Road Tripping in Malawi

Road Sign 1Americans’ love affair with the car is no secret.  In reality, Western Europeans have more cars per person than Americans, but Americans drive their cars for just about anything – short trips, long trips, and everything in between.  And when Americans go on long trips, they might be just as likely to pack up the car as to get on a plane.  Americans (in general) love a good road trip.

Although I have spent a good portion of my adult life (between September 1995 and September 2011) without owning a car, I still very much appreciate a good drive.  In my Foreign Service career, I have not done much driving at Post.  In Ciudad Juarez, we could only drive in a limited area around the city and into the United States, and I did not own a vehicle in Shanghai.  Malawi has been an “interesting” opportunity to get back on the road.

Most of my driving life in Malawi is within a small area, maybe five square miles, if that.  It’s a seven-minute drive from my home to the Embassy and most other trips are to and from friends’ homes and a few supermarkets and restaurants.  But every so often we get out of town, and with nearly two years under my belt in Malawi, I have taken a road trip or two or ten.  And driving here is unlike any other place I have driven.

A. Roads

Some Malawian roads I have driven

Malawi may be one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, but when on the road between cities and towns, it can feel as if you are in the middle of nowhere.  Its not just the lack of population — there can certainly be those times when it seems there is no one else around — but even when there are villages it is just those villages, a cluster of small homes, probably the majority just a single room.  They might be mud or brick with thatch or corrugated iron roofs, but except in the larger trading centers, the homes, maybe a school, is it.  You will not see road lights or electricity poles. There are few if any road signs. You will only rarely see billboards by the side of the road — only as you might approach a major center.  Playing “I spy” is a futile exercise.

There will be no fast-food restaurants if any restaurants at all.  Few stores.  Even petrol stations are in short supply.  On the 4+ hour drive on the M1, the country’s main artery linking the capital Lilongwe with the business capital of Blantyre, there are perhaps only two or three places to stop for gas.  You should always fill up when you can, because there may not be another opportunity for some distance.  The same goes for restrooms.

CowsThe paved roads, even the main ones, are predominantly two lanes, one in each direction.  Maybe there will be a painted center line, maybe not.  Maybe there will be a shoulder, though usually not.  Most often the sides of the road are jagged, as though a large monster that eats asphalt has bitten huge chunks off the edges.  There are many potholes.  Near villages, there will be cyclists, and it seems almost a given that as your car approaches they will begin to weave haphazardly, adding an extra challenge to an already difficult drive.  There are also often goats or cattle alongside the road — the cattle are usually accompanied by children or young men, the goats are often unattended and maybe a wee bit suicidal, or at least not phased by traffic at all.  However, if you hit someone’s livestock, be prepared to pay up.

The speed limit is generally 80-90 kph (50-55 mph) on the roads outside urban/market areas and 50 kph (30 mph) within.  Yet, in my experience, you either get those who drive a maddening 20 kph below or a scary 20-30 kph above.  It’s the excessive speeds which are particularly worrying —  according to the World Health Organization, sub-Saharan Africa has some of the highest rates of vehicle accident fatalities per 100,000 people in the world, and Malawi ranks as one of the higher among southern African countries.

A. Road Blocks

License and registration, please

To force people to at least occasionally slow down, the police set up roadblocks.  The Malawi police are basically a static force; they are hampered by their shoestring budget and a limited number of vehicles.  Thus they are not hiding around bends or behind trees in their police cars or motorcycles ready for the hot pursuit of lawbreakers.  Instead, they set up roadblocks, some quite rudimentary, to at least temporarily halt travel and conduct vehicle inspections.  My diplomatic-plated car is rarely stopped, and on the very few occasions it’s happened, I have been waved through quickly.  Not that I am doing anything wrong mind you.  I drive the speed limit, my tires are in good shape, I have a license and insurance, and I carry the required-by-law equipment.  I have a feeling I might be in the minority.

A. Safety First

Safety First!

On any given day you will likely encounter some creative interpretation of traffic regulations.  There are no official taxis and buses are few and far between (largely cross border routes); the primary means of travel for the commuter is on foot, bicycle (including bicycle taxis), or the ubiquitous mini-buses, which can be used for intracity or intercity transportation.  These small vans are notorious for being overcrowded with people and packages, in poor condition, often with inadequate tires or brakes, and often driven at excessive speeds.  Besides the mini-buses, Malawians come up with some resourceful methods to transport goods and people via the roads.  If I weren’t so concerned about how their ingenuity impacts my ability to safely get from Point A to Point B, I would be pretty impressed.  But I have also read enough articles about, and even come across, what happens when vehicles drive too fast on Malawian roads.

A. Accidents

Uh-oh!

I remember something a friend once said about driving here — how much it takes out of you because you cannot ever really relax.  This is not the place where you can put the car on cruise control and zone out.  One has to keep on one’s toes, as you never know what will be around the next bend.  Maybe there is a disabled vehicle, cordoned off not with the required-by-law warning triangles but leafy branches.  Or a police checkpoint.  Or perhaps there might be a bunch of uniform-clad school children lollygagging on the road’s edge.  Or a bunch of goats.  You might come across someone selling dried fish or gunny sacks of illegal charcoal.  Or perhaps someone selling roasted field mice on a stick — a popular delicacy during the dry cool season.  Or you might run across masked young men or boys dressed in makeshift costumes of torn clothes, strips of fabric, burlap sacks, and straw, heading to a performance.  These are the Gule Wamkulu, or ritual spiritual dancers of the Chewa tribe, the dance inscribed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.  Or maybe you come around a curve to face a stunning vista.  Driving in Malawi is not for the faint-hearted, but it sure does keep things interesting.

A. Road Side

Furry fried field mice anyone?  Or maybe hang with Gule Wamkulu spirits?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Car & Driver Lilongwe Edition

4 our road

The entrance of the road where we live

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.

1 My chariot

My ride.  Her name is Stella.

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.

5 mini bus stop

A “station” for the ubiquitous mini bus.  It seems random, but I expect the stations are not–this is near the city market.  Mini buses are known for being overcrowded, in poor repair, and driven recklessly.  But they get most people from Point A to Point B.

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.

8 tuk tuk

The keke – Malawian version of the tuk-tuk

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.

Getting Around

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.

10. roads of Lilongwe

Lilongwe Roads

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.

roundabout and traffic light

The roundabout on Presidential Drive (left); City Center with broken (again!) traffic light (right)

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.

3 road signs

Not so legible street signs mixed with advertising

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.

7 traffic jam

Rush hour and traffic light on Kenyatta Drive is out (again!) leads to a Lilongwe-style traffic jam

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.

2 gas prices

For those who complain about gas prices.  It works out to about $4.28 a gallon