The bus terminus by the Market Square was swarming with people exerting pressure as they tried to board the remaining rural buses before it was too late to embark on long-distance journeys. Some had decided last minute they were not staying in town and instead would join their families for Easter. As the travellers got more rowdy and agitated, bus drivers revved their engines to attract attention, under the pretence they were on the move. It was a typical African market scene with vendors weaving their way in and out among the vehicles belching smoke clouds over their wares. As for the buses, it was a miracle they could still pass roadworthiness tests at police roadblocks.
The conductors touting their routes were also loading parcels precariously on the bus roof carriers, as securely as possible. The assorted items looked as if the contents of whole households were on the move.
"Hurry, up, hurry up, everyone! We don't have all day! If you want to get to your homes before nightfall. Why don't you people get more organised? You knew when Easter was coming!" Amos one of the veteran bus conductors continued with his loud banter, throwing around sarcastic barbs at no one in particular while directing people into his bus and loading at the same time. With another rhetorical question on his lips, he turned and stared at a youth waiting patiently at the bus's entrance, with a large sack on the dusty ground.
"Hey, you! Can't you see what everyone else is doing? Bring the sack, so I can load it while there's still room. What's your problem? Get in! We have things to do and places to go to!"
"I want to take the sack onto the bus," he said sheepishly.
"What do you mean, take it onboard? It's too bulky. Where are you going to put it? There isn't enough room even under the seat. We are getting to standing room only. What's so special about your parcel that it can't travel on the roof?"
The evasive young man continued scratching his head.
"I just want it inside, next to me to keep it safe."
"What makes you think anyone is going to steal it? We are not all thieves, you know! Ok, get in. We are wasting time!"
The young man entered the bus, squeezing past standing passengers blocking the aisle as they loaded their parcels into the overhead compartments. He managed to secure a seat next to a well-endowed woman who should have paid for two seats, judging by her size. The youth decided against drawing attention to himself after the altercation with the conductor.
It didn't take long before the bus was on the highway. Everyone cheered on Dickson the driver, as he left the city, heading to Mutoko at breakneck speed. The first official stop was no more than a few kilometres en route. There was some grumbling when the bus slowed down to let the conductor hop out and run an errand. He returned after a short while carrying a take-away meal, only to find a commotion had erupted in his absence. Passengers were pouring out of the door, pushing and shoving amid screams and widespread panic. Trying to understand the cause of the uproar, Amos unsuccessfully appealed for calm.
"What's happening? Can someone tell me what's going on?"
In his sweat-soaked shirt, Dickson ignored Amos's questions as they were now both directing a surge of panicking people, away from the vehicle. Some indecisive passengers did a U-turn on the bus's steps, having forgotten their luggage; then decided against going back. The well-endowed woman previously sitting next to the youth, turned to Amos in hysterics,
"There's a huge, long snake on board. I saw it with my own eyes. It was coming out of a sack under my seat and was about to eat me alive!"
Now extremely agitated after clearing the bus of all passengers, Dickson firmly closed the bus door, turned to his colleague and said, "You won't believe this, but there is a large snake, loose in the bus, crawling under the seats. I had no alternative, but to clear the vehicle and phone the police."
"What will the police do? Someone must own it!" said Amos as he turned to the crowd and bellowed, "Who's the owner of the snake which is causing all this pandemonium? Own up! Own up!" No-one came forward.
Some passengers now feeling less steady on their feet started looking for shade from the blistering sun. Others continued to share embellished versions of the goings-on, as they waited to see what the bus employees would do. Several had already started looking for food among the roadside vendors who had miraculously appeared from nowhere. The sellers couldn't believe their luck as they haggled with the new customers over prices of boiled eggs, roasted peanuts and maize.
Two policemen soon arrived looking very officious. The younger one dressed in a crisp khaki uniform proceeded to take Dickson's statement.
"So, no-one has owned up. Is that where we're at? This isn't really our area of operation-capturing escaped snakes. We deal with real crime, disorderly conduct, and such like. So, we've phoned the Department of Wildlife and National Parks. They'll be here shortly," said the young constable, as he swaggered around the vehicle, looking for transgressions under the Road Traffic Act Chapter 13:11.
