As I was doing my research backwards and forwards before heading off to Malawi, I learned that the majority of traffic fatalities in the developing world are pedestrians. This was a statistic I read and acknowledged, but didn’t really understand until I’d spent a bit of time walking around cities in Malawi. The roads are narrow, filled with potholes and other hazards, the cars are old and poorly maintained, and people don’t pay attention as they should. Sidewalks? Streetlights? I can count their numbers on my fingers and toes.
The result is that being a pedestrian in Blantyre is a hazardous affair. An African in their late teens or twenties statistically has more to fear from walking down the road or using public transportation than they do from TB, malaria, or even HIV/AIDS. In recent years, about one-fifth of the world’s road deaths have occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, even though the region is home to only two percent of the world’s cars.
I had planned to spend this Friday evening at the world premiere of the Malawian version of An Indecent Proposal. I’m really not sure of the specifics, except to say that somehow a number of characters in the Blanytre community wound up starring in the film, so the premiere at a hotel downtown was a big event in a city not exactly known for its nightlife. However, on my way to the movie I was flagged down by two frantic young men in the middle of the dark street near my house, yelling at me to stop the car. When I noticed a figure knocked out near the side of the road, I pulled over. The two young men helped an elderly Malawian into the car, explained that he had been hit by the bus that just passed, and asked me to drive him to the hospital.
I took this man, Joseph, to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital. It’s the largest referral hospital in the country, and it’s government run, which means that if you are a citizen, you are treated for free. When we arrived, I fell into conversation with another driver there looking to commiserate. “You hit someone too?” At first I tried to explain that no, of course I had not hit the man, but failed to make myself clear with the language barrier and the like, so I gave up. Whereas at home I might worry about prosecution for taking someone out on the street, it is so common here that I saw several such cases filter into the emergency room as I waited. Most did not look as lucky as Joseph, who was conscious, able to walk, and communicate with his family when they arrived a few hours later.
Even though my perch in the waiting room was right near the ambulance lane, those vehicles were the one thing I didn’t see in my few hours at the hospital. I asked my newfound companion about this, who explained that ambulances are not meant to pick people up who have been hurt, but just to transfer the very ill to the city from the rural clinics. The two young guys who flagged me down to drive Joseph in weren’t doing “the right thing,” they were just doing what is normal in a country where government does not have the capacity to provide services like bringing the sick to the hospital. “Community” feels different living here in Malawi. There is no safety net beyond family, friends, and the American lady who happened to driving down the street.