Mallory Primm
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Driving in Swaziland

November 25, 2009 @ 9:44 AM | Permalink

I've coined a new phrase (although I’m probably not the first to make this observation): If you can drive in Swaziland, you can drive anywhere. Someone once told me that traffic accidents are the leading cause of death to travelers in Southern Africa. I’m not sure if this is true, but I could certainly see how one would come to this conclusion. That every time I get behind the wheel of my Fiat Station Wagon in Swaziland I risk death (don’t worry Mom), but it certainly is an adventure.

In order to get a license to drive in Swaziland you first must take driving lessons. Driving schools are sprinkled around the capital city where I live in Mbabane and other regional cities across the country. They usually consist of a wood shack or in swanky cases an old shipping container, on which rudimentary road signs are painted and the word’s “Lola’s Driving School” or “Sipo’s Driving School” or “Whoever’s Driving School This Is.” Each driving school usually has access to a learners car, distinguishable by a large sign on its roof that proclaims which driving school it belongs to, a large red “L” on the back of the car, and the fact that it stalls repeatedly at every stop sign, traffic light, intersection, and cow and the road.

One driving school I’ve noticed is situated in a dirt lot next to the Anglican Church outside of the city center. Although this school does not have a shack or a sign, its students can usually be found congregating under a large tree in the center of the lot. Next to the tree are a series of tall, thin sticks wedged into the dry dirt or sludgy mud, depending on the time of year. The sticks are set up in two rows and often there is a car, sputtering and jerking slowly between them. I’m not sure if the sticks are there to help drivers practice staying in their lane, but I would encourage this idea.

The main peril of driving in Swaziland is that people often don’t stay in their lane. It’s not that they swerve dangerously from side to side, but it seems that in Swaziland lane markers are more of loose guidelines to be followed at will. When driving up the main highway between Manzini and Mbabane it is imperative that you cut every corner. The person in the lane next to you certainly is going to, so if you stay in your lane, you’ll get hit.

Additionally, the main highway has two lanes, and only two speeds at which it is acceptable to drive. In the slow lane you have huge, black smoke spewing trucks inching their way up the infamous highway to Mbabane or overloaded minibuses making the same trek packed full of commuters. In the fast lane you have flashy BMWs and Mercedes, often belonging to government officials flying by at 150 km/h with their police escorts. Those of us who drive at normal speeds face a conundrum. Usually I drive in the slow lane until I need to pass one of the incredibly slow trucks so as to not lose my own speed and having to down shift and overheat my poor Fiat. But switching into the fast lane is perilous as I must already be going dangerously fast in order to avoid being obnoxiously tailgated. Inevitably I piss someone off on my way up to Mbabane, and about twelve other drivers piss me off.

Add to this the added excitement of winding mountain roads leading past the park up to Piggs Peak. And the cows and chickens and goats crossing the road at will. And the tiny uniformed first graders playing around on the road’s shoulder. And the all encompassing fog that reduces visibility to a few feet. And the sheer amount of pot holes on the roads. And the inability of many drivers to maintain the brake lights on their cars. And driving a shitty stick shift Fiat on the opposite side of the road than I am used to.

But with all this said, Southern Africa does have an endearing set of rules for road etiquette: When you want to pass someone, tailgate them. They will pull over and you can fly by. To say thank you, the passing driving will turn on their hazard lights for a quick “Thank you” blink to which the passed driver will respond “You’re welcome” with a quick flash of his lights. Often slower drivers or trucks will pull over to the shoulder to facilitate passing, which is highly appreciated on a winding two lane road. My favorite part about driving in Swaziland, however, aside from the adventure aspect of it all, is the frequency with which have reason to use my horn. I’ve been driving for about eight years and I think in my seven years in driving in the US I honked the horn a quarter of the times I’ve honked it in my year in Swaziland.


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A good lesson for us all

Nicolle OConnor on Country Western and other Music in Swaziland 2009-06-11

just wondering if you have published any results?

David Broska on Into the Field 2010-06-19

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