’t hard and fast. It works like this: if you come to an intersection and the traffic is moving the direction you are going, you hug the car in front of you and try to get through the intersection before the traffic changes. I say ‘try’ because if you come to an intersection and the traffic is going against you (cross-ways) you have to stop to prevent a wreck, but the only way you can get through the intersection is to nose your way into and through the intersection, and thus changing the traffic flow. Of course, when more than one stubborn car comes to the intersection you get gridlock! Which seems to happen quite often, but eventually, after lots of honking, they all seem to work it out and get unstuck. Sounds tough, but manageable right? Well…

Now you add the thousands of taxis in the city. They are the most aggressive drivers you have ever seen. I think it is because they get paid by the number of customers that ride, so they simply zoom around, squeezing into the smallest openings, to get ahead in any way possible. You have to see it to believe it! If you are stopped at an intersection, no matter how backed-up everything might be, a taxi will move out into the OPPOSITE lane, drive forward, against traffic, to get in front of everyone else, or to turn right–in front of everyone else! Every day on a narrow two-lane road you will find taxis passing cars and somehow making a third lane down the middle of the road! One of the tough things to do while driving is to remember to look into BOTH mirrors before turning or passing; the taxis are well known to pass on either side, at any time, and without notice. If there is an opening, and I am about to move forward, well, a taxi has surely seen it first and is already zooming to reach the space before me!

Then there are the police. In most busy intersections there are traffic police that are standing at the side of the road, presumably to aid in traffic management. Most of the time they just stand there, or try to pull people over to give them fines for not paying the car tax, or pull you over to get money from you, etc. But actually direct traffic? What are you thinking?

And then the other shoe drops! We recently traded our American style truck for an English car… yes! The steering wheel is on the wrong side! This was just fine when we were driving in England, where everyone drives on the wrong side of the road…but here, everyone drives on the right! So when I drive, I watch the gutter to see I don’t drive off the road, while poor Terri sits on the left, watching all the traffic come at her, with no way to drive the car! Makes it kind of tough to pass, since I sit on the right side of the car, but must pass on the left. But

The reason I like the driving and find it fun is that there is a sense of free-wheeling adventure in it. Usually, if you are mindful and aware, you can ‘see’ where the traffic flow is going and can just ‘go with the flow’, moving in and out and around with the other traffic. You have to be calm, and patient, and be willing to learn to drive like the Congolese. If, however, you expect them to drive like Americans, or obey ‘traffic rules’ (what rules?), or get angry or upset at the taxis that zoom around and in front of you, or the police that stand and do nothing (would you want to stand in the middle of an intersection and try to direct these taxis?), they you will not like driving here! But I find it fun and amusing, and am getting quite good at it.

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