It’s time that we talk about beer

On a recent Saturday, a friend stepped off one minibus just before it rear-ended another one. The driver was intoxicated. It was not yet 9am.

I know that bus operators in Zambia are in a precarious position. Drivers work on tight margins and conductors can be easily replaced. Don’t get me started on the value proposition of the call boys who hang around stops and stations to “direct passengers,” for a fee. It makes sense to me that operators would have a culture, and aspects of this culture have been documented in greater detail by folks besides me.

What does not make sense to me is the reason that this culture includes beer consumption before and during work.

Sensing that the bus was headed to a bad place, my friend act with serendipitous foresight and avoided injury. By the time of the collision, there were only three people aboard at the time: the driver, the conductor, and another passenger. Being close enough to follow up, my friend approached the bus and learned that the conductor experienced minor injuries.

In my own experiences riding buses, it has been common to smell alcohol on the breaths of drivers and conductors. Sometimes, that smell is accompanied by slurred speech or dark-coloured plastic bottles that are likely not carrying the contents written on the label.

I mention this topic without trying to demonize drivers, conductors, or even call boys – I have no interest in trying to further their precarity – I mention it because it is ludicrous.

“Drinking culture” has many expressions, some of which are traditional and pervasive in Zambia, some of which are more broadly international. These cultures are often the purview of young men – a group that includes the bus operators, but also includes me. I am trying to figure out my own relationship with drinking culture(s); it’s an ongoing project. From my glass house, I don’t wish to throw stones at others. But seriously? Intoxicated bus drivers??? I do not know the exact solutions, but I can say with confidence that this situation NEEDS TO change.

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