Fair payment

Having been away from Lusaka for a few years, I was able to experience at least one aspect of bus riding like a newbie: the gradual process of learning the fares.

Fares in Lusaka are complicated.

In principle, it is a modified fare-by-distance model, with a high base price for short trips that rises in small increments as one travels further. There are no transfers or co-payments: every time a rider boards a vehicle there is a new fare that is inconsiderate of the last one. Fares are officially established through some sort of public discussion – the details of which still elude me – and are even posted on the side of some vehicles. The posted fares are generally close to the price that is actually charged, except that these are always incomplete: they only cover major origin-destination combinations, and are inconsiderate of route variants. This in addition to the fact that Lusaka public transport is basically a free market of independent operators in which conductors are sometimes willing to negotiate a lower fare to just get riders on board and get moving.

When it comes down to it, the fare is always an agreement between the conductor and the rider. Kind of like buying fruit at a (farmer’s) market.

So in this context, having an awareness of how much the fare tends to be is useful. When I rode buses a lot in 2014, I had probably memorized 20-30 set fares and also knew of another half-dozen where I could negotiate. When I present the situation in that way it seems rather straightforward, but…

…this completely glosses over the process of learning those fares.

With a complicated fare structure, insufficient information, and tight operational margins for driver-conductor teams, fare payment and collection becomes a bit of a contest. Sometimes lost in this process, especially to a foreigner trying to understand things “like a local,” are the stakes of said contest. Which, when I think about it, are quite low.

My observations in 2017 are that the fares have definitely risen compared to what I knew. This seems fair since I was buying 5.5 kwacha (ZMW) for a Canadian dollar in 2014 and it is now over 7; exchange being a factor above and beyond cost increases measured in any currency. With the increases, my 2014 mental fare chart was null and void – or at best an approximation.

Despite this, one of my proudest accomplishments in bus riding this year was only getting into one fare dispute.

For the most part, my history of fare disputes have been over amounts of money that are objectively negligible to me: it will not make a huge difference to my budget if I pay 5.5 kwacha instead of 4.5 for a given ride. Maybe if the conductors were trying to make me pay 20, but aspirations to overcharge that significantly have been rare in my experience.

I have to say, there is something satisfying for a white dude to know that you are being stiffed for a kwacha and getting all yappy about it. Nonetheless, with time, I have lost the capacity to on-demand let drop a “MaConducta, niyendanga ku Towni mu busi ino nthawi zonse; niziwa kuli fo-fivey, chabe!” I suppose you don’t learn spunk like that by being meek, but on the flip side, I’m not sure it’s worth the perpetual expectation of conflict that creates practice opportunities.

So far, in slowly rebuilding my fare chart for 2017, I have paid a few extra kwachas about the “best prices.” I think that it has been worth it.


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