The Department of Wildlife and National Parks' arrival drew curious passengers back to the bus; feeling assured the new officials would know what to do. Several passengers who had lost interest and wandered off were observing from a distance while swigging cool beers at a nearby bottle store. Anything could be borne after some liquid refreshments.
In their green and khaki uniforms, the three wildlife rangers approached the bus crew and police to hear the story's official version. Still, no one had owned up. However, the rangers were given a somewhat exaggerated description of the snake's size by the well-endowed woman who was relishing being the centre of attention. She was expressing her feelings of fear on seeing its long slimy body and motley colours when one ranger cut her explanation short by turning to his colleague,
"We can safely assume from the colourations, size and body marks described, that it must be a python. But how did it get on the bus? Anyway, let's deal with that question later. We'll retrieve it and take it back into the wild."
The policemen who had now finished questioning all the passengers were none the wiser. They came back to the bus as its door opened and the rangers stepped down carefully carrying a large bundle in a sack. Amos exclaimed, excitedly,
"I know who owns that sack. There was a young man who insisted that the parcel had to go into the bus. There he is! You! Come over here and explain yourself!"
The crowd turned to where the conductor was pointing, and as the young man approached the police, the group started hurling insults and shoving him to the front. Even the men who had become energised after their liquid lunch joined in, shouting in aggressive tones. The young man fearing mob justice drew nearer to the police, away from the now hostile crowd.
The young constable began interrogating the alleged owner of the sack.
"Explain yourself. What's your name? Are you the one who's wasted our valuable time, yet you are responsible for all this mayhem! What are you doing carrying a protected species on public transport?"
The young man pulled himself to his full height and said, "My name is Tino, and the snake is not mine."
"What do you mean it's not yours. I saw you with the sack," said Amos approaching Tino in aggression. "Are you not the one who asked me if you could take it onboard? Don't waste our time."
"I'm telling the truth. It was mine but not anymore."
"Young man, we don't have all day, and we can't keep the python in the sack for much longer. You are delaying us. We should be on our way to release it in the wild, near water," said one of the rangers.
"It was my pet. I used to live with it, and one day in passing, I mentioned it while drinking in our local beerhall. A certain man seemed fascinated and said he could make good use of it, and he offered a handsome price for it. The python was also getting too big to keep in my lodging. I was becoming desperate because I couldn't keep it any longer and even contemplated releasing it into the wild. It was eating me out of house and home because I had to catch mice or buy them from pet shops to feed it. Its new owner lives in the rural areas, so I was on my way to deliver the snake and collect the balance of my payment. He is a medicine man who was going to give me a good price. I don't know how the snake got out of the sack. I was afraid to own up in case I got beaten by the mob," said the young man looking increasingly dejected.
"You were going to get us all killed for a few dollars?" shouted someone in the crowd. Another responded, "Why should we believe this crook's story? He is probably the medicine man's apprentice, and they are in it together. Do you know that these medicine men use the skin, fat, blood and organs for all sorts of charms and medicines which they sell to gullible people? Its big business."
"How do you know so much about it? Do you also keep snakes, or are you the medicine, man? " piped another voice from the crowd as the rest laughed, feeling more relaxed now that the snake had been captured. The senior policeman interjected,
"Do you know that in this country if you kill a python, which is an endangered species, there is a mandatory jail term of nine years? We are taking you to the police station so you can make a full statement. You are the poachers selling our wildlife as exotic pets, and you need to be made an example of. Animals should stay in the wild."
As the police vehicle drove off with the young man, the wildlife rangers decided not to lose an opportunity of educating the passengers about animal welfare. They explained about endangered species, the importance of living in harmony with fellow animals, and the dangers of contracting zoonotic diseases. The well-endowed woman was assured that the python would not have been eaten, but pythons are dangerous because they kill prey through constriction, resulting in cardiac arrest.
Eventually, everyone re-boarded the bus. The now animated passengers resembled a full-blown kangaroo court as they meted fictitious punishments on the young man, in absentia. Others who were fixated on killing any snake, were cautioned by those who had headed the message about endangered species. The bus resumed on its winding route, and no one complained about the long journey, after the adventure of the python.