I Traveled Through 8 African Countries on Public Transportation—Here's What I Learned

It was the most affordable option for getting around the continent, so I dove in

A bus traveling down an empty road in Ethiopia

Lingbeek / Getty Images

We're dedicating our April features to all things solo travel. Whether it’s a soul-searching hike, a decompressing beach trip, or an invigorating urban getaway, tackling the world as a solo traveler has become safer, easier, and more empowering. Dive into this month's features to learn strategies for making friends while solo and the ways technology has changed the solo travel experience, then get lost in inspiring stories of bus journeys through Africa, a voyage to Mount Fuji, a social experiment in South Korea, and a solo bikepacking birthday celebration.

When I was initially planning to travel across Africa and began researching flight prices, I briefly looked at myself in the mirror and wondered whether two kidneys are necessarily or merely a suggestion. Ultimately, I realized that the most affordable option for getting around the massive continent without pawning off a kidney was public transportation, particularly buses.

While the public transportation system across Africa is sadly not as detailed as in Europe—where a single rail pass can take you to up to 40,000 destinations across 33 countries—I have managed to travel by bus from Kenya to South Africa via Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia, and most recently, from Kenya to Burundi via Uganda and Rwanda. Sometimes I tackle a singular country like Ethiopia and spend a few weeks hopping on and off buses between popular tourist destinations.

I have managed to travel by bus from Kenya to South Africa via Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia, and most recently, from Kenya to Burundi via Uganda and Rwanda.

I booked most of my bus trips online and quickly realized that it was essential to ask locals or look up reviews since they somehow all describe themselves as a “luxury bus” or the “number one trusted market leader." I recently rode one of those "luxury bus" from Nairobi to Kampala, a trip that should have taken 14 hours. The bus was two hours late, then broke down multiple times along the way. In Busia, a town on the Kenya-Uganda border, the younger male passengers got out to try to push the bus while the rest of us looked on in disbelief from the side of the road. I arrived in Kampala 21 hours later, having come up with an entire TED Talk I would give on patience.

Getting on and off the buses can also be an adventure, with Tanzania's Mbeya Bus Terminal winning the prize for most chaotic. As soon as I walked in, a group of seven touts advanced upon me like vultures to a carcass, and they were simply relentless. They have normalized grabbing your hand to try to persuade you to choose their services, all while jostling for space and shouting over each other.

Feeling overwhelmed, I ducked into one of the offices but found it empty. One of the same men came in holding a neatly stacked folder and flipped to a laminated printed price list, urging me to book quickly because the bus would be leaving in five minutes. Instinct told me that only fools rush in, and I would later find out that he was offering five times the regular price when he didn’t represent any particular bus line in the first place.

I got wary of people I initially thought were just offering to help, learning that there was often a catch. Someone passed me my backpack from the trunk of the bus when I was there trying to reach for it myself and then insisted I pay him. I told him to put it back in the trunk so I could grab it myself, and that was that. Even prices for simple services seemed to go up when it became clear I couldn’t speak the local language—and consider that I’m Black and African, hence more likely to blend in.

I got wary of people I initially thought were just offering to help, learning that there was often a catch.

I would generally exchange my last wad of cash at the border through the "black market" free agents before crossing into any new country as I found the rates to be cheaper. I learned to always be keen, count my money, and look at the notes; an agent in Zambia threw in South Korean won between the kwacha notes, and I only discovered this much later after enough time had passed for it to be amusing.

Most buses don't have air conditioning, so I always prefer window seats. Having been squeezed in the same position for eight hours in Namibia, I arrived in the capital, Windhoek, from the border in Katima Mulilo to discover that my ankles had nearly doubled in size and looked like the early stages of elephantiasis. (The first thing I did was look for compression socks.) On that bus, I was pleasantly surprised by the music. Some buses have small flatscreen TVs at the front, and drivers will play local music, ranging from Congolese Lingala to Nigerian Afro beats to Tanzanian Bongo Flava.

Of course, there are other means of entertainment, too—one time in Ethiopia, I watched an entire Jason Statham film dubbed in Amharic without subtitles and found myself completely immersed in it. Still, ultimately, I like to book overnight buses so I can sleep and wake up at my destination the following day.

Some buses have small flatscreen TVs at the front, and drivers will play local music, ranging from Congolese Lingala to Nigerian Afro beats to Tanzanian Bongo Flava.

People-watching at bus stations is entertainment unto itself. The Lusaka Inter-City Bus Terminus is one of the busiest bus stops I’ve ever seen and had a lot of porters and hawkers selling everything from Crocs to skewered meat—and here, unlike other places, buying a ticket was seamless and the buses left on time. Amidst all that hive of activity, no one even tried to squeeze a few coins out of me.

Expect that someone will try you at the borders, where the sheer amount of corruption I witnessed was nothing short of spectacular. The most notorious was the Tanzania-Zambia border. Without batting an eye, an official asked me to pay him because I did not have the cholera vaccine, or he would not let me into the country. I asked to see supporting documents stating the requirement for a cholera vaccine. A leaflet, perhaps? When he realized that I was neither in a rush to leave nor taking the bait, he let me go.

And if you’re missing key documents such as a required yellow fever certificate, keep calm and remember the words of Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2006 film Blood Diamond: "This is Africa." Sadly, you’re likely only in trouble if you’re broke, but you’ll quickly get in that state anyway if you make a habit of paying everyone that feels entitled to your wallet.

Despite all of the challenges, my bus exploration has resulted in some truly incredible experiences. Some of my best memories are soaking in sunrises in silence, taking in the beauty of my surroundings from the window of my seat. I've stumbled into adventures that I may never have had otherwise, like the time I struck up conversation with two Zambian food bloggers on my bus who invited me back to their house and, for the rest of the weekend, took me to all their favorite bars and restaurants in town. The journeys to my destinations were not always smooth, but the lessons I learned on the way there will stay with me forever.

Was this page helpful?