One can’t fully appreciate life in Tanzania, or East Africa for that matter, without having the dala-dala experience. Those on a budget or without a need for too much fanfare when it comes to transportation will surely enjoy participating in a shared taxi experience.
A dala-dala (matatu in Kenya) is essentially a privately-owned minibus fitted with 12 or 16 seats. In Kenya the industry is heavily regulated and most matatus are fitted with seatbelts; maximum occupancy is legislated. In Tanzania however, it’s not uncommon to count upwards of 30 passengers squeezed into every possible nook, cranny and open window. Some are elaborately decorated with portraits of famous people, slogans, sayings or religious phrases.
If there aren’t any dalas on your street, you better head on over to the closest major road, stand on the side and wave down the approaching vans. If for some reason you don’t end up at the desired destination, whether communication problems were to blame or that the dala took the wrong turn, you can always walk on over to the closest dala station — every village and town has one.
When you do get to the station, expect to be completely overwhelmed by the chaotic nature of the place. It will take you a few minutes to figure out the dala numbering schemes. Typically, the larger dalas are long distance, the smaller Toyota vans are for regional travel. As with everything however, there are exceptions to the rule, and I’ve seen tiny vans travel upwards of 800km to neighbouring countries.
Dala-dalas usually stay at the station until they are full; very rarely do they leave the station without all seats being occupied. If you’re travelling with friends it may be a good idea to get onto the dala behind the one that’s ready to leave; at least you’ll get a seat together and can avoid playing musical chairs with the constantly fluctuating number of passengers.
My first dala-dala experience was while I was travelling from Moshi (Tanzania) to visit the Ndoro falls, some 40 minutes away. We waited at the station for about 30 minutes in the searing heat for the bus to fill up — windows wide open, but with the absence of any wind, completely futile. You’re trapped — a perfect place for the touts who walk around with extravagantly decorated boards and baskets on their heads showing off their wares: sunglasses, lighters, cashews, cigarettes, fruit, water, biscuits and flashlights, to name a just a few.
Sometimes it can seem as though you’re the only person with cash and the touts are drawn to you like flies to a bad smell. And if you think that a constant stream of Hapana asante (no thank you) might work in these situations, think again; expect to be harassed to cracking point.
On the flipside, having embarked on the journey, you really don’t need to pack anything in the way of food or drink — everything can be purchased from your friendly station touts or the hundreds of stops the dala will make along the way.
Now, I really feel I must to say this for the squeamish — if you’re protective of your own private space, perhaps the dala isn’t for you. Be prepared to spread your legs for passengers, bags, truck suspension systems, chickens, babies and have various body parts, including butts, pressed up against your face; and since you’re probably the only mzungu (foreigner), expect to partake in jokes at your own expense. Why? — because anything goes on a dala. :)