The yellow school bus takes a long, long ride before it finally quits. Besides occasionally getting remixed into a bus stop in Atlanta, GA as a part of an arts program, many old yellow buses continue their useful life outside the United States. In Congo, they have become the staple vehicle of public transportation in Kinshasa, first arriving in the early 1980s.
Boxy buses that once carted American children now haul Congo’s impoverished people, young and old — and their loads of preserved fish, powdered milk, beans, onions and cassava. Charging breakneck around the capital, the yellow buses rattle fiercely, as they hurtle through the potholes peppering Kinshasa’s roads. The blinking tail lights that had protected many a child are now either missing or broken.
While many castoff products from rich Western countries find new use in Africa, the ripped T-shirts, faintly treaded shoes and old computers haven’t had their original use quite as thoroughly inverted as the yellow school bus.
Yellow buses symbolize safety and restraint on American roads. Not here in Congo.
“This bus is all about speed,” says Alfonse Musambu, a 39-year-old pastor of a Kinshasa church called The Chandeliers of Gold, sitting in a bus as it barrels across Kinshasa. “Pedestrians are used to it. They know how to get out of the way.” (source)
The American school buses end up in Central and South America, too. Sonny Merryman, a Virginia-based bus company is one of several American distributors who re-ship the buses overseas after about ten years of shuttling American kids. Once they land in their new home, they are customized as needed.
Which leads to an interesting view of quintessentially American products (like the yellow school bus) as just a snapshot in time and space when Americans happen to be the ones using something. In the frame before, a mountain of Canadian ore, and after it, a vessel for transporting chickens. Quiet down in the back please…