Highways, markets and bus stops as centres of life in Africa

All across Africa will be found crowds of people hanging around trading centres, bus termini and market places. Most in the crowd aren’t really traders and travellers; they just find the places a convenient and cheap way to socialize.

Passenger vehicles picking up people along a national highway in Kenya.

Passenger vehicles picking up people along a national highway in Kenya.

Bus parks in both big and small towns are the epicenter of social activity. Economic life revolves around the bus park and the highway. Politicians make stopovers here to address the readily available audiences. The venues are easily tapped for the youth who can be quickly hired for political errands.

Men, young and old alike, spend idle moments around trading centres exchanging gossip and sharing cigarettes, much to the chagrin of the womenfolk. To the first time visitor, the sight of scores of men with apparently nothing to do may arouse feelings of insecurity.

Why is the highway such an attraction?

Spending the day indoors is a very dull preposition for most people without electricity, television, newspapers and jobs. The highway presents a break from the monotony of life. One gets to see people travelling and shopping, vehicles breaking down, couples fighting or thieves doing what they do best. All these provide interesting topics for conversations that could drag for the rest of the week.

Hanging around bus parks and trading centres gives enterprising youth the occasional chance to make a few coins. Travellers may emerge out of a bus with heavy loads that require paid labour.  A politician may arrive with some cash handouts to carry favour with voters.

At an individual level,  sitting on the roadside gives one a feeling of belonging to a wider world. Idling in the house, even with family, can be agonizingly lonesome and isolating. In contrast, spending time with friends at the bus park, even when there is nothing to do, makes an individual feel like they are contributing to all the noisy business around them.

True: watching vehicles driving past is not the same as driving one, but meeting and talking to other people creates a necessary connection with the outside world. Social contact is necessary for the psychological well-being of all human beings. That is why jail is an effective punishment for wrongdoing because it imposes social isolation on the offender.

People hanging around bus parks and highways are seeking social comfort in the presence of other human beings. This is more the case in Africa where social amenities such as sports, theatre, cinema, telephones and the internet are unavailable or expensive for the majority of the rural and urban poor.

In developed societies, social contact is maintained through the workplace, through tourism, sport and entertainment. Each society, therefore, has designed ways of bringing people together based on cultural and economic circumstances prevailing in that land.

So, next time you see idlers on the roadside, just understand that they are being human.

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