Signs. I have a thing for them. I don’t know why. Maybe everybody does? But in my travels abroad, I have found myself photographing quite a few signs. Street signs were my thing in Indonesia. There were so many child or person crossing signs — some with very skinny stick figures, some with chunky. In China, I think it was the signs of rules translated to English that got me the most. There were so many rules and so many that were amusingly lost in translation. I have taken pictures of so many different kinds of animal crossing signs from horses, cows, and ducks to kangaroo, penguin, and warthogs. In the U.S. we have so many, many signs that tell us what to do and what not to do (park here, don’t park there, go this fast or this slow) and what to buy. I find that signs reveal much about the environment, culture, and interests of a society.
Although there has been an increase in billboards and other physical advertisement signage in the three and a half years I have lived here, Malawi still has relatively few. There just is not that much money to advertise, and not that many persons with money to buy what is advertised. The signs one sees stand out because there are so few. When driving between cities and towns, you can go for 50 miles, maybe longer without seeing a single sign. That may not sound like much given distances one can drive say in Texas, but Malawi is densely populated — the 10th most densely populated country in Africa — and the sixth poorest in the world (by one index).
The first signs to catch my eye were those posted around the neighborhood advertising various services. Most are for house services such as electrical, plumbing, lawn mowing and such. It is hard for me to pick my favorite. I am a big fan of the handwritten signs nailed on to tree trunks. But then the toilet seat attached to a dead tree trunk advertising plumbing maintenance is kind of genius. Still, Doctor Mutaka and his miraculous cures and potions has got to be an all time favorite. I am not sure how much business he would get in my neighborhood of expats and wealthy Malawians, but he has put up signs all over, so he is at least hopeful. And I sort of respect that. I might feel less respect for those that seek out his services.
The next signs I really started to notice were those for staple items. Most are hand painted on wood or cement billboards. I appreciate the time and patience someone took to paint them, and there is an artistry to them, but I am less clear why the advertisements are necessary. Soap, detergent, long-life milk, sugar, cooking oil, juices, maize seeds, TNM and Airtel (the two national telecommunications networks), cement (for housing), steel (basically corrugated steel for roofs), soda, and Carlsberg beer (fun fact: the first Carlsberg brewery outside of Denmark was set up in Malawi in 1968; its sort of Malawi’s unofficial beer), these are the basics. At the store there does not really seem to be so many brands or variety and my guess is most buyers in Malawi are going to get the cheapest they can find. But the advertisements are there nonetheless.
Another popular theme of Malawian signage is to present positive societal practices. Child labor, child marriage — especially for girls — and the exclusion of women in decision making are all issues in Malawi, and therefore there are signs to promote ways to combat these issues, generally paid for by international organizations or businesses. I think there is something to be said for aggressive societal campaigns to eradicate issues through education and indoctrination. When I visited and lived in Indonesia in the early 2000s, there were still vestiges of the very successful “dua anak cukup” (two children is enough) policy campaign from the 1970s. Mostly in the form of statues of the perfect family of two parents and two children, though some written materials and billboards still existed. The thing though is that the campaign was in the local national language – Bahasa Indonesian. Most of the signs encouraging certain behaviors in Malawi are in English and though it is the official language, I would not be surprised if many of the persons for whom the signage is aimed at, struggle with English. This begs the question of who then are these signs for? I appreciate them, but then, perhaps, I am part of the target audience?
Another favorite of mine — though not generally so easy to find — are the hand painted warning signs. I have only see a handful, but when I do see them, I usually pull over to the side of the road to capture them on my SD card’s memory. I came across the dangerous bridge warning on the M5 maybe 30-60 minutes north of the town of Nkhotakota. I expect the nearby villagers had become tired of speeding motorists taking the turn and then the narrow bridge too quickly. I found the “Beware the Dog” sign while on a walk near the Luwawa Forest Lodge – and though I approached the sign with caution, I had a feeling I knew the subject, and though very large, the canine in question had spent the previous afternoon in a game of fetch the ball with my daughter.
As a political officer, I cannot help but notice politically inspired signs. With national elections occurring here twice during my four year tour (May 2019 and June 2020), I have had a chance to see my fair share of political signage. Mostly it was just the parties’ political flags flying from a tree or electricity pole. Larger signs varied from those that encouraged voting eligible citizens to get out to the polls (usually sponsored by international donors), while others (though fewer), extol the virtues of a particular candidate, paid for by the campaigns or sponsors. I had to hand it to the re-election team for the former President Peter Mutharika for its optimistic billboard with the inspired hashtag #OperationLandslide. Depending on the politics, the billboards may be built to last or suffer the political tides. The Mutharika billboard on the left was ripped down by vandals even before the 2019 election. The Atupele Muluzi campaign billboard for the 2014 election was still there — at least in part — even in early 2018. And just a month ago I came across a perfectly intact 2019 campaign billboard for a third party candidate who did not run in 2020. I have seen other well worn signs — beaten by weather and age — still standing silently alongside the road months or years after the event it advertised has passed.
By far the greatest number of “signs” I see in the capital are signposts lacking in signage. There are so many of these sad skeletal frames missing their purpose in advertising scattered across the city. For at least a year, my favorite billboard had to be the forlorn Welcome to Lilongwe sign on the M12 as one would come into the city from Zambia. Cracked, peeling, greyed with age, and absolutely empty, it seemed to say, “just keep driving, nothing to see here.” Do not get me wrong, I very much like living in Lilongwe and Malawi, but there is just not a lot of externally provided activities. This is very much a make-your-own-fun kind of place. But maybe, I could look at it another way — Lilongwe is a blank space, where its up to you to decide what to make of it?
As I begin my countdown to leaving Malawi (eight months to go), I find myself thinking a lot on what this place has meant to me and what I will miss. For the most part, my life in Lilongwe is pretty small, confined to an area of approximately five square miles. Those streets have become so familiar to me, and the landmarks on those streets as well. These signs I have seen have marked the territory of our lives for the four years we have made Malawi our home. I cannot say that they have necessarily passed the message to me that was intended, but I have noticed them and thought about them and stopped on my journey to take a picture to remember them.