Category Archives: Roads

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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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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