On the Road Again
In our short time here, we've already seen a TON of the country, met a lot of wonderful people, and enjoyed some great experiences. I wanted to do a post early on that included a map, particularly for people who not quite familiar with Malawi. So here is a basic political map of the country. I drew blue lines that sort of trace the paths we've taken so far around the country:
This is by no means a perfect chart of our driving paths, but it helps you see a bit just how much we've been on the road!! So for reference--in the Central Region, all roads pretty much lead in and out of Lilongwe. The drive from Lilongwe to Salima takes about two hours. Lilongwe to Dedza is about an hour and a half. The trip from Lilongwe to Zomba takes four hours. However, the drive from Zomba to Blantyre can be done in about 45 minutes, even though it looks about the same distance as from Lilongwe to Dedza.
People have asked us about the road conditions in Malawi. There are a number of paved highways that connect the country from top to bottom. These are two lane highways only and it is common to find parts under construction so you have to use side roads. For example, between Balaka and just south of Liwonde there is major road construction so they've got dirt road detours you have to take. The highways are NOT safe. Motor fatalities remain high as drivers go too fast, in unsafe vehicles, and most drivers practice really unsafe habits like passing trucks on the crest of hills, taking turns too fast, etc.
Another problem that leads to fatalities is the lack of highway patrols--no police or ambulances around, so if you are in an accident, you can bet no one is coming to help. You are on your own. That's why so many crashes are sadly fatal. I really don't like driving at night either because there are all manner of pedestrians (human and animal) and they are desperately hard to see at night! We've had some "YIKES" moments in the car at night when a goat or dog runs into the road.
In Lilongwe, you find a major network of paved roads and lots of roundabouts that help with traffic flow. However, once you get off the major veins, even in the city, everything changes to dirt roads. All major towns and cities are also controlled by police-manned road blocks. These help slow traffic heading into town and the police are also supposed to be checking to make sure passenger vehicles are up to code, all licenses are current, and no dangerous overloading of vehicles is happening.
Roads in the Rainy Season
Let's talk a minute about the rainy season and what that does to transportation. It is currently the dry season, almost the driest part of the dry season, so roads, streams, riverbeds, canals--all bone dry. Once the rain starts, all of that will change. The roads that were once bone dry will become slick, sticky, deep, muddy, puddled, messy, and dangerous. When I was here in February it was the rainy season and I can tell you, driving is NOT fun. We had a number of times when we had to turn around, go around, or otherwise avoid parts of roads where we knew we would get stuck. Once our driver ended up in the ditch, the van sliding right off the road in the slippery mud. Men from the village had to come pull the van out with ropes.
Below is one of my favorite pictures I took during my time here in February. The truck you can see in the road became stuck in the mud. Weighed down with tons of bags of maize, it couldn't crest the hill. The only way to get it up the hill was to unload it, so men from the village (right behind me in the photo), had to come help the drivers unload every single bag of maize. Then, men would take huge ropes and pull and push it up the rest of the hill. Only once the truck crested the hill would it be reloaded all over again. While men worked to free this truck from the mud, another smaller truck also had to be pulled up the hill by ropes. It was exciting to watch all the villagers come together to help the vehicles up the hill.
Another question we get a lot about the police roadblocks is the problem of bribes. Do the Malawian police take bribes at checkpoints? The answer I can give at this point, as a white person, is almost never. In my experiences on the road it's only happened twice. Granted, I've only been in the country a total of about two months, but in those two months I've been on the road a TON and passed lots of checkpoints in a number of districts. Once the police took our driver out of the car and hassled him about needing some kind of special new permit that he had never heard of and they wouldn't stop arguing with him about it until he gave them 5,000MWK. The other time it happened, the police officer looked in the driver window and saw a fresh, unopened bottle of water in the cup holder, so he began talking about how thirsty he was until our driver gave it to him and he let us pass. He even tried to get another one for his colleague but our driver played it off like that was the only one as the other one in the other cup holder had clearly been opened already.
When I've talked to Malawians about this, they call it "fanta money". The police will complain about being thirsty and accept bribes, usually under the pretext that they will buy a fanta with it. This is by no means unique to Malawi. In countries all over the world police take bribes at traffic checkpoints. In Thailand they call it "tea money". Just like "fanta money", the idea is that it will be used to buy them a beverage (even if the amount they demand could in reality buy them 50 cups of tea). As white people, we have, on one side, a certain protection from checkpoint bribes, because police fear that we will complain to a higher authority and cause problems for them. On the other side, other expats I've talked to said it can be an inducement to stop white people because they may actually have money to pay a larger bribe and they will pay it just so as not to be inconvenienced. In my experience so far, thankfully, it has not been a problem. It will be interesting for us once we have our own car to see if we are stopped more frequently for inspection.
Do you have any other questions about traveling around Malawi?
Once we get a car we can share tales of our OWN driving, not just of being a passenger!