Sunday, January 15, 2012

Malawi by Minibus

Hear about my road trip in Malawi on RTE World Report today by clicking here.  

For my first trip within Malawi I was instructed to be at Lilongwe bus station by 11am SHARP for an AXA bus to Balaka. When I got there, I was told “The floor fell out of the bus”. Lesson Number One: there are no bus timetables – show up, or stand at the side of the road, and hope for the best.

I resorted to the dreaded mini-bus – which is how most Malawians get around, if they can afford it, many standing for hours.  Hordes kept piling in after the small vehicle was full. I took some iphone photos as my luggage was roped up and made into a seat for others. Too late to jump out, I took a deep breath, and invoked my new mantra: TIA.  (This is Africa).

A coach drove past whose entire windshield on the driver’s side was shattered and held together by masking tape – blocking the driver’s view.  I nearly got into that bus.  Things could be worse.

Out various minibus windows during my Malawian sojourn, I saw post-apocalyptic, scenes of people running around in rain and fork lightning with yellow jerry cans of petrol in a traffic jam outside Lilongwe.

Filling up at a bootleg fuel station at the Mozambique border, where the siphoning was not a precise art, there were plenty spills, and, on these spills, people putting out their cigarettes…

After my assignment I had hoped to stick around in Malawi, ‘the warm heart of Africa’ and one of the least developed nations in the world to explore lake Malawi, Malawian culture, and whatever else might catch my fancy.  However, lack of fuel – a common occurrence here – has ground this friendly country to a halt….

Petrol stations were encircled by kilometre-long queues for fuel.  People slept overnight in their cars, in the hope of a drop of diesel. “You have come to Malawi at a bad time”, I was told…

The reason?  No “forex” – or foreign currency.  Democratically elected president Bingu Wa Mutharika had recently expelled the British Ambassador, and hence Malawi’s primary donor.  Papers were full of his refusal to apologise to the new Zambian president who he had also expelled before he was elected.  Additionally, he was on bad terms with Mozambique, through which he was supposedly building a canal to the sea, to improve the trading fortunes of this landlocked country.  Earlier in the year he had deported tobacco dealers for not paying his minimum prices.  Actually, the President’s only friend in the area is Robert Mugabe.  
In the meantime, while hours of parliament time are devoted to topics like a law criminalising public farting, only 10% of Malawians have access to grid electricity.  The majority cook on woodfire stoves, three times a day, the equivalent of bringing the barbeque indoors– and as hazardous to their health as smoking 20 cigarettes per day.

When the sweet smell of diesel finally filled the hot air again for a short while, I heard a loudspeaker in the distance.  Uh Oh. Just a few months earlier, fuel shortages had led to the July anti-government demonstrations, when 19 people were killed by police.  Then I made out what they were saying. “Jesus loves you”.  “There is only one God”. 

“It is God’s will” is a common refrain in peace-loving Malawi - the only country among the world’s ten poorest never to have had a revolution. No, I wanted to tell them, it is not God’s will that you have no fuel, no electricity, and dodgy internet connection.     
In my last few hours in Balaka, I ran into Malawi’s most famous singer of “rock bottom African reggae”, Lucius Banda, and put this to him. He told me how in 2004 the same time President Mutharika was elected, he had been elected MP for Balaka.  When Mutharika then invented his own party, Banda declined his invitation to join, instead proposing a law that would allow for impeachment of a president. The singer-turned-politician was immediately accused of forging his primary school certificate, and emprisoned. Fearing the safety of his family, he apologised, and is now expelled from politics.  Instead he sings subversive songs, and writes occasional letters to the president – he promises one at the end of this month. Our chance meeting was all I got of Malawian culture. Unfortunately, with Malawi’s fuel shortages, bad infrastructure, and poverty – he could be singing the same tune for some time to come…


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