May 19, 2005
Driving in Malawi
I think it is very difficult for someone who is used to driving in a Western nation to get a feel for what the roads are like here in Malawi. Every visitor that I have chauffeured around so far this year has remarked, “I don’t know how you manage so well on these roads!” It is not easy.
I learned to drive in the metropolitan New York/New Jersey area. I think that negotiating the streets of Manhattan is a piece of cake compared to getting around in Blantyre. I will try and help you understand why.
First, you are driving on the “wrong” side of the road – the left side. Second, you are driving a standard vehicle and are shifting with your left hand. You go to turn on your blinker and your wipers activate instead. It takes some getting used to.
Next, you notice that in the cities of Malawi there are nice sidewalks. However, these are completely filled with vendors that are hawking their wares from makeshift stalls. These booths take up the entire sidewalks so that pedestrians have to walk in the streets. There are hundreds of people walking in the streets. Most of these people have never driven a vehicle, so they have no appreciation of how important it is to stay out of a car’s path. I have heard several Malawians say, “They can see me walking in the road, they will move around me.” That is not always easy. Groups of people walking can take up more than half a traffic lane.
Things are complicated even further by the bicycles. Even in the rare places where there are nice dirt bike paths, bikers prefer the tarmac. The do not necessarily ride at the edge of the road. If you beep, they may move over toward the shoulder, but they may not. On top of this, they are often carrying wide loads. I have seen bikes laden with live goats, cages full of chickens, piles of wood, bushels of bananas, and large bundles of rushes or sugar cane that can make the bike up to 10 feet wide!
Mini-busses are a real hazard. Most of them are beat-up old vans that are crammed with people and goods. They may have cracked windshields and tail lights that don’t work. They stop and start with no warning whatsoever. Sometimes they will pull off to the side to disgorge passengers, but more often they will stop in the traffic lane and make you pass them or wait until they are ready to move on. Police road blocks are trying to get some of these dangerous vehicles off the roads, because they are involved in so many life-ending accidents, but there are still hundreds of them on the roads.
Broken down vehicles are another problem. Although every vehicle in Malawi is supposed to have two emergency triangles in it to warn oncoming traffic of a break down, often there will be absolutely no warning that a vehicle is stopped, or sometimes the driver will put a leafy branch in the road to slow you down. Every other day there are one or two trucks that have died on the hill in front of the Synod. I have watched people push stalled cars through busy intersections frequently. People changing flat tires on busy roadways is another common sight.
Even when you get out of the city driving is not easy. No matter where you go, there are people on the roads. Dirt roads, paved roads and even bush roads are littered with pedestrian traffic. Malawi is the most densely populated country in Africa and there are people on the move everywhere, at all times of day. If we are on the road at 5:00 a.m., the roads are already teeming with people. None of the expatriates we know likes to drive at night here because it is so difficult to see people in the dark.
Besides all of this, the quality of the roads is poor to say the least. Pictures just cannot convey how deeply rutted, pitted, potholed and damaged some of the dirt roads are. We have been forced to take detours on our way to churches because the roads were literally washed away during rainy season, or were so badly damaged that they were impassable. Fortunately, during rainy season we only got stuck in the mud twice. Even four wheel drive vehicles like ours cannot negotiate roads in such poor condition.
You also have dogs, goats, cows, chickens and children who will dart onto the road anytime. I almost hit a goat one day that was going one direction and suddenly changed and ran in front of our truck.
You always have to leave plenty of time for traveling because you are sure to run into unexpected obstacles. A slow truck on a winding road or a herd of cattle will always delay your arrival. Funeral processions, which can contain hundreds of people and many vehicles, stop traffic in both directions for long periods of time as the mourners accompany the casket to the grave, or proceed to the church.
Although there are many driving schools around, many drivers here really do not have good driving skills. You see them passing when there is oncoming traffic, speeding when they should use caution, pulling out into busy intersections without looking, or failing to use signals when turning.
In the few places where traffic signals have been put up, they seldom work. At the main intersection in downtown Blantyre, there is a light that is usually out or stuck on red in one direction and green in another. It is very dangerous. It is hard for us to understand why some of these hazards cannot be eliminated.
The World Health Organization reports that despite the carnage and the toll taken on national resources, preventing traffic-related injury is rarely regarded as a public health issue in developing nations, and this is certainly true in Malawi.
But with the population and motor vehicle use on the rise, something will have to be done. Statistics show that there has been over a 100% increase in road deaths in recent years. The WHO forecasts that the problem will get worse. A survey done by Malawi’s Road Traffic Commission reported that the death rate per 10,000 motor vehicles is currently 240 annually here. In neighboring Zambia, there was a 340% increase in the number of vehicles from 1995 to 1996. Malawi’s population growth rate is the highest in Africa. More cars and more people is not a good combination when mixed with current road conditions.
The US Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration reports that pedestrian deaths are as high as 40% of the fatalities in Malawi, whereas in the US they account for 13% of vehicular deaths. A study done by a professor in Kenya reports that eleven percent of all global vehicle accidents occur in sub-Saharan Africa, despite the fact that it has only 4% of the world’s vehicles.
Perhaps when politicians realize the huge economic costs of accidents they will begin to do more. One 2004 study shows that the cost of dealing with crash injuries could be as high as 5% of Malawi’s Gross National Product.
Some steps are being taken. Cell phone use while driving has been outlawed. Seat belts are mandatory. Police roadblocks are frequent and are culling some of the unsafe vehicles from the roads.
So far, we have put over 25,000 kilometers on our vehicle. Part of our purpose for being here is to get out and visit Partner Churches all over the Synod. It has been one of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of this year despite the driving conditions.
The one thing that I have failed to mention about driving in Malawi is that it is breathtaking. The vista as you wind down into the Shire Valley is stunning. You cannot drive to the Mulanje St. Andrew’s CCAP Church without being impressed by the lush verdant tea plantations which stretch out for miles and the stark beauty of the magnificent mountain. The straw roofed villages nestled among huge, exotic baobab trees on the shores of picturesque Lake Malawi are postcard perfect. As you drive to Mangochi, the southern edge of the Great Rift Valley unfolds before you. I have never seen such astounding, varied, unusual scenery. To say it is magnificent does not even begin to describe it.
So, we will continue to drive all over Southern Malawi while we are here, but we will do so with the utmost caution and care.