One needs a car in Lilongwe. Well, wait, let me back up a bit already. A large percentage of Malawi’s approximately 1 million residents do not own a vehicle. They get around on foot, by bicycle, keke, or mini bus. But for the expat community a car is pretty much essential. Due to safety/security issues we are generally either high discouraged or even barred from taking the mini buses and taxis, as you know them in large cities, are non-existent. So, prior to our arrival I needed to go about acquiring a vehicle for Malawi.
The Acquisition Saga
I had two options for buying my car: either purchase at post from a departing diplomat or buy from Japan and have it shipped to Malawi. After some consultation with my predecessor and colleagues I opted for option B. Information provided by the Embassy indicated I would need to start the process early as it could take as long as four months from beginning to end, so in late February of this year (2017) I contacted IBC Japan to begin my search for my dream Malawi car.
Why buy from Japan? Well, in Malawi we need a right-hand drive vehicle as the country drives on the left, i.e. the opposite as the US. Japan is a huge market of used right-hand drive vehicles. I recall from when I lived in Japan that the Japanese have to pay a vehicle tax every two years that as one’s car depreciates can quickly become more expensive than people are willing to pay on an older car. So, the Japanese have a tendency to unload their used vehicles once they are over six years old. With an excellent local and long distance train network, Japan also does not really have a “road trip” culture, so personal cars also generally have low mileage.
I decided on the type of car I wanted–a Toyota RAV4 (the ubiquitous Toyota brand means parts are more readily accessible, cheaper, and more mechanics are familiar with them (though I still bought FOUR spare tires, extra oil filters, and high quality oil to bring with me); a RAV4 for the road conditions)–and searched through the IBC Japan database for one within my price range. I was connected with an agent. By the end of March we had agreed on a car and a price. So far, so good.
Payment was tricky. I had the option to do a bank transfer or, if I wanted to pay by credit card, to pay through PayPal. I opted for the latter.
I should not have been surprised to receive an email notification of “unusual activity” from PayPal immediately after submitting payment. It was not so much surprise as a long, heavy, resigned sigh. Because it is odd to have an American PayPal account with an American credit card, purchase a vehicle from Japan, to be shipped to Africa, while using the Internet in China but through a VPN saying my location is Canada. That probably does not happen every day for good reasons. But it can be the reality for Foreign Service Officers. Luckily a quick call to PayPal, a few good chuckles over my situation, and a little hoop jumping to prove I was who I said I was and the payment went through.
Stella – my sweet silver 2006 Toyota RAV4 – began her journey from Kobe port in Japan to Durban in late April. By late May she arrived in South Africa — I have little doubt happy to get off the boat. I too was glad to hear of her arrival as the flurry of emails regarding her paperwork during my Home Leave was a little nerve-wracking. The Japanese company had mailed all the documents but unfortunately, although they always do this in every other case, had failed to scan a copy to email to me. The Embassy could not locate the original documents and thus would be unable to clear the vehicle through customs. Eventually they were located (misplaced in the mail of another agency) and Stella rolled off the boat to freedom. Well, to waiting until a truck could be filled to capacity and then driven to Malawi.
I received occasional reports of her journey. The truck has left the port. The truck is at the Mozambican border. The carrier is at the Mwanza Border under clearance to Blantyre, will then proceed to Lilongwe once offloaded in Blantyre. Your car has arrived in Lilongwe. The last happened sometime in late June or early July. There were further clearance and registration processes for the car before she could be released. Just a week before my arrival I received notification that Stella was cleared but she had a flat tire, a dead battery, and an empty gas tank. They would run diagnostics. I nearly had a nervous breakdown — after all Stella and I had been through… I had visions of having to scrap her and buy yet another car. I called Lilongwe, six hours ahead, and learned that it is very normal for cars to arrive in this condition as they have been chained up in boats and trucks for months, have not been driven, and gas tanks were kept low for transport. A quick test and Stella roared back to life. When I arrived she was sitting pretty in my driveway at my new home.
