Tight Squeeze: Notes on Minivans in Mozambique

Travel in Mozambique can be a trying affair, and certainly not for the faint-hearted. It’s compact and squashed and tight and enervating; privacy and personal space become unreachable concepts, previously held tight but now bordering on the alien. 

There’s a certain type of order, perhaps inevitable in such cramped conditions. Minivans designed for 15 passengers – at a squeeze – often carry 20 or more. Certain bodily manipulations are required, and dexterity is a skill one soon acquires. 

Everyone knows their place as the pattern soon emerges: embarkation and disembarkation alike follow a swift divined form. Everyone instinctively knows its attendant order: any deviation and discomfort and disorder soon prevail. It’s often a physical impossibility to alight before or after those around you.

Imagine life in a petri dish and its incumbent formation of lifeforms. Picture then the microcosmic get-up of a rudimentary society, applicable to only that time and place. This grouping then grows and takes the form of a highly localised human settlement, an imperceptible hierarchy where the passengers exist on the same level. They acquire the same patterns of thought and inhabit the same mind; theirs is the hive collective, thinking and ebbing and flowing with the same objective. The driver, naturally, is God: unseen, often unbidden and with the destiny of others very much under their control.

Time and Space

Such are conditions in which the traveller finds themselves. The destination is Lichinga, somewhere in the country’s mountainous hills. All around are blotches of brown and beige; this is sandy country desperately in need of rainfall. Floating columns of sand rise and fall on the air currents, bearing the appearance of mini-hurricanes, with the correspondingly small threat level that implies.

The van is at a halt. It has been for the last 10 minutes, the result of a procedural police checks. Passports and identity cards are passed through the window for inspection and returned, somehow in the right order. The traveller may attempt to act inconspicuous but here, in an obscure corner of Mozambique they are anything but. Rumours of incorrigible and corrupt police officials cast an uneasy gloom over the confines of the van. Heads remain low, their eyes watching the floor

The policeman barks. Where is the traveller going? ‘Cobooay’, they respond. A slight sea change in the air, and of one voice, the remaining passengers correct the mispronunciation: ‘Cobway’. A slight intake of breath and then release; the van has started and trundles away from the checkpoint, its malodorous intent still heavy in the air. The traveller is left under no illusions: say the wrong thing in Mozambique, and you may live to regret it.

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