KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo -- Ever wonder where America's yellow school buses go to die? Some don't -- they find a second life on Central Africa's rutted, traffic-choked roads.
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, and onions.
Charging breakneck around the capital, the yellow buses rattle fiercely as they crash through the potholes peppering Kinshasa's roads.
The blinking tail lights that had protected many a child are 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," said Alfonse Musambu, a 39-year-old pastor of a Kinshasa church called The Chandeliers of Gold, sitting in a bus as it barreled across Kinshasa. ``Pedestrians are used to it. They know how to get out of the way."
Speedometers don't work on many of the buses, but they appear to reach speeds of up to 50 miles per hour, fairly fast given Kinshasa's traffic and the condition of its roads.
An American might be horrified at the sight.
With traffic so chaotic and roads so rutted, safety seems beside the point, but Congolese cherish the buses as comfortable and sturdy -- particularly since the alternative for most are taxi vans or walking.
Bruce Kingambo was barely able to move, stuffed with more than 100 other people and their baggage in a 60-seat school bus. Squashed between a cane basket of smelly fish and a cardboard carton of milk powder, he's thankful for the ride.
``Transport is a big problem in the city. The yellow buses help regular people get around," said Kingambo, 25, who has taken the bus to Kinshasa's main market, where he has hawked used clothes every day for the past two years.
Total cost across town: 30 US cents.
The yellow buses first arrived in the early 1980s in what was then called Zaire, run by the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, whose government imported the vehicles from America to ferry civil servants to work.
Those vehicles crumbled under the neglect and corruption that characterized life under Mobutu, who took power in a 1965 coup and ruled for 32 years before fleeing ahead of a rebel advance on Kinshasa and dying in exile in 1997.
Now private entrepreneurs are bringing in the buses.
Most of Congo's new generation of yellow buses come from Virginia or Maryland, according to Jeff Cohen, sales manager at Sonny Merryman Inc., the Rustburg, Va., company that sold the yellow buses to Kinshasa-based Nasser Trans.
Cohen's company sells used yellow buses to African and South American enterprises, usually after a decade of service to American schools.
The buses cost about $2,000 in Congo; a new one would cost 40 times that.
Cohen said the buses he ships meet US safety standards when they leave, adding that while school districts in Virginia use the buses for 10 or 12 years, others elsewhere in the United States keep them running up to 30.
Congo also imports buses from Europe, but mechanics here say the American ones are sturdier.
The buses also can be seen in other African countries, including Nigeria. In Congo, they mostly operate in the capital, a city of about 8 million with about 300 miles of paved road.
Spare parts for the buses are a problem, but Nasser Trans chief mechanic Jules Biba addresses it in typical Congolese fashion: improvisation.
``Sometimes we lack a brake pad so we bend some scrap metal and use that," Biba said. ``But it's not an ideal solution."