It happened during one of my trips from Ndola to my hometown of Mufulira. I had gone there that morning on official business and was returning in the evening after a very tiresome day.
Ndola and Mufulira are two towns on the "Copperbelt" at a distance of sixty-five kilometres. The Ndola-Mufulira road is one of the loneliest roads in Zambia. It stretches through an area of "bush land" very close to the Zairian border. During the early days of our stay in Zambia, we used to travel along this road very frequently without any fear of intimidation. However, in recent years there had been many incidents of robbery with violence in which lone motorists were attacked in broad daylight. Therefore I decided to travel by public transport during my Ndola trips.
I found a Mufulira-bound bus at the bus station and boarded it. It was four o'clock in the evening and the bus was slowly filling up. I managed to secure a comfortable seat in front and decided to wait. The starting time of the bus was mentioned by someone as four-thirty. In that case I should be able to reach home before night-fall.
It was almost five o'clock by the time the bus left the bus station. All the seats were occupied. A number of people came running towards the bus as it finally started off. The bus stopped for them to get in. I was wondering where the new-comers were going to sit. To my surprise, the driver's mate pulled out some "jump seats" in between the main rows of seats and seated them all. By this time there was hardly any space in the bus for anyone to sit without being crushed by his neighbours.
As I was occupying a window-seat, I could look out and watch the trees and shrubs on my side of the road. They looked alike and there was nothing else to break the monotony of the bush land.
After a while I looked at my wrist watch and noticed that it was more than half an hour since we started. Every one in the bus was involved in animated conversation. I was the only exception. In the background, there was the smooth roar of the engine.
Suddenly there was the noise of something tearing apart or breaking, and the bus went lurching for some distance. There was also the noise of some heavy metallic object being dragged underneath. Soon the bus came to a stop and many people got down to investigate. I thought the problem was that of a blown-tyre.
Before long, it was established that the propeller shaft was broken into two and the bus would go no farther. I got down from the bus along with the few remaining people, mostly ladies, and joined the rest of the passengers who were either trying to get their fare back from the conductor or looking out for some on-coming vehicle for a “lift”.
I asked someone how far we might have come and came to know that it was about less than halfway. There were no signs of any human habitation as far as I could see. It was getting late. Some of the passengers were already talking about finding refuge in some
Villages in the neighbourhood. I started wondering what a foreigner like me would do, if I had to spend the night on the road. Apparently I was the only non-African on the bus.
It was twenty minutes past 6 PM. Even though we had been waiting there for three quarters of an hour, no vehicle had passed either way so far. As the day gave way to dusk, the chances of getting a lift became more and more slim. Some of the passengers had drifted away, probably in search of a village. As I stood there with a heavy heart, a cold shiver ran through me. Obviously, the atmosphere was getting cooler.
We heard the sound of a motor. Some vehicle was coming from the direction of Ndola. People rushed expectantly to the middle of the road. However they moved to the sides when the vehicle came into full view. It was a police land cruiser.
The vehicle came nearer and screeched to a stop. About twenty-five people ran to it and tried to board through the wide opening in the rear. The officer in the front passenger seat ordered them to wait. He looked at the crowd and then told that as many ladies as possible who were travelling unescorted, could get in, but they should allow the 'usungu' (foreigner) to get in first.
There was just enough space for five or six of us to squeeze in. There was no other alternative but to leave the rest of the people behind.
While we were travelling towards our destination, I heard one of the ladies asking the officer in a not too subdued voice why he gave such preferential treatment to a foreigner while some respectable Zambians were left behind. His answer was "because he is not a Zambian and I doubt very much whether he would have survived if he were left behind and had to spend the night in the open".
When we reached our destination and as I got down, I had no adequate words to thank the Zambian police officer, but he waved me aside and proceeded on his way.