“Liwonde – The Place With All the Necessary Facilities”
Driving is a singular way to experience the world – at speed in a (more or less) straight line. Like watching Palin’s Travels on fast forward, over-dubbed with the sounds of swearing and tooting. People focus in on the road, especially here when there are only a few major arteries and the rest are goat tracks. Since the dawn of agriculturalism, markets have sprung up around paths that became roads who grew up into highways. Writ large, trade routes have changed both human history and geography itself, creating covalent cultures (the Welsh eat chocolate*) or causing sweaty men to blast huge tracts through Panama.
I’ve gained some confidence in driving in Malawi, though I should introduce to you Nina, my beaten up Nissan. Ostensibly a ‘four wheel drive’, but due to the vagaries of the gear box, often an ‘no wheel drive’. There are really only two kinds of cars in Malawi, jeeps and matolas. Jeeps range from the beat up ‘no longer useful as an ambulance’ cars like mine, to shiny white Toyota Cruisers. They are mostly owned by rich Malawians and the occasional Mazungu. Matolas are much more homogenous, they are Toyota Hiaces with tardis features as extra. They are how nearly everyone gets around here, fitting about 10-20 people in, depending on their love of personal space, and they go both around the city and between the towns. They are held together with sheer will, love and plastic bags and invariably have a cheerful and apparently non-ironic message about how “Only God Knows” (how we will get there in this machine tied up with string”) or how “God is always right” (but maybe he should have taught me a little more about traffic priorities).
Indicators are more of a conversational piece than a method of indicating directional intentions. Some cars don’t have any, some use them to say hello or indicate right to say ‘please overtake me’. Sometimes cars have their hazards on because they are part of a funeral cortage or because they are having a really nice day. Traffic lights very rarely work, and when they do people ignore them because they are expecting them not to be working. The police will flag you down at least twice on every journey, sometimes to check your licence but often just to say hello. Potholes are a misnomer, these ones are trenches, often at least a few feet deep, sometimes with goats sleeping in them.
(The Traffic is Terrible)
I love the egalitarianism of the roads here though, no one would assume that they had right of way over a bicycle (and no one has the right of way over a tasty-bok and her tasty-kids). Also, everyone hitchhikes. On the way to and from the lake I picked up lots of people. A Baptist preacher was the first, I got a lovely text from him the next day; storing up some blessings on that one in case Voltaire was wrong. I also gave a lift to an Imam, lots of young men on their way to work, and a family with very cute and frilly little girls.
I also picked up a mother and daughter who were going to the hospital in Mangoche. The daughter, in her early 20’s or so, was so frail she couldn’t walk, probably from advanced TB but it could have been many things. I carried her into the hospital, her mother was elderly and there were no wheelchairs or stretchers. She couldn’t have weighed much more than Lyra. A lot of the excess morbidity here is not because the diseases are in themselves untreatable. The big killers, HIV, TB and Pneumonia are all old friends to the medics, but most people like this young woman, present so late their chances of survival are greatly reduced. Most of this is cost and access, the first thing the old lady said when I stopped for her is that she didn’t have much money (people often pay a little to get lifts when hitching), worried that she wouldn’t be able to get all the way into the town with her daughter. A lot of hospital treatment in Malawi is free, but not all the medicines are and most importantly you have to be able to spare another member of the family to go into hospital with the patient, to feed, clean and care for them. So who’s going to cook, wash, look after the kids or go to work if you’re being a ‘guardian’? The road here is a hard place, sometimes.
And so I drive places, with much courage and stoical humour. Because of Nina’s clutch related foibles (second gear! always an adventure!) and her bad temper at 15-17mph (the natural resonance of the windows, which promptly fall out), negotiating this post-modern adventure in roads is one of the most physically and mentally challenging things I have ever done.
This is what I have learnt so far from the roadside in Malawi; that the public life of a town is always by the road, and that roads make towns which make people. On a lighter note, the previous winner of the ‘Weeb Award for Humorous Town Signs’ was the little valley from whence I came, Hebden Bridge. But Liwonde (title) just made it to the top of the list, I mean, what more information could you need?
(Artistic Expression is Much More Important Than Anything So Prosaic as Typesetting)
*But do the Inca eat Bara brith?