Category Archives: Infrastructure

Malawi to see $1B railroad built through country by Brazilian mining company Vale

I love seeing Malawi’s big news get play in a major newspaper at home. Although these plans have been in the works for months, it’s great to hear that they are set in stone. Not only will a railroad make Mozambican vacations easier, but a railroad to Beira will dramatically reduce export costs for many of the businesses we work with, helping tip the scales in favor of investing in new Malawian exporters.


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December 6, 2012 · 3:49 pm

Rules of the Road II

One physical comfort I miss from life in Washington is the city’s gleaming metro system. I recall complaining about its wait times, and the fact that to get to U Street from Adams Morgan was highly inconvenient even though the two are pretty close to one another geographically. Those were the days!

Public transport in Malawi is a bit of a misnomer. First of all, it’s certainly not public. Instead buses are run by big guys who happen to own vans and their assorted helpers. Second, it is only transport on good days. Sometimes these buses just sit by the side of the road, or more likely than not, smack in the middle of intersections. I was on a minibus last week that ran out of gas, with ten passengers including myself sandwiched in on the threadbare seats. It coasted into a gas station, which was mercifully nearby. There, the driver learned that the fuel at the station, and well, all across the city was out. Good things my shoes collection here is nothing if not sensible.

There are two things I actually do like about minibuses in Malawi. The first is that I usually get chatting to someone on the bus, inevitably because they are curious to see a mzungu on a minibus. It’s a somewhat rare sight in town, and it raises eyebrows. The second piece I enjoy about minibuses is the names. They are all painted white, which is some kind of regulation, but the drivers have full discretion over naming the vehicles. They exercise this freedom by christening the buses with names like “Filadelphia” and “DC sniper,” names that have personal significance for me, though I can’t for the life of me understand what they have to do with buses in Malawi. Buses also feature sayings like “If God says yes, who can say no?” and “Return to sender” which leave me scratching my head wondering what I am missing.

This month I am borrowing a friend’s car to get around town. The timing coincided with a bout of fuel shortages across the country. My first experience getting fuel here in Malawi was, like pretty much all other mundane aspects of life here, more eventful than I could have imagined. When there are fuel shortages in town, rumors fly about tankers heading in from Mozambique and which petrol station is rumored to have secret reserves. Today I actually saw a group of cars trailing a tanker through town, waiting to see which petrol station he was heading for. When the fuel does arrive in town, text messages circulate the community about which stations to visit, and when to go to avoid the lines. Last weekend, my housemate and I raced over to one of the stations downtown when we got word that they had fuel, and were lucky to beat the crowds and only face a thirty-minute wait. The lines are relatively orderly, although the stations hire G4S as security to keep things running smoothly and hedge against chaos.

When my turn in line came and the attendant asked me to open the tank, I became very grateful to the security when I realized I had no idea how to open it. I pride myself on careful planning and thinking through processes. This mistake was not one of my finer moments given the thirty minutes I had spent sitting in the car just waiting for the big moment. I looked in all the usual spaces for the magic tank button, and no dice. I explained the problem to the attendant, who came over to the driver’s side and began helping me look. Before I knew it, about four attendants were crawling through the car with me, lifting mats and flaps trying to find the switch. The three door Rav became a clown car with limbs flying out from all windows and doors. In all the chaos, we set off the alarm in the hypersensitive South African car, just as I reached the car’s more knowledgeable custodian to at last get instructions. We finally found the button to open the tank hidden under a piece of trash. I managed to create a ten minute delay in a crowd of angry drivers and get away unscathed, with a full tank of fuel, and a marriage proposal from the attendant, who probably decided that this hopeless foreign woman needed a man in her life to set things straight. That, or just an owner’s manual for the car.

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Filed under Roads

Rules of the Road

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.

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Filed under Healthcare, Infrastructure, Roads


Photo Credit: British South Africa Company Historical Catalogue

Coming up with a title for this blog was tricky for me. I am (a) not particularly clever with words (b) not one to take risks, not even with words. Then again, given that I spent much of the past two years helping out with a blog at CFR, perhaps it should have been easier. I was inclined to name this blog something along the lines of “Kate’s blog” or even get artsy and call it “Untitled.” In fact I started this months ago and just let it sit with the headline “TBD” unmolested somewhere in the web.

Why Cape to Cairo? Two reasons. First, when I first started considering spending time in Malawi, even as an Africa follower, I had little idea where Malawi was. In fact my best approximation was that it was somewhere between Cape Town and Cairo. I was right on that guess, if about little else, as you can see on the map to the left.

The second reason this title seemed appropriate relates to the history of the term “Cape to Cairo” and the background of my own interest in this part of the world. The Cape to Cairo was a railroad, a pet project of Cecil Rhodes’s, that was to connect connect Africa from north to south. Although the New York Times breathlessly predicted the railroad’s imminent completion in 1908, it remains unfinished in 2012. The project was, like many infrastructure initiatives in Africa, was abandoned before completion, lacking rails from Uganda through Sudan. As I hope to see first hand in my work this year, transportation infrastructure challenges are a major hurdle to economic growth. If the cost of moving goods totals about 70 percent of the overall value of that good, as it does in many land-locked parts of the continent, the profit margin shrinks.

Furthermore, I feel some personal connection to railroads. I spent a few years shuttling back and forth to school on Philadelphia’s own R5 and listening to early morning debates about how the only car my big sister needed was the shiny SEPTA train. When I started learning about Africa in college, one of the topics that interested me most was the growth of the Dakar-Niger railway in West Africa, and in particular the 1947 strike that helped galvanize support for independence from France in the region. The strike was later made famous by Ousmane Sembène’s God’s Bits of Wood, which I picked up my sophomore year in college as I began to learn about West Africa. When I was in Senegal last summer, I was disappointed to learn that the railway there, once a central piece in the French West African export machine, had been reduced to carrying twice-monthly trips, loaded with passengers and warnings that riders might not be able to find a bathroom aboard. (I opted to make the trek eastward through Senegal in a station wagon, thank you very much.) Likewise, the city of Thiès, once a hub for the railway and the related unions, was not the exciting place I’d hoped, but a dusty stop about an hour from the sprawl of Dakar.

Someday I hope to do a deeper dive into the story of railroads in West Africa. In college, with the wise advice of TAs who had seen their fair share of unrealistic undergrads, I contented myself to learn more about the politics of Senegal and the history of the trade union movement in the region, which has been painstakingly explained by a favorite historian, Fred Cooper. Down the road, I’ll be curious to learn more about how the railroads were constructed, how their existence shaped economic growth in the region, and what happened to them and the related supply chains after the end of French rule there.

For now, I hope to use this blog to stay in touch with friends and family while I am in Malawi, write about what I am seeing and learning, but also as a tool to learn to write about my interests and shame myself into doing so with the pressure of regular posting. I hope to update with photos and stories of my life in Blantyre, but also with occasional commentary on broader news in Africa. Thanks for following…


Filed under Infrastructure, Trains