I wish I could say that was the end of it. That Stella and I lived happily ever after. Stella is Japanese after all and we have had more than our fair share of communication issues. Her manuals are all in Japanese. Initially, whenever I started the car, a voice chirped in an overly-caffeinated voice a Japanese greeting informing me to “insert my card.” That is until in a wee bit of a fit I might have ripped out the cord attached to the card reader. The radio only goes to 90.0 FM and thus plays only one Malawian station, sometimes. The automatic windows have to be raised incrementally to close or they will only roll themselves half way down again. The second key — not a key, but a “smart key” fob — was misplaced for a few weeks. The folks in South Africa didn’t have it, the Embassy didn’t have it, it wasn’t in the car… Until it was found in an envelope in a file drawer. As the temps have raised with the change in seasons from the Malawian “winter” to summer, I found the A/C only blows hot air. A colleague checked and deduced the fuse was missing. Another colleague, with a mechanic background, took a look. He said it is common sometime during transit for parts to “go missing” and his own A/C fuse had experienced a disappearing act. He confirmed it was gone and also informed me my two large headlight bulbs had been stolen as well. <sigh> A friend who had served in another post in Africa though was less sympathetic — she told me to look at the bright side, they could have stolen my engine block. Very true.
Before arriving in Malawi I had tried to Google images of Lilongwe roads to have a sense of what was in store for me. Frankly, I found little. No surprise there, roads are, in general, not the most photogenic of subject matter.
I am not quite sure what to say. The roads were both better and worse than I expected. They are paved. Some have center lines. There are streetlights and traffic lights. But I also found that the edges are often eroded in jagged lines — as if a giant animal had gnawed off huge chunks. There are frequent potholes and even, surprisingly, some speed bumps. The holes are often visible — filled with rust colored dirt. The speed bumps on the other hand have few markings and can catch you by surprise. There are rarely shoulders other than dirt — so cyclists (often with loads of sticks or straw several feet wide) and pedestrians generally choose to walk on the asphalt. The streetlights rarely turn on and the four traffic lights (that I know of) are often dark, not functioning. Not so surprising in a country where only 10% of the people are connected to the power grid — electricity is a luxury.
I found driving initially difficult, not because I was driving on the left side of the road, but because I was driving an SUV, which I had not done before. Stella’s top left corner seemed very far away and I found it difficult to gauge where I was in relation to the side of the road. When possible, I give the pedestrians and cyclists a very wide berth. Driving at places where there are traffic lights and they are not working, which more often than not seems to be the case, provides an extra level of difficulty and sometimes seems like a game of chicken. The roundabouts, which are more common than traffic lights, appear straightforward. Arrows indicate which lane go get in if you want the first, second, or third turn off. But almost daily I have to battle it out with a local driver who seems to think all lanes of a roundabout lead wherever they want to go.
Additionally, I found it difficult to find my way around. Lilongwe is not a particularly large city and in the eight weeks I have been here, I have now learned the basic routes to and from work, to the various supermarkets, to key points of interest, and to my colleague’s homes. It is compact enough that two weeks ago my five year old directed me to her school from memory of the route her school bus takes. (a very proud moment for me). Street signs though are uncommon and when they exist are not always easy to find or easy to read. I often use landmarks instead — turn right at the T-junction where there are tires under the tree or take the third exit from the roundabout and then turn left a the store with the big blue letters.
One cannot really do relaxed driving. My defensive driving course comes in handy here. Besides the pedestrians and cyclists and other things that might run out on the road (maybe a hyena), the other drivers keep you on your toes. As a gross generalization, Malawians are not good drivers. Again, there are not that many people driving, and many may be those mini bus and keke drivers. There are a fair number of people who seem to have licences but are not very good drivers. The newspapers are full of front page stories of car accidents; I saw an accident on my way to work today.
As a working single mom with a school aged child, I realize that I probably need a back up driver. My nanny, a young woman, also the single mom of a 5 year-old, with a good head on her shoulders, has a driving license, but is not a confident driver. To her credit, she admits this (as I have heard from others the tendency is to over inflate one’s driving ability). To boost her driving confidence, I have enrolled her in some remedial driving classes, and on occasion I have her drive C and I somewhere, such as to the Embassy to visit the clinic or to the gas station. She is slow and careful, which I rather prefer. There are times though it feels as if I am a parent of a daughter with a newly-minted license, and it struck me that I am old enough to be my nanny’s mother. In fact her mother and I are the same age. I hope however the courses and practice give her, and me, the confidence in her ability to some day drive my daughter to school functions on her own. My colleague’s experience with this, does give me pause.
Eight weeks in and I am fairly confident with the car and driving though still trying to figure so much more out.