Americans’ 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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.