Birth of bus idlers


It is 5am on Monday.

Shakira Yotamu, a Blantyre’s Chilomoni Township resident sets off for Wenela Bus Depot in Blantyre to board a bus on her way to Lilongwe to attend a job interview scheduled for 2:30 pm the same day.

At Wenela, she boards a bus at 6:30 am. The bus has more passengers than several other buses heading for Lilongwe. Without any doubt, she believes if she starts off by 8 am, she will be in Lilongwe by 12 pm and make it for the interview.


Comfortably seated, Shakira greets the lady nursing her child. The lady is also well dressed and ready for her journey.

Little does she know that Monica Banda of Mbayani Township – as she introduced herself – is not heading towards Lilongwe but working.

Banda is just one example of the many men and women that are involved in the bus idling trade also known as ‘timing’. The job entails that idlers board buses and pretend to be passengers so that real travellers are enticed with the number of people on board and take the same bus.


Yotamu narrates: “Out of the 30 people that I saw on board when I got in the bus, I think I was the first real passenger with the rest being fake passengers. By the time I realised what was happening, the time had already gone and I had already paid my bus fare.”

To Yotamu’s disappointment, even Banda, who was seating next to her, was one of the fake passengers as she disembarked from the bus as more customers kept entering the bus that seemed to be mysteriously producing more seats considering the number of people she saw when boarding it.

“I and two other passengers got fade up after noting how the bus was delaying to depart for Lilongwe and we decided to cancel our bus tickets so that we board another bus but they told us off, saying it is a business and they have already issued us tickets,” she says.

At around 11 am, with the bus that was almost half full, Yotamu cancelled her trip knowing that she was not going to make it for the 2:30 pm interview but her friends boarded another bus that was ready for departure.

Bus idlers or timers has turned the bus industry into a nuisance since many travellers assume they are boarding an almost full bus that will be departing soon only to realise that very few people are genuine passengers.

This, according to another passenger Christopher Muyile from Lilongwe, is a gross miscarriage of justice that has made many commuters to lose trust in bus operators and think twice while at bus depots for fear of delaying their journey.

Muyile says even if there is nobody in the bus, if a passenger is travelling , she or he can be the first person to board the bus unlike giving the person a false picture.

“Yes, we may attribute the problem to unemployment and poverty but these people may look at other means for survival. Unemployment and poverty is a global problem in the mean time but this tendency is worrisome,” Muyile says.

Timing on a single bus sees the person going away with K500, making at least K3,000 to K4,000 per day depending on the number of buses one offers their services on.

Moreover, groupings with chairpersons are said to have been formulated from where the timers are members and are paid their daily dues.

High levels of competition among bus companies can also not be ruled out for bringing about the bus idlers since the numerous buses at the depot are all scrambling for the same customers.

According to Muyile, the idlers are also a threat to passengers because one may board a bus and later go out leaving their bags inside without noticing that the person they were seating next to is doing ‘timing’ and might take one’s luggage when going out.

Ministry of Transport and Public Works Public Relations Officer James Chakwera says government is aware of this malpractice happening in bus depots, saying passengers have been complaining about spending long hours in buses before they can start off.

Chakwera says the sad part is that they make the passengers pay once they get on board and they cannot give back the bus fare even if the passenger wants to change.

Chakwera says: “It is a practice that needs to be changed. It is not acceptable at all cost. I know this is happening because of the stiff competition where there are a number of buses loading passengers for a particular destination at the same time.”

According to Chakwera, the ministry has recommended that a queuing system should be introduced where buses line up and load one at a time. Somehow, the bus operators do not seem eager and willing to embrace this system.

“The Department of Road Traffic is still discussing the matter with bus owners to adopt the system. The present system really is time-wasting and deceptive, otherwise passengers should be left to freely identify buses of their choice without being deceived,” he says.

The tendency happening in buses is just an example of how some desperate people who live on less than a dollar a day are finding means to survive in their everyday lives.

According to the Malawi Unemployment Rate Forecast 2016-2020, unemployment rate in Malawi is expected to be 6.47 percent by the end of this quarter.

In the long term, the Malawi unemployment rate is projected to trend around 3.78 percent in 2020, according to its econometric models.

On September 25, 2015, world leaders adopted 17 new Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) at the United Nations General Assembly. The SDGs replaced the eight Millennium Development Goals that were adopted in 2000 with a 15-year lifespan.

The SDGs are a bold commitment to finish what was started and end poverty in all forms and dimensions by 2030. This involves targeting the most vulnerable, increasing access to basic resources and services, and supporting communities affected by conflict and climate-related disasters.

President Peter Mutharika commends the adoption of the goals as the only way out of the many challenges that are centred on extreme hunger and poverty, saying the achievement of four Millennium Goals in the past 15 years is the manifestation that the country can as well achieve the new 17 SDGs.

But to achieve it, government should find ways for the implementation of the goals and that should include those to achieve goal number one that is targeting to eradicate poverty that is making many people like Banda to engage in unacceptable trades for survival.

Eradicating poverty in all its forms remains one of the greatest challenges facing humanity around the world over.

While the number of people living in extreme poverty dropped by more than half between 1990 and 2015 – from 1.9 billion to 836 million – too many are still struggling for the most basic human needs according to United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Globally, more than 800 million people are still living on less than $1.25 a day where many lack access to adequate food, clean drinking water and sanitation.

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