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


Travel to and Arrival in Malawi: On Bugs, Hyenas, Darkness, and Home


Our new home! A view of our backyard our very first morning in Malawi

We made it to Malawi!

And when I say “we” I mean myself, my daughter, our two cats, and all our luggage.  There were more than a few times I thought this day would not come.

Departure Comes at Last.

Those last few weeks before departure are madness. I find myself questioning my choices regarding packing — I seem to have kept back way too much clothing for the final two weeks, and odd choices at that.  We eat out more because the food supplies at home are dwindling.  And the procedures for another international cat transport move into high gear.

Oh boy, the cats.  I love them.  But nothing tests that love more than when it comes to crunch time before the move.  To get the cats to Malawi I need to first have reservations on the flight.  That was hugely challenging because the Ethiopian Airlines call center appears to have no idea what I want.  It took a month of emails and phone calls to finally get the cats a reservation.  A little more than two weeks out, in desperation, I call Ethiopian Airlines at Dulles Airport where someone in baggage answers.  This person gives me the same number I have been calling repeatedly with no result for weeks.  When I lament this turn of events he says, “What if I gave you the direct number of some international ticketing supervisors?”  I, sir, would nominate you for Man of the Year.  Two of the three supervisors lines when direct to voice mail, but the third, a hero in my book, not only answered her phone but had corrected my problem within 24 hours.  But then the fun really began.


The money is going to take some getting used to.  I needed this stack to open up my Internet.

In order to transport the cats internationally, I must have a USDA-APHIS certified vet conduct an examination certifying they are healthy enough for travel.  For Malawi, this must be conducted no more than 10 days before the flight.  Those examinations and paperwork, to the tune of $210, must then be scanned and emailed to Malawi where a Ministry will issue me an import certificate.  That takes a few days.  And then those docs are mailed back to me.  I receive them three days before departure.  Stress nearing critical mass.

Also three days before departure I am notified that the housing we had originally been assigned is now unavailable due to necessary upgrades.  The housing I had the pictures of since April.  The housing I had purchased items for since May.  Nothing to be done about it.  Oh, and I also receive an email informing me my car – bought and shipped from Japan – has a flat tire, a dead battery, and no gas.  I must take a deep breath.  Several. Its time to be Foreign Service Flexible again.  As always.


A restaurant around the corner from my Malawi home.  I am highly likely to become a regular

Finally, it is the eve of departure.  I am in training until 4 PM.  I pick up C from her final day of international preschool, we ride the shuttle home, and the final packing begins in earnest.  As I fill suitcases to the brim I take them to the car.  C — trying to be helpful as we catch the cats to put in their carriers — somehow locks the bathroom door.  I then have to go to the front desk to see if their is still a locksmith available after 5 PM.  Luckily there is.  Packing the car proves troublesome.  I had a Honda Civic — a loan from my father.  There is the car seat in the back.  And two large cat carriers.  And four suitcases – two small, one medium, one large.  And a stroller.  And two backpacks.  I pack one of the two apartment keys somewhere…thus incurring a US$50 fine in our last hour at the apartment.  We had arranged dinner with my family at 6:30 PM near Dulles Airport, near the hotel where we would stay, 45 minutes away from our apartment.  We finally depart at 6:45.  We miss dinner with the family though they buy us food and meet us at the hotel.

Departure day: 11 AM flight.  We have to check in around 7:30 AM with the cats.  We are up at 5:30.  Around 6:30 AM my brother drops off my dad, who will take us to the airport in his car.  We determined the night before we cannot go in one car, so my aunt loads the cats in hers and we caravan to the airport.

And then suddenly it is happening.  Cats’ flight fees paid.  Cats’ examination by TSA and then they are whisked away.  We check in.  Security.  And off we are to Addis Ababa.  There I ask to see the cats, as we had been told at Dulles we could see them in transit.  We are told no.  Boarding in Addis is hectic and confusing.  But when I ask a flight attendant on our Malawi flight about the cats, she confirms with ground staff they are on board.  I make her confirm they are also ALIVE.  Four hours later we are landing in Lilongwe.  As the plan descends, I can see no proof from the air that a city is anywhere nearby.  But there is an airport.  Blurry-eyed we deplane.  We are met by P from the Embassy.  I have been in contact with him for months.  It is so good to see a friendly face.  He helps whisk us through customs and immigration.  He helps at the baggage carousel, where I am surprised to see two large pet carriers with mewing cats come along.  They made it!  Our social sponsor and daughter met us outside to whisk us to our new home.

sterilizing fruit

Sterilizing fruit

First impressions and challenges.

I have traveled to approximately 100 countries around the world, but the vast majority of those have been in Asia and Europe.  Next would probably be Central America and the Caribbean.  On the African continent I have visited only Tunisia, Egypt, and South Africa, for 10 days as a tourist in 2010.  I am not sure anything compares to Lilongwe.

The moving process is never easy.  No matter how many times I have done this, arriving at a new home, filled with Embassy-provided furniture, and a welcome kit of pots and pans, bland towels and sheets, but devoid of anything personal, never seems to get easier.  Our social sponsor had filled our fridge with food essentials, drinks, and prepared meals.  Yet this is the first time I have arrived somewhere I could not just go out on my own to shop on day one.  I felt very out of sorts.

Buggy Friends

Our place in Lilongwe is about as different from Shanghai as can be.  We traded in a small, but swank high-rise apartment, on one of Old Shanghai’s oldest, and happening, streets, where we are surrounded by luxury stores and international supermarkets, to a large single ranch style home on approximately a half acre of land, which though located in one residential nucleus of the new city, there are few buildings over two stories in the city.  We went from the largest city in the world with a population of over 24 million people, to a city of approximately one million.  In Shanghai we had little interaction with bugs.  I am sure there are plenty of insects in the city, but rarely did we encounter them.  Never before had I received this email: We have been notified there is a swarm of bees at your house and we are sending someone. Or this phone call: Ma’am, your guard informed us there is a swarm of wasps at your house; we are sending someone. Nor did I have to submit a housing work order like this: There is a termite nest on my property; please send someone to take care of it.  In our four weeks, we have also had ants, crickets, beetles, and cockroaches attempt to make our acquaintance.  The last, unfortunately, has been a source of glee for C, who after seeing the Disney movie Wall-e believes roaches to be pet material.  She named the first one, no kidding, “Dead.”  And I agreed it was a fitting name.


Seems romantic but our nets are a necessity

There are of course also mosquitoes.  Though we encountered these in both Juarez and Shanghai, this is the first place I have lived that is critical for malaria.  C and I take malaria prophylaxis daily and we sleep under nets.  Our arrival coincided with the cool season so we have not yet had many mosquito sightings, but as the hot and wet season comes, this will change.

These however have been the extent of our bonding with nature’s creatures thus far.  Well except also for a few lizards.  I do not mind them at all.  It is the snakes that I worry about.  And the hyenas.  Lilongwe is one of, if not the, only African capital where hyenas roam.  One colleague pointed out a corner where hyenas like to congregate, not far from the US Embassy.  Another told me of a recent evening when he came across an injured hyena, who had been struck by a car.  I have yet to hear their high-pitched sounds at night, but I expect it to be only a matter of time.


Believe it or not but this is a main thoroughfare in the capital.  The streetlights though are for show.  They do not come on.

A Place for Early Risers

I am a night owl.  My daughter is a night owl.  Malawi is probably more a place for early birds.  The sun rises around 5:45 AM and sets 12 hours later, before 6 PM.  C’s school begins at 7:15 AM and her bus picks her up around 6:30.  I wake her up at 5:30, before the sun has risen.  I wake up 15 to 30 minutes before.  Embassy hours begin at 7:30.  We wake up and go to sleep in darkness.  And it gets very, very dark here.  I appreciate the lack of light pollution.  In Shanghai night was never truly dark.  From our window there were hundreds of thousands of lights visible throughout the night.  Here, it is pitch black by 6:30 PM, with little light to pierce it.

We once walked from our home to a nearby Italian restaurant, located around the corner, at 5:30 PM.  Many restaurants and businesses operate out of people’s homes and are located in residential areas.  I generally would say 5:30 is early for dinner, but of course 15 minutes later the sun went down, and by the time we began our walk home an hour later it was like deep night.  Though we live just around the corner, less than five minutes walk, we stumbled blindly back.  There are few streetlights, and the only light that cut through the darkness were the security lights from my own property, projecting just a little over the high wall of my property.


Embassies take security of their personnel seriously.  I am used to living with bars on my windows and concertina wire around a property.  I am used to regular tests of our Embassy-provided radios to ensure we know how to operate them to contact and be contacted by Post One, usually the Marines but sometimes the Regional Security Officer, in the event of an emergency.  We take part in drills.  It is par the course as a Foreign Service Officer and their family members.  Shanghai though was different.  Living in a leased apartment in a high rise, we were without the window bars, without the radios, without the concertina wire.  Now we are back to that and more.  As this is my first time to live in this kind of housing, it takes some getting used to having a guard on the property 24/7.  To have the floodlights scattered around the yard.  And to have so many, many locks.   All told I have something to the tune of 43 locks: 16 door bolts, 12 doors with keys, and 15 locks on closets and cabinets.  This does not count the locks for the garden gate, the garden sheds, the garage.  We are certainly security conscious.

Just the beginning

It is a little hard to believe we have already been in Malawi a month. I struggle daily with not knowing things– not knowing how to drive to places, not knowing where to buy things, not knowing so many aspects of my job, not knowing many things about the city and the country where we now live.  Yet with each day I know more than I did the day before.  And there are so many more adventures to be had.